Summer II Group 5

The world is growing in population, and genetic engineers have been trying to come up with a way to solve the growing food shortage problem. They have taken food crops into the lab to study them, find out how to grow more crops in the same amount of area, and grow them faster. After years of research, they have made improvements such as making the crop more resistant to insects and herbicides. The nutritional content has been boosted and the crops have been engineered to withstand certain weather conditions (UCSUSA).

Despite the many benefits to cultivating genetically modified crops, there are a few disadvantages as well. For example, insects which consume the altered plants could develop immunity to the pesticides over time (UCSUSA). Another concern is that engineered crops may breed with the other crops or wild plants and spread their genetically altered DNA. Even though the genetically modified foods are a way of helping starvation around the world, we still do not know how the food will affect the human diet or the environment.

1 Abstract

Genetically modified foods present numerous benefits towards improving how we grow our food. Some of these benefits include making crops more resistant to insects, pests, and herbicides. Scientists have also applied medical breakthroughs to inject nutrients and vaccines into genetically modified foods, which can be to fight famine and disease in developing nations.

Unfortunately, cross pollination with non-altered and wild plants poses a serious risk when cultivating genetically modified organisms. Also, due to the unknown long term effects from eating engineered foods, this may prohibit some people from buying the product. Despite these risks, the benefits of genetically modified foods are generally considered to be a plausible global solution to providing food.

1.1 Background

Genetically modified foods are nothing new to the world. Mother Nature has been mixing genes across different species for millions of years. For example, ninety percent of the wheat produced today and used for bread is the result of a cross between three wild grasses that still exist in the foothills of Iran, Iraq and south Turkey ( Borlaugh, Ph.D.). Nor are these the first genetically modified organisms to be used in the U.S.; the first product that the FDA reviewed was insulin that was produced through fermentation (Maryanski, Ph.D.). What the public needs to understand is that these new technologies, especially recombinant DNA technology, allows scientists to bypass biological boundaries altogether. You can take a gene from any speciesplant, animal, or humanand place it into the genetic code of your food crop or other genetically modified organism (Rifkin, Ph.D.).

2 How it works

There are two common ways to genetically modify crops, selective breeding, and genetic engineering.

2.1 Selective Breeding

Selective breeding is one of the most common ways that GM foods are created. This process dates back almost 8,000 years ago. At this point in time, farmers in Central America crossed two strains of balsas teosinte, also known as maize, to create corn on the cob (Groleau).

The selective breeding process is very simple. Let’s say that you want to create a breed of pumpkin that resists a certain type of harmful bacteria. The first step would be to plant a large amount of pumpkins and see which ones weren’t affected by the harmful bacteria. Afterwards, you would take the seeds from the pumpkins that weren’t affected by the bacteria and plant a new plot of pumpkins. After years of repeating this process, a new breed of resistant pumpkins has been created (howstuffworks).

2.2 Genetic Engineering

In today’s fast paced world, selective breeding is starting to become an outdated way to genetically modify crops. Not only does it require extensive time to complete, but genes of the crops can also be lost in the process (BBC). Because of these drawbacks, scientists have come up with a new technique called GM, or genetic engineering. As opposed to the trial and error process of selective breeding, genetic engineering allows scientists to directly inject the crops with the new genes. (howstuffworks). Let’s use the same example with a pumpkin from above. Scientists need only find a plant that has the gene for resisting the harmful bacteria, and cross it with the pumpkin seed. Because of genetic engineering, it is very easy to create new crops by simple crossing species.

Unfortunately, due to how new genetically modified crops are, there hasn’t been any substantial long term effects research done. The most common concern iis that crossed genes could create new allergies. For example, if a gene from a nut is crossed with the gene of corn to create a new corn plant; people who have a nut allergy could now be allergic to the new corn. At the moment, however, this idea is only a theory.

3 Risks

Although the benefits of genetically modified food crops are clear, nearly as many risks and consequences of their agricultural use are currently being investigated. While long-term risks are still uncertain, short-term issues arising from interactions with other plants and animals have already caused serious harm to the environment.

