Food Frenzy: Growing Concerns Over Genetically Modified Foods

Agricultural Research Service, USDA.

INTRODUCTION

More than ten million farmers planted 252 million acres of genetically-modified (GM) crops in 2006 [1]. From 1996 to 2000, acreage of GM crops globally increased 25-fold [2]. The prevalence and rapid growth of GM crops are accredited to the benefits it provides. Biotechnology companies alter the DNA of crops, either by removing or inserting genes from other species, to alter the genetic makeup of the crop. Previously, farmers enhanced crops through breeding techniques. Today, scientists engineer plants to immunize them against viruses, herbicides, and pesticides, withstand inclement weather, increase nutritional value, and increase crop production [1]. Some people hail GM foods as the solution to world hunger and other global issues; however, these foods pose a significant danger to our health, safety, global economy, and environment.

HEALTH AND SAFETY

Genetically-modified foods can decrease malnutrition in countries and fight world hunger. With the increase of yield, farmers could sell more crops to the world. Biotechnology companies alter the genetic make-up of crops to enhance their nutritional value with antioxidants and vitamins. For example, scientists at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Institute for Plant Sciences modified a rice strain with an increased amount of vitamin A from daffodils [2]. The malnourished in developing countries can obtain more nutrients through GM foods as the enhanced nutritional value and high yield of these crops can be extremely beneficial to countries where food is scarce. In addition, vaccines can be inserted into GM foods as scientists have already implanted a highly effective Hepatitis B vaccine into edible plants for third world countries [3]. This could prevent diseases and viruses from spreading in developing countries. Thus, GM foods provide a solution to many of today’s global problems.

Though GM foods are modified to increase nutrition, the long-term effects are unknown. The Center for Food Safety states that the consumption of GM foods may lead to “higher risks of toxicity, allergenicity, antibiotic resistance, immune-suppression, and cancer” [4]. After a Japanese chemical company, Showa Denko, introduced L-tryptophan, a genetically-modified, over-the-counter dietary supplement, 37 Americans died in 1989 of Eosinophilia Myalgia Syndrome upon consuming it [8]. In 1999, studies done by the renowned scientist Dr. Arpad Putzai, revealed that the Cauliflower Mosaic Virus, a promoter that helps transcribe new genes, was the most likely cause of the organ damage and viral infections in rats that were fed potatoes with the promoter. Putzai emphasized that GM foods do not undergo sufficient testing before they are sold, and advised people to beware of GM foods on a British television program. In addition, he argued that the long-term effects of GM foods might be harmful upon discovering that the rats experienced the ill-effects after a time corresponding to ten human years. Dr. Putzai’s research was met with a fierce backlash from biotechnology companies because the report exposed risks related with their products [8]. These studies indicate that GM organisms often produce unintended, and sometimes fatal, effects.

When inserting a gene into an organism, scientists introduce the gene with an antibiotic resistance marker that helps determine if the inserted gene is successfully implemented. Some scientists warn that immunizing organisms against viruses with antibiotics will carry over to an antibiotic resistance to bacteria, thus creating an antibiotic-resistant bacterium [3]. Also, some people fear that the consumption of GM foods may cause allergic reactions. For instance, if a gene from a peanut is introduced in a banana, then consumption of the banana may cause an allergic reaction. Cross-contamination between two crops could also trigger allergic reactions in some humans that consume it. One such disaster was avoided in 1996, when a company proposed to insert a gene from a Brazil nut into soybean. A group of researchers in Nebraska notified the company that the new strain could have ill-effects on some humans with allergies, even though the company had claimed that the strain had no ill-effects during their animal testing [8].

In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) labels GM foods as GRAS (Genetically Recognized As Safe). In other words, the FDA believes that GM foods are not different than non-GM foods [2]. Thus, no additional evaluation or labeling is necessary for GM foods before their distribution. However, consumer organizations argue that GM foods need labeling. Additionally, the health hazards of GM foods are mostly unknown because biotechnology companies do not allow independent researchers to publish studies done on GM seeds [5]. In order to obtain the seeds, scientists must sign an agreement to only publish studies in peer-review journals that have been approved by the company [5]. These companies essentially produce consumer propaganda, putting public health at risk. Thus, the health and safety risks associated with GM foods are significant enough to prevent it from becoming the solution to global problems and must be assessed.

ENVIRONMENT

GM foods can reduce the need for chemical use if pesticides are fused into the crops. Decreasing the use of pesticides and herbicides prevents agricultural waste run-off. Monsanto, a biotechnology company, developed soybeans resistant to a certain herbicide [2]. Thus, farmers can save money since they need to apply the herbicide only once to eliminate weeds. As a result, GM foods can reduce the use of pesticides and the residual pesticide levels in the environment, which prevents water contamination and decreasing biodiversity. Thus, GM foods can positively affect the environment.

