Genetically engineered food and genetically modified organisms.
According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), there are two types of plant breeding: the traditional method and the genetic engineering method. The FDA describes the difference between the two methods as the traditional method can produce unwanted effects, while the genetically engineered process can control the effects produced as shown in Figure 1. The six largest genetic engineering companies in the world are Monsanto, which holds the largest market share, Pioneer Hi-Bred International, Syngenta AG, Dow Agrosciences, BASF and Bayer Cropscience (Biology Fortified, 2013).
A genetically engineered food is also known as genetically modified food. According to Medline Plus (2013), a website produced by the U.S. National Library of Medicine, "Genetically engineered foods have had foreign genes (genes from other plants or animals) inserted into their genetic codes. Genetic engineering can be done with plants, animals, or microorganisms," and it is a topic that has been an ongoing debate due to consumer safety and exposure to new allergies or health risks. In the words of Naik, (2010), an author who has written extensively on environmental issues:
The history of producing genetically modified food can be traced back to mid-19th century, when Gregor Mendel--an Austrian monk and botanist, carried out an experiment wherein he crossbred tall pea species with short pea species to show that certain traits in one species were inherited by other in this process. Even though Mendel is considered to be the founder of science of genetics today, his efforts were not acknowledged until 20th century. Mendel's observations paved way for the development of first genetically modified plant--an antibiotic resistant tobacco plant, in 1983. (GM Foods)
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has ordered regulations around the processing, labeling and selling of products containing genetically modified organisms to ensure consumers are aware that the products they are purchasing may contain genes not directly related to that product. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has also played a significant role in regulating and permitting genetically modified products. The debates contain strong arguments for and against the genetic modification of genes, despite that fact that no actual research has concluded harmful or beneficial results.
ISSUES CONCERNING GMOS
Main concerns of those opposed to genetically engineered foods are allergies and unintended exposure to genes or chemicals that may contain harmful reactions. The Institute of Responsible Technology (IRT) recently reported (Climate, 2013) that there may be a direct link to a spike in Americans with gluten allergies, stating that "a team of experts suggests that GM foods may be an important environmental trigger for gluten sensitivity, which is estimated to affect as many as 18 million Americans" (p. 48).
In addition to the issue of gluten allergies, consumers are worried that the cross-contamination may cause unexpected allergic reactions due to genes found in peanut products, for example, being injected into tomatoes or soy products, which would not naturally contain the peanut gene (Mount, 2012). A series of studies on animals was conducted by Global Research and concluded GMOs can cause harmful effects, based on results such as death, gastro-bleeding, abnormal cell growth, false pregnancy or infertility, severe allergic reactions (headaches, itching, inflammation, rashes, etc.), pancreas problems, liver inflammation and organ damage (Lendman, 2013).
As reported in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Antoniou, Fagan and Robinson (2012) presented evidence about GMOs, which support the findings in the animal studies that GMOs are harmful and come at a costly price. According to Fagan, "Crop genetic engineering as practiced today is a crude, imprecise and outmoded technology. It can create unexpected toxins or allergens in foods and affect their nutritional value." He continued to explain that "over 75 percent of all GM crops are engineered to tolerate being sprayed with herbicide ... Epidemiological studies suggest a link between herbicide use and birth defects and cancer."
Although health and environmental issues are significant concerns, ethical issues were also a factor when discussing genetically engineered food. Cross-use of animals' genes into plant foods may "pose ethical, philosophical or religious problems," while the welfare of animals "could be adversely affected more readily" and suffer health problems in those animals who received potent GM growth hormones (Healthy Eating Club, 2003).
In addition to testing on animals or injecting animals for maximum production, many species are unexpectedly, negatively affected by GMOs, including honey bees. Amos (2011), a writer for Global Research, discussed one reason for the death of honey bees:
The genetic modification of the plant leads to the concurrent genetic modification of the flower pollen. When the flower pollen becomes genetically modified or sterile, the bees will potentially go malnourished and die of illness due to the lack of nutrients and the interruption of the digestive capacity of what they feed on through the summer and over the winter hibernation process.