3.1 Producer Risks

A major concern for farmers who do not use GM plants is the risk of cross-pollinating with crops grown on neighboring farms. Currently Monsanto, a leading producer of GM seeds and crops, is engaged in a lawsuit due to cross-pollination between farms that utilize GM crops and those that do not (Whitman). One of the most widespread concerns facing farmers may be the evolution of “super weeds”, caused by the cross-pollination of genetically modified plants that resist disease, pesticides, or pests and weed plants, making them difficult to eradicate (Whitman). In the past few years, several weeds have emerged in six states that are resistant to a popular herbicide created by GM crops when previously no plants in the United States were resistant (Melon). Wild relatives of GM crops that gain the modified gene for pest or insect resistance also benefit and are able to grow and reproduce faster than their unaltered counterparts. This leads to an ever-increasing number of plants with modified genes surviving in future generations. A final consequence of gene transfer through cross-pollination may occur if insects consume GM pest resistant crops and thus become resistant to the modification (Burnell). While evidence of such resistant insects has not yet been documented, it is a very real and formidable threat to the future of agriculture.

3.2 Health Risks

Largely because of the unknown risks associated with GM crops, people are less likely to knowingly purchase or consume them. When offered a choice between modified and unmodified foods through a labeling process, the public showed a preference towards unmodified foods (Whitman). However, the governments of the world do not currently agree on the use or regulation of GM crops, which makes producing them for sale or trade to other nations a problematic endeavor (Burnell). Currently, the United States does not require labeling for genetically modified foods, which lessens the risk of an economic effect.

The studies conducted on the effect of GM crops on human health have varied widely in both their scientific legitimacy and findings. Companies producing the GM seeds have conducted five studies that show no ill effects on human health, while four independent studies have displayed negative effects that have yet to be explained (Burnell). A verifiable study on soybeans impregnated with genes from Brazil nuts, published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1996, determined that people who were allergic to Brazil nuts also displayed a negative reaction to the new soybeans that carried their implanted genes (Julie). Thus, GM crops could complicate an already challenging problem for people suffering from food allergies, especially since they do not require special labeling in the US. At present, it is impossible to definitively establish whether a new GM crop is allergenic or not before it is released (Pusztai). Unfortunately, there is little dependable scientific data on the health effects of GM crops for humans and virtually none that examine the possibility of long-term effects.

4 Benefits

Genetically modified crops have been engineered to provide many benefits to both the producers and consumers of the product. Plants brought to market can be modified to be tolerant of adverse conditions, have more nutrition, and resistant to harsh chemicals. All of these modifications are aimed to produce more crops at less cost while causing less harm to the environment. It is for this reason that people are looking to GM crops to help areas of starvation and poverty. Pharmaceutical researchers are also turning to GM to deliver vaccines and necessary nutrition.

4.1 Producer Benefits

Many of the crops are modified to be resistant to pesticides, herbicides, and pests. This has many economic and environmental advantages. A crop that is already resistant to pests will allow the grower to use less pesticide through the course of growing the crop. Every year in the United States farmers spray more than 970 million tons of insecticides and herbicides. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, in 1999 farmers utilizing pest resistant crops sprayed 21 percent less insecticide (Nemecek). Pesticide residue remains on crops and sinks into the soil where it ends up consumed by animals or in ground water or streams. The amount of harmful chemicals introduced into nature will decrease with increased used of modified crops (Nemecek). Aside from the environmental effects of using less pesticides and herbicides there is also a clear economic effect. Less treatment of the plant means less cost for the farmer throughout the growing cycle.

Plant diseases, cold, drought, and improper salinity can decimate crop yields by killing the plants. Crops are now being modified to be resistant to specific bacteria, fungi, and viruses, including the mosaic virus. Unexpected frost is a large killer of crops especially as a seedling. Plants such as tobacco, potatoes, and strawberries have been modified with an anti-freeze gene from cold water fish (Nemecek). This new gene protects the plants from cold temperatures that would kill an unmodified seedling. Many areas around the world are prone to severe drought which can level a farmer’s plant supply. This combined with salinity issues limit the amount of land suited for growing crops. Crops modified to be tolerant to these conditions will expand the grower’s location options for planting.