However, the production of GM foods inflates a variety of environmental concerns. GM crops can be so productive that they can overwork the soil and require vast amounts of resources, like water, to survive [6]. GM crops can also become pests if they grow uncontrollably. In land where space is limited, the uncontrollable GM crop could spread over other crops and decrease biodiversity. By Darwin’s theory of natural selection, crops that are genetically modified to resist herbicides and pesticides would create “superbugs” and “superweeds” that are immune to any toxic chemicals. Even if a pesticide or herbicide is made, it is probable that the toxin would kill beneficial insects, like bees, and hurt the soil. Cross-contamination between GM crops and weeds can also create unmanageable weeds and bugs. Indeed, instead of benefitting a farm, GM foods can destroy one.

The introduction of GM plants may have negative effects on plant-dependent insects. Corn that was genetically modified to resist the pesticide, Bacillus Thuringiensis, caused death among monarch butterflies that fed from milkweeds that caught the corn’s pollen [6]. Studies have shown that GM foods cause various health ailments in animals, such as stomach-lining erosion and dramatic changes in body weight [6]. Therefore, GM crops can directly and indirectly affect animals and plants and can destroy agriculture from an environmental standpoint. The negative effects that GM crops have on the environment are equally as important as the potential benefits.

ECONOMY AND POLITICS

Though GM foods can boost the agricultural economy, they can also have negative impacts. Since biotechnology companies are often monopolies, the price of seeds could extend beyond the reach of farmers [2]. Small farmers in developing countries are tempted to purchase GM seeds because of their numerous benefits. However, purchasing GM seeds makes them dependent on the companies. This destabilizes local economies because farmers will have to increase the price of their crops to compensate for the high price of the seeds. Furthermore, biotechnology companies might gain too much control over crop production in developing countries and hinder their growth in the future.

There have been patent disputes between biotechnology companies and farmers. Farmers have been accused of patent infringement for cultivating crops that cross-pollinated with GM crops. Monsanto, a biotechnology company, proposed to invest in genetic use restriction technology (GURT). V-GURT, a type of GURT, produces GM seeds that become sterile after one harvest [2]. Though it prevents cross-pollination of regular and GM crops, this technology would make farmers completely dependent on biotechnology companies. In addition, farmers often store seeds from previous harvests for the next year. However, with V-GURT, farmers would have to purchase seeds from biotechnology companies annually, creating an enormous financial burden for them. After a long debate, Monsanto agreed to end its research on V-GURT [8]. Still, biotechnology companies seem more interested in profiting than participating in a global solution.

CONCLUSION

Though GM foods may solve many global issues, there are obstacles that need to be overcome before they can be commercially produced. Otherwise, the production of GM foods will result in a multitude of problems. Additionally, the malevolence of biotechnology companies makes resolving these obstacles difficult. For GM foods to be more beneficial, solutions to the health, safety, economical, and environmental problems must be addressed.

References:

  1. U.S. Department of Energy Genome Programs. “What are Genetically Modified (GM) Foods?” U.S. Department of Energy Genome Programs. Accessed October 24, 2010. Last modified November 5, 2008. http://www.ornl.gov/sci/techresources/Human_Genome/elsi/gmfood.shtml
  2. Whitman, Deborah B. “Genetically Modified Foods: Harmful or Helpful?” CSA. Accessed October 24, 2010. Last modified April 2000. http://www.csa.com/discoveryguides/gmfood/overview.php.
  3. Thanavala, Yasmin, Hugh S. Mason, Charles J. Arntzen, Yu Fang Yang, Liz Richter, and Qingxian Kong. “Oral Immunization with Hepatitis B Surface Antigen Expressed in Transgenic Plants.” Proceedings of the National Academy of
    Sciences of the United States of America 98, no. 20 (September 2005): 11539-44. Accessed December 5, 2010. http://puffin.harker.org:2076/stable/3056750.
  4. Center for Food Safety. “Genetically Engineered Crops.” Center for Food Safety. Accessed October 24, 2010. Last modified 2011. http://www.centerforfoodsafety.org/campaign/genetically-engineered-food/crops/.
  5. Scientifc American. “A Seedy Practice.” Scientific American, August 2009, 28.
  6. Botkin, and Keller. Environmental Science: Earth as a Living Planet. 7th ed. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.Inc, 2009.
  7. Dona, Artemis, and Ioannis S. Arvanitoyannis. “Health Risks of Genetically Modified Foods.” Critical Review in Food Science and Nutrition 49, no. 2 (February 2009): 164-175. Accessed October 24, 2010. doi:10.1080/10408390701855993
  8. Cummins, Ronnie. “Hazards of Genetically Engineered Foods and Crops: Why We Need A Global Moratorium.” Organic Consumers Association. http://www.organicconsumers.org/ge/whymoratorium.cfm (accessed October 24, 2010).

Divyahans Gupta is a freshman at the Harker School in California

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  • A great discussion about the consequences of GM foods. Sometimes we take the benefits of science for granted, without much thought as to the ramifications of our advances. Well-written and researched piece.

