Eating in the Lab: How a Rule Is Being Defied for the Better

February 1, 2011
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When sitting at the standard American dinner table, one could see large, bright yellow corn kernels, dinner rolls, and a nice cut of steak. What this average family does not know, however, is that none of their meal is natural; every piece of this meal has been genetically modified in some way; whether it be the vegetable itself, an ingredient used in the food, or in the feed of the animal they have just eaten. While this thought, that their food’s DNA has been manipulated in a laboratory, may be scary to many people, the benefits of genetically modified, or GM, foods greatly outweigh their potential risks, especially with the most recent advancements in gene manipulation technology.

Modern GM foods can be modified to have a wide variety of beneficial traits; the very first GM foods, appearing in the mid-to-late 1970s, however, were much more limited. These exhibited the first type of benefit of using GM foods: environmental. The first GM plants went through mutational studies and had genes inserted into them that allowed them to naturally produce pesticides. Since the plants made their own pesticides, it was unnecessary for the farmers to apply them; therefore, the pesticides would not be applied in excess to an unhealthy level, they could not end up in places where they were not intended, such as neighboring organic farms, and they could not end up polluting the water system from surface run-off. Therefore, these pesticides were essentially giving the same environmental benefits as organic foods, which are widely recognized as having clear environmental benefits.

Unlike organic foods, however, these original GM plants were also financially beneficial to the farmers that produced them. The genetically modified seeds cost more than traditional seeds, but this expense is outweighed by the numerous places farmers were able to save in their crop production, and these savings were passed onto consumers with low crop prices. As explained in the preceding paragraph, farmers did not have to spend money on pesticides. Similarly, herbicide resistance genes were added to plants. This allowed the farmers to employ much cheaper methods of herbicide application rather than going around and spraying every weed without touching the crop.

The more recent versions of GM plants, incorporating a much larger range of new genes, also have financial benefits. One new trait that can be incorporated into the plants is resistance to extreme environments, including cold temperatures, high salinity levels, and drought. Therefore, if one of these unfortunate circumstances occurs, the farmer is still able to sell his crop and support himself. Finally, growth hormone can be added, so the crops are grown more quickly, and therefore more crops can be produced and sold, giving the farmer more income.

These traits all also help prevent famine because of the increased consistency of production that they supply. Because of these genes, plants can not be killed be pest infestations, accidental herbicide application, and unusual environmental circumstances. In addition, genes can be inserted that give plants immunity to common diseases that they get; since these diseases usually consume many farms on each rampage, having immunity prevents there from being a local food shortage.

Finally, GM crops are going to make a big difference in third-world countries. Firstly and most obviously, the sheer volume of crops produced can increase, as shown above, which can help world hunger. In addition, there are genes which add additional nutrients to a crop. This is especially useful in poor countries, where often there is one staple crop, and people get few other types of food, leaving them malnourished. When that staple food, however, can include the left out vitamins and minerals, people can get more of their nutrition required for survival. Beyond that, very recently crops have been developed that contain vaccines, like for Hepatitis-B, can be distributed and administered more easily, cheaply, and quickly to the people who need it, especially the impoverished people who can not afford and do not have access to adequate health care.

Unfortunately, all of these benefits do not come without risk, especially to ecology and human health. Since some of the GM plants are made with their own insecticide, they can have unwanted affects on other plants and animals. For example, if one plant’s pollen gets into the air, it could pollinate a plant that was intended to not have any genetic modifications. It could also hurt organisms that were not intended to be killed, just as a standard insecticide would. However, scientists have put forth changes to help these problems. For the former, many GM plants have had additional modifications to make them unable to produce pollen, making sure that no GM plants can pass off their modifications onto unintended offspring. Another possibility to fix this problem is to make a buffer zone- some conventionally-breeded plants around the GM plants that will not be harvested to prevent the pollen from leaving the entire field. This would also allow some of the insects to feast on these plants, rather than the ones with insecticide. Furthermore for the latter, plants are being implanted with the most advanced insecticides, as many nowadays are made to target a specific insect.

Worries have also been stated about the safety of these products in regard to human health. They have been shown to cause allergic reactions in some people, and there is currently not a wealth of information from human testing; both these safety issues can be derived from one of the main problems with GM foods: if one gene is changed, it could have unknown and unpredictable effects on the organism. There are currently many studies out, some of which say eating GM foods is one of the most dangerous things a person can do, and some of which say there is no risk involved, aside from that of allergic reaction. To solve this problem, however, the Food and Drug Administration, or FDA, has stepped in and will soon begin rigorous testing of each GM product out on the market, since most of these products have only been tested on animals, and create very tight requirements as far as safety goes. Therefore, people will be assured that the GM foods they are putting into their bodies are as safe as today’s vast array of technology can conclude, thus solving the problem of unknown effects on the human body. Additionally, the FDA is going to put into action new requirements related to labeling about additional allergen alerts, which will take care of the allergic reaction problem. Therefore, all major risks of genetically modified foods, whether they be ecology or health related, will be taken care of in the near future, or their effects have already been subsided.

In a world where the amount of genetically modified food is growing exponentially, and in a world in which all were told never to eat or drink in science class labs, its hard not to wonder if products that come these laboratories are really worth it; is it worth these endless benefits- economic, environmental, and food supply insuring- outweigh the risk of the unknown. It has become clear that the benefits will solve so many of the worlds’ problems, from world hunger to chemicals in the water system, that the minor health risks that will soon be resolved are no match. Genetically modified foods are absolutely worth the risk.

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