4.2 Health Benefits

Crops are currently being modified to be better for us in an attempt at a healthier population. Presently crops like low-calorie sugar beets, high-fiber corn, high-starch potatoes, and crops producing low-fat oils are on the market. Research is now being conducted to introduce genes that will cause crops to produce more vitamins and minerals to be delivered to the consumer (PBS).

Research is also being done in the pharmaceutical market using genetically modified crops. Current vaccines are costly to produce and often require special storage conditions to preserve. New research is underway to use crops to hold these vaccines. The vaccines would be genetically introduced into the plant to allow for easier shipping, storing, and administering (PBS). The crop would grow under its normal conditions and it would be eaten to deliver the vaccine.

The lesser known venture in the world of GM crops is plants not grown as edible crops (PBS). Trees are being engineered to clean up heavy metal pollution from contaminated soil. The Poplar tree is an example of one modified for such a task.

4.3 Global Benefits

GM crops show many promising attributes to contribute to improving the human society as a whole. Today there are many parts of the world plagued by hunger and poverty. GM crops have the capability to feed the world’s starving people and allow third world countries the opportunity to develop (PBS). All of the modifications mentioned in the above sections lead to one thing. They culminate in a larger number of crops capable of being grown in conditions that were previously unsuitable. The larger number of crops available could feed millions of starving people who do not have access to a proper food supply. This food supply could previously not be provided due to inhospitable land, isolation, and substantial poverty.

Malnutrition is also a staple in poverty stricken nations. This happens when an area can only support a single type of crop providing only limited nutrition. With GM crops hitting the market that provide more nutrition, a single crop could provide all necessary nutrition in the future. One promising venture is “Golden rice.” This rice is being modified to stimulate our bodies to generate Vitamin A. Vitamin A deficiency kills an estimated two million children every year (PBS) . A crop introduced containing these vital substances will save countless and priceless lives.

Third world nations lack of stable economy that cannot provide sufficient jobs and funds to support the people in the region. Because of this they cannot develop and they are restricted to poverty and starvation. Farms growing GM crops will provide locals with work opportunities to begin to build a successful economy. A greater number of farms growing a larger variety of food would be the first step towards the coveted stable economy capable of supporting a nation. The third world nation would be able to establish an agricultural economy that will provide a good base for further development. This technology is available today to give unstable nations the means and opportunity to develop tomorrow.

5 Conclusion

Whether or not you agree with genetically modified crops, there is one thing we have to keep in mind: it’s not going away. At the moment, genetic engineers are researching for companies and laboratories to create new products around the clock. The U.S. Department of Agriculture lists there are currently 7,516 field tests going on right now for on new GM foods (PBS). As for how many of these will pass health standards, no one knows, but GM crops are here to stay. As a society, the only thing we can do now is make sure health standards evolve with this growing field. The risks aren’t clear at the moment, but we must prepare for the worst. About 200 million people worldwide have benefited from the products of genetically engineered pharmaceuticals (McGlouglin Ph.D.). Using genetic engineering for the benefit of society is nothing new, but only time will tell if these new advances were worth the benefits.

Citations

"BBC - GCSE Bitesize: Selective Breeding." BBC - Homepage. BBC. Web. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/schools/gcsebitesize/science/add_gateway/living/genesrev2.shtml>.

Borlaug, Ph.D, Norman. "PBS - Harvest of Fear: Viewpoints: Just How Radical Is This New Technology?" PBS: Public Broadcasting Service. PBS. Web. 12 Aug. 2011. <http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/harvest/viewpoints/radical.html>.