Another issue with genetically engineered foods is that there is a lack of safety and allergy testing, which assists in the argument as to whether or not GMOs need to be labelled. Palmer (2013), a science reporter for the International Business Times, discussed the risks of not testing GMOs and how implementation of testing requirements can decrease instances of death or allergic reaction by informing consumers of cells that may be contained in the food they are purchasing. As of now, the "U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not require biotechnology companies to do premarket safety testing, including allergen testing (although the agency does recommend it)," which leads to the issue of GMOs needing warning labels.
According to Shen (2013), senior editor of a political news blog, reasons such as consumer safety as well as consumers right to know, "individual choice.resonates with the 93 percent of Americans who support labeling." The argument for GMO label requirements is to inform consumers of what they are purchasing, just as the nutrition and ingredients labels do. Arthur L. Caplan (2013), professor and head of the Division of Bioethics at New York University's Langone Medical Center, argues that "by not labeling their foods, agricultural companies [are] creating an environment of suspicion and distrust" amongst consumers.
GMO Compass (2007), a consumer webpage dedicated to collecting science-based information on the use of genetic engineering in the agri-food industry, stated, "Labeling empowers the buyer. In order to choose between products with or without genetically modified organisms, consumers need transparent, controllable and straightforward labeling regulations" ("Thresholds and freedom of choice").
Outside of the United States, many countries ban the production or selling of genetically engineered foods, require extreme testing and detailed labeling or even find the process a conspiracy for America to control the world through control of food supply. Recently, The Economist (2013) reported on Chinese activist groups who oppose GMOs "describe their cause as patriotic, aimed not just at avoiding what they regard as the potential harm of tinkering with nature, but at resisting control of China's food supply by America through American-owned biotech companies and their superior technology" (Food Fight). Although China does not ban GMOs, and participates in the production and import of them, Austria, France, Germany, Hungary, Luxembourg, Greece, Bulgaria and now Poland have banned GMOs (GMO-Free Regions, 2012).
WORLDWIDE DISCUSSIONS SUPPORTING GMO
In contrast to the arguments against genetically engineered foods, and the dangers they present, advocates argue that GMOs are safe and beneficial to society. In the words of Phillips (2008), a science writer with a doctorate in environmental biology:
GMOs benefit mankind when used for purposes such as increasing the availability and quality of food and medical care, and contributing to a cleaner environment. If used wisely, they could result in an improved economy without doing more harm than good, and they could also make the most of their potential to alleviate hunger and disease worldwide.
When the safety of genetically engineered foods is in question, a point is often made that not all food is 100 percent safe and that even organic foods can cause certain allergies or illnesses to individuals. Another argument presented in favor of GMOs by Levaux (2012) argued, "We tested them [existing plants] the hard way, by eating strange things and dying, or almost dying, over thousands of years. That's how we've figured out which plants are poisonous...and we've learned which foods we're allergic to." The point is that there should not be new and special regulations on the same plants, regardless of the modification they have undergone. GMOs tend to use fewer chemicals to deter pests and as such there is a reduced usage of herbicides leaving one to believe the crops are more eco-friendly (Diet Health Club, 2011). In addition, advocates for GMOs rely on tests performed by the agriculture companies that manufacture the GMOs to determine the safety of their products, as required by the FDA.
There are three testing procedures that agriculture companies follow: in vitro, in silico and digestion. Digestion testing is the least involved but the most important test as it is the only test that screens for unidentified allergens (Johnson, 2013). The agriculture companies are required to perform these tests, regardless of arguments made that the FDA suggests the tests be done, rather than enforce the testing. Opponents argue that the tests are not involved enough and as such they do not confirm or deny safety or hazard to consumers. Digestion testing is intended to simulate real stomach conditions but companies sometimes use more acidity and enzymes in their testing. In vitro and in silico testings focus only on existing allergen strands, rather than newly formed ones, leaving a significant amount of room for error and unintended consequences to consumers ingesting the genetically modified products. Bill Freese, a science policy analyst with the Center for Food Safety, argued in favor of improvements to the testing process: "He'd like the government to require companies to adhere to the methods laid out by the WHO-FAO and further test anything with six amino acid subsequences in a row matching an allergen" (as cited in Johnson, 2013).
Genetically engineered foods are also defended by statements claiming that GMOs can end world hunger, or save consumers money by staying fresh longer or requiring less care when the crops are growing.
