Exploring the Ambiguities Surrounding Genetically Modified Foods

This essay is a critical discussion on the topic ‘science in development of Genetically Modified (GM) foods and the ambiguities on risks to human health and natural environment’. GM food is food is produced by altering the organisms in genetical material and for that reason, GM food is also described as engineered food (Laskos, 2013). The principal question is whether the development of GM foods is a question that needs reconsidering in the context of its viability given that there may be risks posed to human health and environment due to the production and consumption of GM foods. The dilemma in the context of production of GM food is related to the evidence on benefits of GM foods on one hand, such as, medicinal values, (Anilakumar, 2013), cost efficiency and better yield (Benbrook, 2012), and concerns related to human and environmental safety on the other hand (Anilakumar, 2013). This essay presents evidence from literature which suggests that there is a need to conduct more scientific research so as to yield empirical data which can help decide whether there is a need to reconsider GM food production.

The development of GM foods is one of the innovations of science in the food production and botany sphere where the genetic material of the plant DNA is modified through the introduction of a gene from another organism in the development of the GM food (World Health Organization, 2017). The scientific process of GM food production involves use of in vitro nucleic acid techniques, including recombinant deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) in the field of biotechnology so that the resultant crop is the fusion of cells beyond its taxonomic family (FDA, 2015). In other words, the production of GM foods involves artificial engineering of plants using biotechnology. There are several benefits of GM food technology, which have led to the adoption of the technology in the United States and many other countries (FDA, 2015).

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The production of GM foods has implications for both scientific and social values. To consider the social values first, there are a number of benefits or advantages of GM food technology, which have led to the adoption of the technology in a number of countries around the world. Research shows that GM foods yield effective food production systems (World Health Organization, 2017). In other words, food production can be enhanced by using GM food technology and this would have implications for many social factors, notably addressing hunger and reducing the costs of food production.

Through the development of GM food technology, scientists have provided means to address a number of environment factors that can reduce yield of food and have effects on food production and prices. GM plants can be insecticide, herbicide or virus resistant which means that farmers can increase the yield quantity and quality by growing crops that are more resistant to environmental factors that affect yield (Hallman, Cuite, & Morin, 2013). Some GM plants have been developed as being tolerant to weather extremes so that unexpected weather events do not harm the crop yield (Hallman, Cuite, & Morin, 2013). Scientists have also been able to produce GM crops that can help fight certain diseases, for instance, bananas producing vaccines against hepatitis B (Hallman, Cuite, & Morin, 2013). Thus, there can be medicinal values to GM foods. In a purely social context, one of the main advantaged of GM food development is the ability to produce more food which can then help the world to meet the challenges of increasing food demands and consumptions and reducing world hunger (Anilakumar, 2013).

Social implications of GM food development also relate to the questions of consumer choice and ethics; one of the important questions in this regard relates to ambiguous labelling of food items so that the consumer may not know that the food is GM food (Anilakumar, 2013). Consumers should ethically be allowed to choose whether or not they would prefer to consumer GM food. Another social implication of development of GM foods is related to the differences between developed countries in the Global North that have the technology and resources to invest in development of GM foods and the developing countries in the Global South that do not have access to similar resources and technologies; this may mean that there is some inherent advantage for the farmers of the Global North who may produce more food and cheaper food, which the farmers of the Global South may struggle to compete with. Similarly, the developing countries are more heavily inclined to favour the techniques of organic farming, which is the oldest form of farming (Azadi, 2010). This would mean that the consumers in the Global South, where GM foods would not have much penetration, would have access to food with original nutritional structure. On the other hand, the farmers in the Global South may eventually not be able to compete with GM food producing farmers from the Global North because GM crops have higher productivity to meet demands (Azadi, 2010). This may also impact the pricing of the food with GM food being cheaper as it is more cost effective, leading to farmers in the Global South not being able to compete in their local markets (Azadi, 2010). In order for farmers in the Global South to compete, they may have to invest in new technologies, which they may not be able to.

There are also disadvantages to producing GM foods that have been highlighted in recent research studies and this has more to do with the scientific values involved in production of GM foods. These disadvantages may be relevant to making a decision on whether there is a need to reconsider the viability of development of GM foods. Some important debates and public concerns in the context of GM foods have included evidence on the potential adverse effects on human and environmental safety; these are related to the scientific aspect of GM food production (Anilakumar, 2013).

In the context of human safety after consumption of GM food, there are some research studies that can be discussed here where such research studies have provided evidence of some harmful side effects. Because GM foods involve gene manipulation, there is no gainsaying that the GM food will only result in beneficial effects for human health (MedinePlus, 2016). It is possible that GM food would carry allergens, or altered nutrient composition due to genetic engineering altering the character of the crop (MedinePlus, 2016). In a Canadian study with a sample of thirty pregnant women and thirty-nine non-pregnant women, the researchers detected Serum metabolite

3-methylphosphinicopropionic acid (3-MPPA) and CryAb1 toxin in pregnant women and their fetuses while also detecting the same toxins in non pregnant women (Arisa & Leblancc, 2011). This study pointed to nutrition and utero-placental toxicities in women as a result of consuming certain GM foods (Arisa & Leblancc, 2011). Another study reported that the GM crops can carry residues of herbicide and other residues from modified Bt insecticide toxins synthesized from transgenes that can have side effects of long term toxicity including chronic pathologies in the consumers (Vendômois, Cellier, & Vélot, 2010). Another study revealed that in 97 per cent of GM crops, there was presence of one or more pesticides that are toxins and harmful for human health (Clive, 2009).

