Genetically modified foods have become quite the focal point of discussion in recent years. Scientists, nutritional experts, regulatory agencies, big corporations and even Moms have jumped into this emotionally charged debate, with compelling arguments coming from both sides of this issue. With climate change, feeding the world, mutated allergens and undiscovered possible health risks all part of the debate, it becomes pretty darn clear that this topic is just as confusing as it is important. Despite these potentially huge and far-reaching consequences, most people don’t have a clue as to what genetically modified or genetically engineered foods really are.
What are Genetically Engineered Foods?
Genetically engineered foods come from plant sources that have been altered or modified in a biotechnology lab by a geneticist. These modifications are done by extracting genes that possess a specific or desired trait from one organic source to another. Cross-breeding naturally can accomplish the same results, albeit in a much longer time frame, when genes are transferred between two identical organisms or plant species. However, the natural transfer of genes or DNA cannot be accomplished with two different or non-related species, whereas genetic modifications can.
For example, scientists can take the DNA from a cold water fish and insert it into an orange, in order to increase the orange’s tolerance to colder temperatures and frost. Or a geneticist might inject a type of bacteria into a wheat grain, making it more resistant to attacks from insects or specific fungi. These genetic modifications are being done in order to create more favorable traits within a specific crop, or to enhance production that cannot be accomplished by normal farming standards.
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Benefits of Genetically Modified Foods
Proponents of GM foods argue that genetic engineering can increase the nutritional values of certain foods by enhancing the vitamins, proteins and antioxidants. They also point out that GM crops contribute to a healthier environment. By increasing a plant’s ability to resist insects, pests or disease from various mildew/fungi strains, farmers can use less pesticides and herbicides, which not only reduces the toxic residue left on the produce, but also releases less chemicals into the air and soil. Here are a few other benefits to consider:
- Less expensive to produce
- Ability to enrich vitamin and antioxidant profile
- Enables farmers to produce higher yields per square meter
- Less pesticides and herbicides are needed
- Cheaper food costs for consumers
- Can be instrumental in reducing global starvation
- Resistant to climate change by being temperature and drought tolerant
Some of the Risks of Using Genetically Modified Foods
While there are no definitive studies proving any specific health risks, the number of concerned voices coming from the scientific and nutritional community are growing at an alarming rate. Citing concerns over potential long-term health problems, as well as the moral and ethical debates of genetic engineering, these individuals are not only shedding light on this important issue, but they also bring credibility to the argument for better research, labeling and regulations. Listed below are some of the other questions, concerns and possible risks of using GM foods.
- Uncontrolled cross-breeding between a genetically engineered crop and a weed or surrounding plant. Imagine a new breed of super weeds that are resistant to herbicides.
- Crops could develop an unacceptable resistance to antibiotics.
- By genetically transferring genes, we can also transfer allergens from one plant to another. Example: If scientists transfer a specific gene from a walnut into corn, and if you are allergic to walnuts, you could also be allergic to the modified corn.
- GM research provides a real possibility that large corporations could end up controlling and monopolizing our food, by owning the technology to a dominant crop mutation.
- Mixing animal with plant DNA can cause numerous ethical, moral and religious problems.
- Long-term studies are inconclusive.
What We Do Know About GM Foods
When you look at the current overall data on genetically engineered foods, there are some key facts we can take away from all of this.
- We know that there are some benefits and values to this technology.
- We know that to date, no known health risks to humans have been established by any previous studies.
- We also know there are risks associated with genetic engineering.
- The possibilities exist with technological monopolies of our food chain by corporate giants.
- A growing number of scientists in this field all agree that studies surrounding long-term health risks are ongoing and inconclusive.
Fortunately, most of the countries around the world, including Australia, require labeling on all food packaging for GM food products, allowing you the opportunity to make your own choices when it comes to buying produce for you and your family.