Genetic Modification, Renee Naturally
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Genetic Modification: Summary of the Argument For & Against

You've no doubt seen an increase in food products bearing the label "GMO-free" in your local health food store, or supermarket. But what does this term mean exactly and why has it divided environmentalists, scientists, health advocates and consumers worldwide?

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GMO stands for Genetically Modified Organisms, which refers to any food product that has been altered at the gene level (also commonly described as "genetically engineered", or "genetically manipulated - GM"). It can be argued that modification of plants is not a new phenomenon. For centuries, gardeners and farmers have crossbred different species of plants to create crops that produce tastier, more beautiful or unique harvest. However, modern day genetic engineering techniques have caused major concern worldwide. With GMO, genes from an animal, plant, bacterium, or virus are inserted into a different organism (most commonly a plant), irreversibly altering their genetic code (the "blueprint" that determines all of an organism's physical characteristics). Examples of the results of this technology include soybeans that are resistant to weed killers, potatoes that produce their own pesticides…and the list goes on.  Genetic engineers are also developing fruits, vegetables, and grains with higher levels of vitamins and are working on foods that contain vaccines against diseases like malaria, cholera and hepatitis.

The argument for GM foods:

Genetic modification is said by advocates to provide:

  • Better quality food crops
  • Sturdy plants able to withstand weather extremes
  • Nutritional enhancement of crops
  • Inexpensive food in large quantities
  • Foods with a greater shelf life
  • Food with medicinal benefits
  • Crops resistant to disease and insects and produce that requires less chemical application
  • A safer environment. By using genetically engineered crops that are resistant to attack by pests or disease, it is argued that farmers and primary producers do not have to apply large amounts of pesticides and chemicals to the surrounding environment.

The argument against GMO foods:

Some concerns that have been raised by scientists, community groups and members of the public include:

  • New allergens could be inadvertently created - known allergens could be transferred from traditional foods into GM foods. For example, a gene from peanuts could be introduced into corn crops. Experiments suggest that people with allergies to peanuts could also be allergic to corn that had been genetically modified in this way.
  • Antibiotic resistance may develop - bioengineers sometimes insert a selectable ‘marker’ gene to help them identify whether a new gene has been successfully introduced to the host DNA. One such marker gene is for resistance to particular antibiotics. If genes coded for such resistance enter the food chain and are taken up by human gut micro flora, the effectiveness of antibiotics could be reduced and human infectious disease risk increased.
  • Crossbreeding - the potential for cross-breeding between GM crops and surrounding vegetation, including weeds could result in weeds that are resistant to herbicides.
  • Biodiversity - growing GM crops on a large scale may also have implications for biodiversity, the balance of wildlife and the environment.
  • Cross-contamination - plants bioengineered to produce pharmaceuticals (such as medicines) may contaminate food crops.
  • Health effects - minimal research has been conducted into the potential acute or chronic health risks of using GM foods. Research needs to involve independent (not company-based) assessment of the long-term effects of GM crops in the field and on human health.

Concerns about the social and ethical issues surrounding genetic modification include:

  • Multi national companies could monopolize the world food market by controlling the distribution of GM seeds.
  • Using genes from animals in plant foods may pose ethical, philosophical or religious problems eg. eating traces of genetic material from animals could be a problem for vegetarians or vegans.
  • Animal welfare could be adversely affected eg. animals given potent GM growth hormones could suffer from health problems related to growth or metabolism.
  • New GM organisms could be patented so that once natural food could become commercial property through patenting.

There are potential benefits, risks and ethical concerns regarding GM foods that are still being researched and debated.The GM debate involves concerns over health, politics, power, money, environment and ethics and on either side of the argument there are people with passionately opposing points of view. What are your thoughts?

Live well, live long, live naturally

Renée x

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