From a purely scientific perspective, the issue that is posed is that at the very minimum, the research on GM food and its risks to environment are not as yet revealed so as to be considered unambiguous in nature. In other words, there is lack of scientific consensus on whether and to what extent does GM food pose threats to the environment, which makes it a grey area with many possibilities (Nicolia, Manzo, Veronesi, & Rosellini, 2014). There are contradictory results in different research studies on the effects of GM foods on environment, partly because of how data is analysed and interpreted by different scientists (Hilbeck, et al., 2015). One study concluded that there are risks to pollinators through the production of GM foods because the process uses Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis), which is a bacterial toxin and can have impacts on food web when the bees are unable to pollinate (Prusak, Rowe, & Strojny, 2014).

Godfray (2010) argues that the development of GM foods should be encouraged because this is an answer to food insecurity; with a significant number of people and communities in the world not having access to food security, he argues that the ability to mass produce cheaper food can help to meet food demands, especially in poorer countries. This would mean that many countries in the Global South can benefit from the production of GM foods as they may be able to address hunger amongst its poor. However, in addressing food security, it is possible that the countries that adopt GM food may see the development of chronic diseases or pathologies in its citizenry thereby putting burden on health care systems; in countries of the Global South, this may mean that eventually the countries may see increased burden for health care spending. Therefore, one of the reasons why GM food production can be reconsidered is that the dilemma of cheaper, more viable option for food security as opposed to increase in diseases and health care, is not as yet resolved. Both scientific and other research at this point does not provide a clear answer to this dilemma. This may mean that there is a need to conduct more scientific research to understand the effects of GM food on human health and environment.

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To conclude, literature suggests that there are ambiguities with relation to the possible effects of GM food production on human health as well as environment. This means that there is no certainty that GM foods do not have possible adverse effects for human health and environment. There are also social concerns related to consumer choice and ethics as well as related to the position of the farmers in Global South in whether they can compete with the farmers in the Global South in terms of technology and resources required to produce GM foods. Considering this evidence, it is suggested that there is a need for further scientific research as well as social research for reconsidering the viability of GM food.

Bibliography

Anilakumar, K. R. (2013, December). Genetically modified foods: safety, risks and public concerns—a review . Journal of Food Science and Technology, 50(6), 1035–1046.

Arisa, A., & Leblancc, S. (2011, 5). Maternal and fetal exposure to pesticides associated to genetically modified foods in Eastern Townships of Quebec, Canada. Reproductive Toxicology, 528–533.

Azadi, H. (2010). Genetically modified and organic crops in developing countries: A review of options for food security. 28(1), 160–168.

Benbrook, C. (2012, September 28 ). Impacts of genetically engineered crops on pesticide use in the U.S. -- the first sixteen years. Environmental Sciences Europe, 24:24.

Clive, J. (2009). Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops: 2009. ISAAA Brief, 41, 1-44.

FDA. (2015, 11). Voluntary Labeling Indicating Whether Foods Have or Have Not Been Derived from Genetically Engineered Plants. Retrieved October 5, 2021, from FDA Food Guidance Documents:

https://www.fda.gov/food/guidanceregulation/guidancedocumentsregulatoryinformation/labelingnutrition/ucm059098.htm

Godfray, C. J. (2010, 2 12). Food Security: The Challenge of Feeding 9 Billion People. Science, 327(5967), 812-818.

Hallman, W. K., Cuite, C. L., & Morin, X. K. (2013). Public Perceptions of Labeling Genetically Modified Foods Working Paper. Rutgers University.

Hilbeck, A., Binimelis, R., Defarge, N., Steinbrecher, R., Székács, A., Wickson, F., & Novotny, E. (2015). No scientific consensus on GMO safety. Environmental Sciences Europe, 27(1), 4.

Laskos, M. (2013). Genetically modified food. Looking into the future of medical technology, 30.

MedinePlus. (2016, 8 14). Genetically engineered foods. Retrieved October 5, 2021, from MedlinePlus: https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/002432.htm

Nicolia, A., Manzo, A., Veronesi, F., & Rosellini, D. (2014). An overview of the last 10 years of genetically engineered crop safety research. Critical reviews in biotechnology, 34(1), 77-88.

Prusak, A., Rowe, G., & Strojny, J. (2014). Is GMO" Sustainable"? A Review of the Environmental Risks of GM Plants in Comparison with Conventional and Organic Crops. Modern Management Review, 19(21), 187-200.

Seralini, G., Vendomois, S, & Cellier, D. (2009). How subchronic and chronic health effects can be neglected for GMOs, pesticides or chemicals. Int J Biol Sci., 4, 438-43.

Vendômois, J. S., Cellier, D., & Vélot, C. (2010). Debate on GMOs Health Risks after Statistical Findings in Regulatory Tests. Int J Biol Sci, 6(6), 590-598.

World Health Organization. (2017). Food, Genetically modified. Retrieved October 5, 2021, from World Health Organization: http://www.who.int/topics/food_genetically_modified/en/

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