Issues of malnutrition are prevalent in all countries and are a severe problem especially in third world countries where they do not have the means to access enough food or nutrition supplements. A recent study of golden rice or rice genetically engineered to include beta-carotene concluded that "If all children in deprived areas were given enough vitamin A, up to 2.7 million deaths could be prevented each year" (Reuters, 2012). One solution to help solve these worldwide problems would be to use the process of genetic mutation to enhance the vitamins and nutrients in existing crops, as well as produce these crops in climates where they would not organically grow, by inserting genes that would allow them to prevail certain whether, climate and soil conditions. Also, when foods are tested to become FDA approved after being genetically modified, the test evidence is sent to local agencies that convert the product into many commodities and distributes those to locals in need.
When benefits such as these are presented, GMOs seem like the answer to many existing problems. However, this argument is also debatable and is done so with counter arguments of political issues and the inability to purchase food, rather than the lack of available food causes world hunger. Regardless of the quantities the GMO manufacturers report they can produce, there is still a price associated with the product, and impoverished citizens still will not be able to purchase or benefit from the food.
There are many suggested advantages and disadvantages of the processing and development of genetically engineered foods. There is not enough evidence or long term research that can conclude genetically modified organisms are safe or hazardous to the environment and consumers, although the available evidence can be enough for individuals to decide their opinion on the subject. The arguments that the GMOs can provide third world countries with additional food supply and enrich their existing foods with added vitamins and nutrients can easily persuade the public and government agencies to be in favor of the production of these foods, but opposing arguments prove that this ideal thought cannot occur because the people who need the food supply still would not be able to afford it.
Other pro-GMO arguments presented that these enhanced foods can help cure blindness and diseases. Scientists and agriculture companies in support of GMOs argue that the products are safe and provide no greater risk than organic crops, and use their testing procedures as validation to those statements. However, when these experts are interviewed regarding testing procedures and asked if the tests are thorough enough to present actual evidence, all have noted that the tests may not be sufficient and that there is significant room for error. Also, most sources that are pro-GMO manufacturing are written by, or based on the opinion of, scientists, agriculture companies or government officials that have a vested interest in the production of these products through politics or sources of income. Unfortunately, there have not been significant reliable sources in favor of GMO production.
Opponents of GMOs are against GMO products and in favor of organic or natural products. Based on studies conducted on animals or the undesired effects that human consumers have experienced, opponents argue GMOs are dangerous and are an invitation for unintended consequences such as disease, permanent illness or disability or even death. Rivals point to doctors who have prescribed their deathly ill patients with nothing more than GMO-free diets, where the patients have fully recovered from their illnesses, as proof that these products are dangerous. There is no doubt that the modification of genes and DNA changes an organism's natural state and can cause that organism to function differently than intended, based on a new chemical make-up. These changes then cause different reactions to consumers, which is why the argument that they can cause allergies, cancer and other undesirable side effects to the consumers. Individuals with severe allergies, such as peanut, shellfish, egg, dairy, etc., need to be informed if the genetically modified food appears to be something they can eat without going into anaphylactic shock, is actually injected with a gene that can cause them an allergic reaction or death. This alone demonstrates a need for further testing requirements and labeling laws. The fact that labeling is not required on these products seems inhumane, as consumers have a right to know all ingredients in the food they are purchasing. If processed foods require labeling, then GMOs should be required to label as well. This puts a sense of suspicion and doubt over the GMO products, because if the safety is not compromised, why do the agriculture companies want to avoid attention to the fact?
The fact that multiple countries have placed a ban or other restrictions around the production and selling of GMOs shows there are clearly issues with the products, or at least issues in question. The United States has not banned these products, and is the largest manufacturer of them, but there should at least be a labeling requirement so consumers can make their own educated decisions when purchasing. Based on significant research, there is much more evidence that GMOs are harmful to the environment and consumers than research that argues they are safe products. Nature should not be tampered with: therefore, GMOs should be banned or labeled and tested adequately.
Omid Nodoushani, Southern Connecticut State University
Jayme Sintay, Southern Connecticut State University
Carol Stewart, Southern Connecticut State University
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|Author:||Nodoushani, Omid; Sintay, Jayme; Stewart, Carol|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2015|
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