Genetic engineering is the scientific alteration of the genetic material in a living organism. It allows scientists to identify specific genes, to remove them from an organism's chromosomes, modify them, analyze them, and possibly clone them, and to then reinsert the altered gene into the original organism, or a completely different organism. Unlike traditional breeding, where a desired trait would be bred within the same species, genetic engineering can insert desired traits into organisms of different species. Wow ... did you catch that?
Genetic engineering creates many positive contributions to agriculture. Scientists are developing oils, starches and proteins for beverage, food, meat, health and industrial application that will reduce cholesterol levels by as much as 30 percent. By genetically engineering foods, anti-cancer agents, minerals and vitamins can be enhanced, and certain allergens and antinutritional compounds can be eliminated. Improved taste, shelf life and better transport are all possible. Genetically engineering plants can increase pest, viral, bacterial and fungal resistance, thereby significantly reducing the need for pesticides and making the food safer for the consumer. Also, genetically engineered (GE) plants have increased tolerance to natural elements such as heat, cold, waterlogging, drought and salinity. Increased ability in the plants to remove toxic metals from the soil and the production of more biodegradable industrial products are added benefits.
But some argue that the possible negative effects outweigh the positives, and critics are starting to voice their concerns. Unlike Europe, in the United States labeling is not required on genetically engineered foods or on foods that contain genetically engineered products. Most Americans do not realize that they are, in fact, eating GE foods. Sixty to 70 percent of the food in supermarkets contain GE material. By 1998, these genetically engineered products had received approval in the U.S.: canola oil, radiccchio, corn, cotton, soybeans, cotton, potatoes, papaya, squash and tomatoes.
The public is also concerned about the unknown health risks. Because their understanding of genes is limited, scientists cannot predict possible effects. And because most genes introduced into GE plants come from sources not introduced into the human body, it is impossible to know if they will cause reactions. But, because of the lack of labeling, if allergies develop, it will be extremely difficult to trace them. Also, it is not possible to insert a new gene with any accuracy. Inserting these new genes could alter the DNA makeup of an organism, creating chemical reactions, which then lead to instability, the creation of new toxins or allergens, and possibly changes in nutritional value.
There is also a major ethical question in many minds. For many, the conflict is not if it is safe or not, but it disturbs them because it is unnatural and unnecessary. We are currently producing one and a half times the amount of food needed to feed the world, yet one in seven people are starving. Genetically engineered food is unnecessary, and fails to address the root of hunger. Many believe that the only people who will benefit are the corporations that produce it. There is also growing evidence that genetically engineered foods threaten biodiversity.
Scientists cannot foresee the possible effects of genetically engineered foods, yet we eat them every day without even knowing it. This makes genetic engineering scary to many, including me. We are spending billions of dollars manipulating genes, when we could use that money to eradicate poverty and world hunger. We already have a surplus of food, so why create more that could be potentially harmful to us, to the Earth and to all wildlife? I think that the benefits are amazing, but until we know for sure how these foods will affect us, they are not worth the risk.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.