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Genetically modified food products first emerged in the commercial markets some time around the mid 1990s and were a hot topic among producers and potential buyers alike. A decade has passed ever since and the debate around genetically engineered foods shows no signs of retreat. Initially, there was much enthusiasm to these foods due to the many advantages expected from these modified food crops, such as resistance to pests and the use of herbicides for the control of weed production in addition to the high nutritional value.
Proponents of this new technology of food production were confident that its employment would yield extremely positive results including improved crop yield, agrochemical use and the production of highly nutritious food crops even in nutritionally drained soils. However, as time elapsed, research and study began to be conducted on these foods and it was soon brought to light that these foods are not safe for consumption, resulting in a backlash against the use of these foods. Opponents argue that the dangers associated with genetically engineered foods far outweigh the few benefits.
The methods of production of foods due to gene slicing biotechnological are new and hence, the products obtained from them cannot be appropriately tested by the old methods. There is also a growing concern that genetically modified foods would create a monopoly of food supply in the hands of a few large companies which would cause tremendous harm to smaller farmers and agriculture businesses. The matter has become a political issue in many countries due to this fast, which has the power to influence the lives of millions of farmers across developed countries.
The paper attempts to analyze both sides of the argument by highlighting some of the advantages and disadvantages of genetically modified foods. The primary worry is of course the danger and risk to the original composition of crops which would be substantially modified by the new techniques. The debate regarding genetically modified or engineered foods is getting more serious as there are numerous concerns regarding the environmental and health risks of food produced from this new technology.
The primary causes of problems are believed to rise due to the antibiotic resistant genes used in the crops which are altered and modified. The production process also includes increased use of pesticides while planting the many varieties of modified plants (CFS 2000, 2004). Some authors have stated that genetic modification of foods is the new technology in agriculture which is “here to stay” (Schmidt 2005) ignoring the possibility of allergens which have the potential of triggering allergies in people due to the consumption of genetically engineered species of crops and agricultural products is a cause of concern.
The growing episodes of food contamination prove that genetically modified foods are not absolutely safe to consume. The contamination of food due to the altered species of corn termed as ‘Starlink’ was the cause of contamination in numerous food products and due to which the company Aventis had to suffer huge losses to pay one hundred and ten million dollars in order to compensate the losses of farmers, food processors and grain handlers (Harl 2003; Jacobs 2003). There have been other contamination incidents which have resulted in severe health and financial problems to the biotech industry.
Gillis (2002), Nichols (2002), and Greenpeace (2005). Besides, researchers are apprehensive of the testing methods of the FDA due to the alterations in the composition of these modified foods which subsequently results in changes of “toxicological, immunological, or nutritional concern” (Schenkelaars, 2002). The testing techniques of genetically modified foods by the FDA has attracted severe criticism for by top level scientists who are opposed to the process of gene alteration in food production and agriculture (Alliance for Biointegrity 2004).
The general public too is apprehensive over the techniques used in the manufacture and production of genetically engineered foods (Schmidt, 2005). Schmidt (2005) explains that biotechnology enables scientists to employ methods for combination of genes from unrelated species of plants, animals and microorganisms for which many methods are used. The genes can be artificially combined using natural techniques to allow bacterial and viruses to “penetrate cells” or electric shocks “to destabilize the cell membranes” which would help in making the cell membranes “permeable”.
All these artificial techniques facilitate the permeability of the cell membrane which otherwise evades the entry of any foreign genes or DNA from entering the original structure of the cell (Schmidt, 2005). Genetic engineering would mean going against nature for the creation of new substances, the validity of which remains an unanswered question. What is worse is the fact that the natural boundaries of the entire animal and plant kingdom will be at potential risk, since genetic engineering provides scientists with the ability to combine the genes of any existence on the face of the earth.
The gene of a potato can be combined with the gene of a fish by introducing the former into the latter or vice versa. This scientific manipulation of foods is a growing concern among many scientists who feel that genetic alteration by humans can increase the levels of natural toxins in plants or allergens in foods. Genetic modification also increases the potential to enable plants and natural foods of “switching on genes that produce poison” (Shan, 2006).
Other dangers of engineered foods include “antibiotic resistance” among foods, “increased pesticide residues”, “genetic pollution” and damage to soil fertility and the beneficial insects which would all subsequently cause “socio-economic hazards and ethical hazards to the entire human community” (Cummins 1999). Additionally, injection of chemical hormones like the IGF-1 in animals such as the cow increases the risk of serious diseases like cancers of the breast, colon and the prostate among consumers (Cummins 1999). Proponents of genetically engineered foods argue that these foods grown without the use of chemical additives are “superior”.
The addition of food colors such as Para Red and Sudan III to naturally grown foods have resulted in several hazardous incidents as reported by the BBC News (2005) and since genetically produced foods are grown and stored without the use pesticides or fertilizers and any kind of artificial additives, supporters advocate its use. Reports regarding the growing cases of diseases such as asthma (Salam et al 2004), cancers (Muir 2005) and other harmful diseases caused due to farming techniques and pollution is a prime concern to the proponents of genetically modified foods.
Heaton (2001) affirms the many health problems which occur due to the growing use of pesticides in natural foods including hormone disturbances, repression of the human immune system and other neurological damages. The chemicals used as pesticides in naturally produced foods include the likes of DDT which has been banned by most of the developed nations, and others such as lindane and astrazine (Shan, 2006). The pesticide residues such as organophosphates found in foods have been associated with hazardous effects such as reduced male fertility, cancer, abnormalities of the fetus, and even Parkinson’s disease (BMA 1992 and Robbins 1991).
Additionally, high exposures of the farmers to pesticides have also enormously increased the risks of these farmers to cancers and other harmful diseases associated with them. (Schreinemachers, 2000; Alavanja et al. ,2003). Nutritionally too, genetically modified foods are believed to fare better than their natural counterparts. Research confirms that the nutritional value of genetically modified and grown foods is more than naturally grown foods. Worthington (2001) affirms that organic crops contain far more vitamins, minerals and other nutrients which are beneficial for the functioning of a healthy body.
Besides, organic foods are believed to contain much less percentages of nitrates than naturally produced foods (Williams, 2002). The report by the Soil Association compares the nutritional value of genetically modified foods and naturally produced foods (Heaton 2001). Since many food products contain less water, which is why they shrink on storage, genetic engineering of foods tends to alter the structure of the plants so that the ability to retain more water in increased. This would also prevent the food from shrinking on being cooked.
Genetic farming and modification of foods also restrict the use of drugs, especially in animals which reduces the risk of infections to humans. Besides, genetically engineered foods and products have higher levels of flavonoids, which act as a natural defense mechanism against the pests feeding on them (Shan, 2006). Flavonoids also play a crucial role in the prevention of cardiac problems and fatal diseases such as cancer. These foods also tend to have greater ant oxidation properties, due to the antioxidants like lycopene and phyto-nutrients like tannins present in them (Shan, 2006).
Genetically modified foods have been an issue of debate over the possible advantages and disadvantages they may have on the health of humans. Thus, while it is important to adopt new technologies and procedures to better human life, the health and quality should not be compromised. It is the responsibility of regulatory authorities to adopt means and measures for appropriate testing of foods so that the general public gets maximum benefits from advancing technological processes without having to compromise health and wellbeing.