by Louise Goldberg
It’s hard to miss hearing the
term ‘genetically modified food’ today. It continues to be a controversial
topic almost 20 years since the Food and Drug Administration first approved
their use on the commercial market.
Today, approximately 70 percent of processed foods are made with one or more genetically
Originally developed with the intention to protect crops
and provide food security to sustain an expanding world population, the entire concept
is now viewed with suspicion by a growing number of people.
The World Health Organization defines genetically modified organisms
(GMO) as “those in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way
that does not occur naturally.” Agriculture
scientists transfer one or more genes for a specific trait from an organism
into another organism’s genetic material.
The goal is to end up with desired traits all in one plant.
The idea of manipulating and selecting plant DNA for
desired genetic traits is not new. However, prior to genetic engineering, only
similar species were able to mix.
Scientists were also able to use a variety of techniques, such as
radiation and chemicals, to cause alterations in a species’ genetic composition
to change its characteristics. The
plants that produced the preferred traits (e.g. sweeter, larger, fewer seeds,
etc.) were selected and reproduced, but it took a great deal of time and was
not always consistent.
When genetically engineered organisms are created,
scientists splice and combine genes between unrelated
organisms. For example, combining the
DNA from corn and an insect-killing bacteria found in soil can make future corn
crops insect-resistant. This
modification is not ‘natural,’ of course and could not occur on its own, but it
was done with beneficial goals in mind.
Benefits and risks
In theory, the benefits of genetically modified foods are
meaningful and far-reaching. Plants that
are resistant to herbicides or pesticides have been created, allowing farmers
to use more of these chemicals to eliminate weeds and bugs, leading to less
crop destruction and bigger yields.
In areas of the world with little rainfall, drought-tolerant
plants are being created, which could mean a plentiful food supply for
populations that might otherwise suffer hunger.
Some plant genes have been modified to increase their
nutritional value, such as “golden” rice, which contains beta-carotene. Golden rice, “could substantially reduce the
prevalence and severity of Vitamin A deficiency, and prevent at least hundreds
of thousands of unnecessary deaths and cases of blindness every year,” Dr.
Alfred Sommer believes. Sommer, a professor and dean emeritus
of the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, made his comments on the
Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation website.
The Gates Foundation supports efforts by the International Rice Research
Institute to use golden rice to help improve the health of millions of children
and adults across the Philippines and Bangladesh.
Nothing comes without a price and there is no question the intended
goals for creating genetically modified foods are noble and a true testament to
advances in science; however, concerns have been raised about their safety to
both humans and the environment.
For example: will
these mixed-breed foods lead to a further increase in food allergies? Will pesticide-resistant plants lead to the
evolution of ‘super’ bugs? Will the
increased use of pesticide on our produce have a toxic effect on our bodies
after we consume them?