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Genetically Modified Food—Is It Safe for You?

Depending on where you live, you may have had some genetically modified (GM) food in your breakfast, lunch, or dinner today. According to one report, “by 1998, 25 percent of corn, 38 percent of soybeans, and 45 percent of cotton grown in the United States were genetically altered, either to make the crops resistant to weed killers or to produce their own pesticides.” By the end of 1999, an estimated 100 million acres were covered with GM crops in commercial cultivation worldwide, though not all of these are food crops.

Is genetically altered food safe for you? Do the scientific techniques used to produce GM crops pose any threat to the environment? In Europe the debate over GM foods is heating up.  Said a protester from England: “My only objection to genetically modified foods is that they’re unsafe, unwanted and unnecessary.”


How Is Food Genetically Altered?

The science behind GM food is called food biotechnology the use of modern genetics to improve plants, animals, and microorganisms for food production. But unlike traditional methods, modern biotechnology allows for modifying the genetic material of organisms directly and precisely.

Suppose that a farmer does not want his potatoes or apples to turn brown when they are cut or bruised. Researchers come to the rescue by removing the gene that is responsible for this browning and replacing it with an altered version that blocks browning. Or let us assume that a beet grower would like to plant earlier in order to reap a better harvest. Ordinarily he couldn’t because the beets would freeze in the cold weather. Biotechnology comes into play when genes from fish that easily survive in cold water are transplanted into the beets. The result is a GM beet that can withstand temperatures as low as 20°F., more than twice as cold as the lowest temperature beets can typically withstand.


A New Green Revolution?

A leader of the biotechnology industry declares that genetic engineering is “a promising tool in the effort to provide more food” to a global population that grows by about 230,000 people every day. Food plants have been fortified with a gene that produces a natural pesticide, eliminating the need to spray clouds of toxic chemicals over acres of crops.

However, according to agricultural scientists, the rush to promote genetic engineering as a solution to world food shortages is undermining current research on crops. Although it is less exotic, this research is more effective and could also benefit the poorer parts of the world.  “We shouldn’t be driven by this unproven technology when there are many more efficient solutions to food problems,” says Hans Herren, an expert on fighting crop diseases.

Ethical Concerns

On top of possible public-health and environmental risks, some feel that the genetic modification of crops and other living organisms presents moral and ethical challenges. Scientist and activist Douglas Parr observed: “Genetic engineering crosses a fundamental threshold in the human manipulation of the planet, changing the nature of life itself.” Jeremy Rifkin, author of the book The Biotech Century, put it this way: “Once you can cross all biological boundaries, you begin to see a species as simply genetic information that is fluid. That brings us into a whole new way to conceptualize not only our relationship with nature, but how we use it.” He therefore asked: “Does life have intrinsic or just utility value? What is our obligation to future generations? What is our sense of responsibility to the creatures with which we coexist?”


Potential Dangers?

Researchers warn that there are no long-term, large-scale tests to prove the safety of genetically modified (GM) food.

  • Allergic reaction. If a gene producing a protein that causes allergic responses ended up in corn, for instance, people who suffer from food allergies could be exposed to grave danger
  • Resistance to antibiotics. As part of the genetic modification of plants, scientists use what are called marker genes to determine if the desired gene has been successfully embedded. As most marker genes provide resistance to antibiotics, critics fear that this could contribute to the growing problem of antibiotic resistance. Other scientists, however, counter that such marker genes are genetically scrambled before use, thus alleviating this danger.
  • Spread of “super weeds.” One of the biggest fears is that once modified crops are planted, genes will escape via seeds and pollen to weedy relatives, creating “super weeds” that are able to resist herbicides.
  • Demise of safe pesticides. Among the most successful GM crops are some that contain a gene that produces a protein toxic to insect pests. However, biologists warn that exposing pests to the toxin produced by this gene will help the pests develop resistance and thus render pesticides useless.
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