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Genetically Modified Foods: Harmful or Helpful?

Genetically Modified Foods: Harmful or Helpful?

This “Mister Potato Head” is definitely a modified model of an easily recognized food. What might not be so easily recognized or known, though, is that genetically modified foods, including tomatoes and cantaloupes, soybeans and sugarbeets, and corn and potatoes, have widespread availability in supermarkets. Highly-processed foods, such as vegetable oils or breakfast cereals, most probably contain at least a tiny percentage of genetically-modified ingredients. The wide-spread use of soybean derivatives as food additives in the modern American diet virtually ensures that all U.S. consumers have been exposed to GM food products. According to a USDA web site at http://www.ers.usda.gov/briefing/biotechnology/ soybeans and corn are the top two most widely grown crops (82%) of all GM crops harvested in 2000), with cotton, rapeseed (or canola) and potatoes trailing behind.
Some of the advantages of GM foods are:
1. Pest resistance. Growing GM foods such at B.t. corn helps eliminate the need for excessive use of pesiticdes and fertilizers which can poison the water supply and cause harm to the environment.
2. Herbicide tolerance. For some crops, it is not cost-effective to remove weeds by physical means. therefore, large quantities of different herbicides are often sprayed on field crops. Crop plants geneticallypengineered to be resistant to one very powerful herbicide could help prevent environmental damage by reducing the amount of herbicides needed. That could result in the requirement of only one application of weed-killer instead of multiple applications. The end-result would be a reduction of production cost and limiting of the danger of agricultural waste run-off.
3. Disease resistance. Plant biologists are working to create plants with genetically-engineered resistance to many of the viruses, fungi and bacteria that cause plant diseases.
4. Cold tolerance. Early or unexpected cold temperatures and frost will destroy sensitive seedlings. An “antifreeze” gene from cold water fish has been introduced into plants such as potatoes. This might also have an application for tobacco and strawberry crops.
5. Drought tolerance/salinity tolerance. The world population is growing and more land is utilized for housing instead of food production. Land formerly considered unsuitable for crop production must necessarily come under cultivation. Creating plants that can withstand long periods of drought or high salt content in soil and groundwater will help in the production of crops in those formerly inhospitable places. (Transgenic salt-tolerant tomato plants accumulate salt in foliage but not in fruit (Nature Biotechnology, Vol 19, No 8, pp 765-768, Aug 2001).
6. Nutrition. Most single crops do not contain adequate amounts of all necessary nutrients to prevent malnutrition. If they could be genetically engineered to contain additional vitamins and minerals, nutrient deficiencies could be alleviated. For example blindness due to vitamin-A deficiency is a common problem in third world countries, especially where rice is the main staple of their diet.
7. Pharmaceuticals. Did you know that researchers are working to develop edible vaccines in tomatoes and potatoes? Medicines and vaccines are often costly to produce and sometimes require special storage conditions not readily available in third world countries. Edible vaccines in readily acceptable foods would be much easier to ship, store and administer than traditional injectable vaccines.
Cons for the use of genetically modified foods:
1. Unintended harm to other organisms. It is possible for the pollen from genetically modified crops to be blown onto adjacent crops and affect them, with possible harmful results. The toxins found in GM corn pollen kill many species of insect larvae indiscriminately.
2. Reduced effectiveness of pesticides. Just as some populations of mosquitoes developed resistance to DDT (now banned), there is a legitimate concern that insects might become resistant to crops that have been genetically-modified to produce their own pesticides.
3. Gene transfer to non-target species. There is also concern that crop plants engineered for herbicide tolerance and weeds will cross-breed, resulting in the transfer of the genes from the crops into the weeds. These “superweeds” would then be herbicide tolerant as well. Also, it has been shown that unmodified crops have been cross-pollinated from crops planted a field or two away.
3. Possible Human Health Risks. There is a possibility that introducing a gene into a plant may create a new allergen or cause an allergic reaction in susceptible individuals. For instance, it is known that many children in the US and Europe have developed life-threatening allergies to peanuts. There is a growing concern that introducing foreign genes into food plants may have an unexpected and negative impact on human health.
I saw in a report yesterday that plain Cheerios will no longer contain any genetically-modified corn products. This was done in response to a large outcry from parents alarmed about a food they were commonly giving their toddlers as an easy first finger food. The regulatory process in the United States is extremely confused, simply because there are three different govenment agencies that have jurisdiction over GM foods. The EPA evaluates GM plants for environmental safety. The USDA evaluates whether the plant is safe to grow. The FDA evaluates whether the plant is safe to eat. The EPA is responsible for regulating substances such as pesticides or toxins that may cause harm to the environment. Genetically modified crops, such as GM corn or herbicide-tolerant crops but not foods modified for their nutritional value are under the jurisdiction of the EPA. The USDA is responsible for genetically modified crops that do not fall under the EPA’s jurisdiction. Those include drought-tolerant plan or disease-tolerant crops, crops grown for animal feeds, or whole fruits, vegetables and grains meant for human consumption. The FDA historically has been concerned with pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and food products and additives, not whole foods. According to the FDA, genetically modified foods are substantially equivalent to unmodified, “natural” foods, and therefore not subject to FDA regulation. Thus, a GM ear of corn sold at a produce stand is not regulated by the FDA because it is a whole food, but a box of cornflakes is regulated because it is a food product.
Lastly, there is no regulation on the limits of modified genetic material in crops, particularly in corn. That is because that material is not sprayed as a chemical pesticide but is a gene that is integrated into the genetic material of the corn itself. Growers must have a license from the EPA for GM corn production. However, companies working to create new GM foods are not required to consult the FDA, nor are they required to follow the FDA’s recommendations after such consultations. Consumer interst groups wish this process to be mandatory so that all GM food products, whole foods or otherwise, must be approved by the FDA before being released for commercial use. The stance of the FDA is that is does not have the time, money, or resources to carry out this type of intervention.
What are your thoughts on these issues? Pro or Con?

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