(GM) Genetically Modified Foods and Organisms – More knowledge = better choices
Imagine viruses and bacteria becoming the next super power on earth. They have inhabited Earth for millions of years and the key to their survival is mutating and evolving to adapt to their environment. Science is an evolving field and as new technology becomes more sophisticated, research becomes more advanced and accurate. The coined phrase “genetically modified” (GM) maybe new, but the technology has been around for a long time. Examples are the genetic manipulation of selective horse breeding centuries ago or Charles Darwin’s theory on the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. Armed with the knowledge and capacity to deliberately and selectively initiate purposeful cross-breeding, ultimately brings mankind to the cross-roads of ethical behavior and scientific improvement. Should we interfere in millions of years of evolvement, why and why not?
GM technology is a controversial and contentious issue debated by all regarding its advantages and disadvantages. Whether this is a more efficient way of doing business or giving man more power then he should have, power of the Gods, is yet to be seen. This kind of technology may meet some of the 21st Century’s greatest challenges, but many questions will remain unanswered for a long time to come. Are GM foods safe? How are potential risks determined? Are they assessed differently from traditionally foods? What are the main issues for human health (WHO)? Also the continued resistance of the European Union (a 27-member nation) regarding safety and effects on the environment creates an even wider gap in the future of GM technology and its use (Canter).
Advances in science have enabled DNA sequencing and the technology needed to analyze and understand them. GM technology alters the genetic makeup of plants, animals and bacteria by allowing genes to be selectively transferred between organisms, even non-related species. Combined genes are known as recombinant DNA and the organism is said to be "genetically modified," "genetically engineered," or "transgenic." GM products currently include, medicines and vaccines; foods and food ingredients; feeds and fibers (Programs).
To understand the placement of genes in the hierarchy of life, here’s a quick version starting from the smallest - atoms, molecules, cells, tissues, organelles, organs, organ system, organisms, populations, communities, ecosystems and biosphere (Campbell et all). The nucleus stores more information than the largest dictionary ever seen and it is not visible to the naked eyes (Dowshen). Getting to know genes: Genes carry information about traits (characteristics inherited from the parent genes like dark skin, green eyes, freckles, red hair and even our future diseases).; they are structures called chromosomes and are made of atoms and molecules and are collectively called DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid)
At the University of Freiburg in Germany, Potrykus and Peter Beyer created an enhanced grain of rice. This enhances grain is derived from Oryza Sativa, the Latin name for a commonly consumed species of rice, and DNA borrowed from bacteria and daffodils. This rice called the Golden Grain is very pale yellow, courtesy of beta-carotene a building block of vitamin A. It’s a grain he hopes will improve the lives of millions of poor by strengthening their eyesight and their resistance to diseases (Robinson/Nairobi, Simon; Nash/Zurich, J.Madeline). There are advantages and disadvantages to this technology and even more reason to be an informed consumer.
The advantages are:
Crops: enhanced taste and quality; reduced maturation time; improved resistance to disease, pests and herbicides.
Animals: increased productivity; hardiness; better yields of meat, eggs and milk.
Environment: friendlier bioherbicides; better conservation of soil, water, energy and better natural waste management.
Society: increased food security for growing populations (Programs).
The disadvantages are:
Safety: these are concerns regarding the potential human impacts like allergens; transfer of antibiotic resistance; unintended transfer of genes though cross-pollination; loss of flora and fauna biodiversity.
Access and Intellectual Property: Concerns are domination of world food production by only a few companies; biopiracy or foreign exploitation of natural resources.
Ethical: These concerns are tampering with nature by mixing genes among species; objections to consuming animal genes in plants and vice versa.
Labeling: It is not a mandatory requirement everywhere and the mixing of GM with non-GM products confounds the labeling attempts and the choices people make.
Society: These concerns are that new advances may gravitate towards the interests of rich countries only (Programs).
In recent years, 252 million acres of transgenic crops were planted in 22 countries by more than10 million farmers. The majority were herbicide and insect resistant soybeans, corn, cotton, canola, alfalfa, and virus resistant sweet potatoes. The possibility of a future where bananas will eventually produce human vaccine against Hepatitis B; cows become resistant to mad cow disease; fruit and nut trees to yield years earlier; crops hardy enough to be drought, flood and heat resistant and plants may even produce new plastics with unique properties (Programs).
New species are continuously being discovered as cross breeding exists in the normal pattern of Nature’s evolvement. It may even be her version of GM technology. The biggest natural example can be seen on the Galapagos Islands. If Nature did not continuously evolve, earth would still be inhabited by single cell organisms and I would not be able to write this article. Genetically modified technology after a trial and error method may give us a push in the direction needed to compete with natural evolvement as we cannot afford to stagnate.
References: Campbell et all. Biology, Concepts & Connections, Sixth Edition. California: Benjmin Cummings in Cooperation with Pearson Custom Publishing, 2009.Canter, James.