Burnell, Dawn. “Genetically Modified Crops: Will They Help or Hurt.” Strange Horizons. 4 Oct. 2004.
<http://www.strangehorizons.org/2004/20041004/gmcrops.shtml>

Groleau, Rick. "PBS - Harvest of Fear: Engineer a Crop (hot Science)." PBS: Public Broadcasting Service. Web. <http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/harvest/engineer/>.

Julie A. Nordlee, "Identification of Brazil-Nut Allergen in Transgenic Soybeans," New England Journal of Medicine, 334 (1996):688–692.

Maryanski, Ph.D. Jim. "PBS - Harvest of Fear: Viewpoints: Just How Radical Is This New Technology?" PBS: Public Broadcasting Service. PBS. <http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/harvest/viewpoints/radical.html>.

McGloughlin, Ph.D., Martin. "PBS - Harvest of Fear: Viewpoints: Just How Radical Is This New Technology?" PBS: Public Broadcasting Service. PBS. <http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/harvest/viewpoints/radical.html>.

Mellon, Margaret; Rissler, Jane. “Environmental Effects of Genetically Modified Food Crops – Recent Experiences.” Genetically Modified Foods—the American Experience. Union of Concerned Scientists. 12 June 2003. Web. 11 August. 2011. <http://www.ucsusa.org/food_and_agriculture/science_and_impacts/impacts_genetic_engineering/environmental-effects-of.html>

Pusztai, Arpad. “Genetically Modified Foods: Are They a Risk to Human/Animal Health?” Action Bioscience. June. 2001.
Risks of Geneteic Engineering. 2010. Union of Concerned Scientists. August 9, 2011. <http://www.ucsusa.org/food_and_agriculture/science_and_impacts/impacts_genetic_engineering/risks-of-genetic-engineering.html>

"TLC Cooking "What Are Genetically Modified (GM) Foods?"" TLC Cooking "Food and Recipes" How Stuff Works. Web. <http://recipes.howstuffworks.com/question148.htm>.

Whitman, Deborah B. "Genetically Modified Foods: Harmful or Helpful?" CSA. Proquest, Apr. 2000. Web. 11 August. 2011. <http://www.csa.com/discoveryguides/gmfood/overview.php>


Responses


Anna Crews

Genetically altered foods are an excellent source insurance for keeping the world fed. Though there are species and strains of food that have died out due to genetic alteration. There are over 200 American foods that are on the endangered species list currently. One you may not expect are apples, we have actually already lost over 1/3 of the world’s species of apples. Variety of strains also creates a defense against famine due to the fact that not all strains are susceptible to the same demise. By genetically engineering, we can make strains more resilient, but by using the same strain to massively produce food resources, the risk of losing the entire crop increases.


Danny Duangphachanh

It’s good to see that there are people researching how to keep crops alive during frost, drought, and other unexpected events. Making use of a region’s otherwise vacant land for growing crops is a wonderful breakthrough. If those researchers can get the crops to resist extreme climates, I predict that it should improve living conditions of those parts of the world and perhaps provide a more stable economy from the increased resources. I feel that including more vitamins in the crops would benefit the world greatly as well; especially those living in third world countries and those who have trouble growing crops due to challenging weather. Having a stable food supply and getting more food and nutrients out of what you have already plotted out seems to be only beneficial.


Howard Taing

Ah, the wonders of science.

Here is a clip on Genetically Engineered Food on Penn & Teller: BS it includes Norman Borlaug. It also pretty much sums up my thoughts on GM food.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tIvNopv9Pa8


Ethan Hill

This article had a great background of genetically modified crops. I thought the information was insightful and very interesting. As more people become aware of the foods they eat their concern of GM crops will grow. I have a family that is divided right down the middle on this issue. This is a very relevant scientific controversy. As a result of reading it I felt the reader will have a better grasp of the unknown and personally it set my mind a little at ease with GM foods since it seems to be quite natural. I also like the way it was portrayed with a good balance presenting both sides of the issue thoroughly. However, I would suggest stating your stance a little clearer. Unless I read it too quickly, I didn’t really grasp your position on the controversy. But overall great job!

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