  • A very good overview of the GM Food issue. In the future we are faced with the prospect of GM Salmon (I call them Jurassic Salmon), GM Pigs, and who knows what else. I am a food safety activist and author of the book “Sex, Lies, and Soybeans.” This is a novel, set about 20 years from now, in a world that has come to depend on soy as the primary source of protein. The Soy Industry has become the world’s most powerful food consortium. The book is a fast-paced action thriller with underlying messages about the dangers of GM Foods and uncontrolled Big Agra. I am interested in working with Mr. Gupta and the TTH to help get the message out … Rick Goeld (www.SLSNovel.com)

  • Will try this is smaller chunks.

    There are a number of things I could pick you up on here, but I will stick to a few of the key problems with your story.

    First no scientist I am aware of is suggesting that GM food can alone solve hunger, malnutrition or control disease. The technology is just one of many tools to potentially help with some of these problems. They are not, nor intended to be a silver bullet. And those many tools include the scientific, political, social and economic.

    The long-term effects of GM foods are unknown. This is correct. But do you know the long-term effects of eating non-GM foods? The answer is also no. Each year we introduce new crop varieties that have been bred through any number of modern plant breeding methods that include mutagenesis, embryo rescue, marker-assisted selection, etc. By new I mean new varieties of corn, wheat, barley, rice, canola…and so on.

    These breeding processes can equally disrupt the genome or introduce unknown genes into the crop plant. We do not assess this and we do not know the long term effects of consuming them. Have we introduced genes that might produce toxins or allergens? Have we up-regulated or down-regulated the activity of naturally occurring toxin or allergen-related genes?

    Have you checked the veracity of your source, the Center for Food Safety? The way you have constructed your sentence makes them sound like a research institute with authority on food safety, which they are not. I will let your readers look them up to finds out what their purpose is and make their own judgement.

    You say the consumption of GM foods may lead to “higher risks of toxicity, allergenicity, antibiotic resistance, immune-suppression, and cancer”. Does it? Where is the evidence for this? It may well do, but the scientific consensus at the moment suggests otherwise. See the following sites for lists of independent, peer-reviewed research papers.
    Biofortified – http://www.biofortified.org/genera/
    GMO Pundit – http://tinyurl.com/47bcwnn

  • Chunk 2 from TechNyou – there was difficulty in uploading last week

    Japanese chemical company, Showa Denko and the debacle with the L-tryptophan.
    It was a disaster, but it had nothing to do with the fact the L-Tryptophan was GM. The problem was caused by a change in the company’s filtration system and contaminants in the dodgy batches. The disease was linked to the contaminants, not the L-tryptophan and the contaminants got there because of the dodgy filtration system.

    When inserting a gene into an organism, scientists introduce the gene with an antibiotic resistance marker. This is correct, but nowadays any such marker can be and is usually removed from the plant before commercialisation.

    Some people fear that the consumption of GM foods may cause allergic reactions. Again this is correct, which is why as part of the approval process (in Australia, at least) researchers must present data that shows that the new protein, if present in the consumed product, is non-toxic, allergenic, etc; and that levels of other naturally occurring proteins that are toxic, allergenic or act as an anti-nutrient have not changed. Again, should we not also be concerned about some non-GM foods. It is estimated that about 10 percent of people have allergic reactions to kiwi fruit. This figure has been growing in recent decades as the fruit is grown and consumed more widely. Should we ban peanuts and soybeans?

    Jason Major
    TechNyou, University of Melbourne
    Australia

  • Still having trouble – try smaller chunks Chunk 3 – TechNyou

    Your comment: Monsanto’s herbicide tolerant (HT) soybeans that help farmers can save money since they need to apply the herbicide only once to eliminate weeds.
    HT crops do not necessarily reduce the use of herbicide they simply provide a more controlled way to control weeds.
    In contrast, the pest-resistant crops such as the Bt crops, do reduce the amount of insecticide used. In Australia it has reduced the amount used on Bt cotton by about 80%.

    Darwin’s theory and the creation of “superbugs” and “superweeds”. You misunderstand Darwin’s theory a bit – at least in the context of GM crops. The resistance trait only becomes an advantage in the presence of the herbicide or pesticide. For example, what advantage would a weed have in the natural environment should it suddenly acquire the herbicide tolerant trait? None unless it was exposed to that particular herbicide. And it is only usually a weed in the paddock, not the natural environment. And should you need to control the resistant weed, you use a different herbicide or alternative control method. Resistance is an issue in the paddock and has been ever since chemical farming was introduced. The risk is increased somewhat with the use of HT crops because of the likelihood of increased use of specific herbicides. This means good agronomic management practices must be enforced. But again, this is not strictly a GM issue as we have non-GM herbicide-tolerant crops where the same problems can occur.

    Jason Major
    TechNyou
    University of Melbourne

  • The speed of which GMO crops are being promoted is unbelievable. The answer is not Monsanto’s GMO crops. There will be many copy cat companies and then where would we be. We will not be able to turn back. Canada does not even allow Roundup sold in the country. I know because my nephew requested us to bring him some concentrated Roundup. I feel there is a conspiracy to kill off all who do not pay attention to what is going on. We must stop the madness.

  • We need to go to a USA promoted tax so this selective pilfering of our lives can stop. People say we can not afford a 13% tax, but we can not afford it either. This will help our GDP.