The New Revolution in Agriculture
People have been changing the genetic makeup of plants and animals since the development of agriculture. Livestock with desirable traits such as size, milk production, and a good ratio of meat to fat are bred to emphasize these traits. Plants are cut and grafted or else seeds are chosen to produce other plants with similar desirable traits, such as crop yield.
In the past ten to fifteen years, modern science has developed a new tool that has already revolutionized agriculture. It promises crops that have yields per acre unimaginable in previous times, which are resistant to pests and herbicides, that grow in previously inhospitable soil, and that can produce healthier, more nourishing food. Indeed some crops will be able to produce substances like plastic or additives to petroleum. Livestock can be produced with greater yields of meat, eggs, and milk, with greater hardiness, feed efficiency, and health. Indeed, it promises a solution to feeding growing populations, particularly in the third world.
What are Genetically Modified Foods?
This new tool uses recombinant DNA technology to combine genes from different organisms to produce a single organism. The resulting organism is often called genetically modified. An example might be finding DNA in one organism that-say-causes it to create certain desired nutrients and then introducing it into another organism, thus causing the second organism to create the desired nutrients. Locating such genetic material has been difficult. However, genome sequencing and discovery programs for hundreds of different organisms are generating detailed maps Data-analyzing technologies have been developed to understand those maps and use them. Traits can be transferred from virtually any organism to another with great precision.
What Genetically Modified Foods Already Exist?
The very first genetically modified food to be approved for human consumption was a tomato called FlavrSavr or Flavor Savor. It was developed by Calgene Inc. in 1992. This breed of tomato resists rot because a gene that inhibits the production of an enzyme that breaks down a tomato’s cell walls was introduced.
Other genetically modified foods on the market include a variety of squash that is virus resistant, a potato that contains a natural pesticide that kills caterpillars, and strains of canola, soybean, corn, and cotton that are resistant to the herbicide roundup. The advantage of the last kind of genetically modified food is that a field can be sprayed to kill weeds without harming the food crop.
By 2003, about 167 million acres grown by 7 million farmers in 18 countries were planted with genetically modified crops. Other crops, such as golden rice, are being field tested in third world countries. 99 percent of genetically modified crops are grown in the United States (63%), Argentina (21%), Canada (6%), Brazil (4%), and China (4%), and South Africa (1%). Indeed, most people in the United States have already consumed genetically modified food without knowing about it.
On the Horizon
A genetically modified food recently developed, called golden rice, has great promise to help alleviate diseases in the third world brought about by vitamin deficiencies. The first strains of “golden rice” were modified to contain more beta carotene or pro-vitamin A. The importance of this is that at the beginning of the 21st Century some 124 million people in Africa and
South East Asia are suffering from Vitamin A Deficiency, resulting in a half million cases of irreversible blindness every year. A diet that contains golden rice, along with other foods rich in beta carotene and perhaps supplements would go a long way toward solving this problem. A new strain of golden rice is being developed to increase the vitamin A content, as
well as vitamin E, iron, zinc, and protein.
Golden rice has not gotten into general use, mainly because of political and cultural opposition.
Other genetically modified foods that are on the horizon include a banana that contains vaccines against certain diseases such as hepatitis B, fruit and nut trees that yield product years earlier that hitherto possible, corn that produces more ethanol used as a gasoline additive, plants that produce new plastics, and livestock that contain omega 3 oils hitherto
found only in fish, which reduce the risk of stroke, heart attacks, and cancer when consumed.
The advent of genetically modified food has not come without controversy. Environmental and anti globalization groups have joined together to oppose the introduction of what they call “frankenfood.” These groups have had some success in the European Union and Japan, where strict labeling and other regulations have so far inhibited the introduction of genetically modified foods in those countries. They have also convinced the governments of some third world countries to ban genetically modified foods, even though such foods might benefit their populations.
The objections these groups have to genetically modified foods include fears of unforeseen impacts to human health, the environment, and to plant biodiversity. Champions of genetically modified foods maintain the current controls and research make these sort of impacts very unlikely.
Those who oppose genetically modified foods also object on economic and political grounds. They suggest that such products would cause the domination of food production by a few major companies and increase dependence of the third world on industrialized nations for food products. Some even suggest a conspiracy to exploit the natural resources of third world countries.
Finally, there are some who object on ethical or even religious grounds. Natural organisms have an intrinsic value that must not be violated by genetic manipulation. Nature must not be tampered with by mixing genes among species. Vegetarians object to the introduction of animal genes into plant organisms. Others suggest that genetically modified livestock suffer undue stress.
Opponents of genetically modified foods have pushed for strict labeling regulations. These efforts have been met with some success in Europe and other countries, but not in the United States. Some products, which mix genetically
modified crops with non genetically modified crops, would tend to complicate such labeling efforts. Supporters of genetically modified food in any case maintain that it is not necessary and would only serve to increase unjustified
fear among consumers.
Despite the fears of opponents of genetically modified foods, their supporters maintain that they hold great promise. This promise includes greater yields of food crops on less acreage with less resort to pesticides, crops that are healthier and more nutritious, and crops that produce new products such as plastics and petroleum supplements. Genetically modified crops could result in less use of energy, water, and soil and better waste management.
Nevertheless, it is virtually certain that the world wide argument over genetically modified foods will continue. One can only suggest that one look up the facts and judge for oneself who is right and who is not.