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June 18, 2018  |  Login
Understanding Genetically Modified Products and Their Effects
By Yvonne Jeffery, Liz Barclay & Michael Grosvenor

Genetically modified organisms - also known as genetically engineered organisms - are living things whose genetic makeup (their DNA structure) has been changed by the addition of genes from another living thing. Genetic modification is used to make plants and animals more beneficial to food production, both in terms of quantity and quality. With this kind of intervention come major concerns that, for the green community, outweigh the pros.

Although cloning doesn't fit the definition of genetic modification (the DNA hasn't been added to but rather replicated), the use of cloned animals or their offspring - especially for animal products such as milk (the cloned animals themselves are currently too valuable to be used for meat) - in the food supply is something that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is still assessing. Although the FDA has stated that there's no scientific evidence to show that the meat or milk products, for example, are unsafe, groups opposing the approval cite research that indicates cloned animals may have some genetic abnormalities. It's not yet clear what effect, if any, those abnormalities may have if they enter the food chain.

The Potential Effects of Genetic Modification

Genetic modification (GM) may make foods taste better, last longer before spoiling, or contain certain types of nutrients or medicines. The primary benefit, though, is generally to food producers in terms of higher production capacities, increased disease or pest resistance, or increased herbicide resistance (which enables farmers to use more weed-killing herbicides). Crops, for example, can be genetically modified so that they resist insects, herbicides, and disease or so that they contain extra nutrients or even vaccines. Animals can be genetically modified to produce lower-fat meat, resist certain diseases, or create less waste.

One of the most common genetic changes to food products involves a gene that comes from a bacterium known as Bt When this gene is added to plants such as corn or cotton, those plants begin to produce a protein that's toxic to insects that can otherwise prey on the crops - and, unfortunately, to a lot of other nonpests, such as butterflies and moths.

Proponents of GM crops claim that nutritionally enhanced grain or rice crops can be used in developing countries to solve some of the issues of undernourishment or malnutrition. GM crops also can be used to provide vaccines against diseases, which also would most benefit the developing world. Some scientists believe that, by boosting production efficiency, resource conservation, and nutrition, GM crops and animals can offer solutions to both world hunger and environmental degradation.

With all these potential benefits, you're probably wondering where the concern comes in. Scientists' biggest reservations lay in the unknown; genetic engineering is a relatively new concept (modern genetic engineering began with scientific discoveries in the 1950s through 1970s), so long-term consequences have yet to be determined. And given the amount of time generally needed to link cause and effect in the scientific world, you can safely assume that these consequences won't be identified in your lifetime - and perhaps not even that of your children or grandchildren.

Some scientists also are concerned that GM ingredients may cause toxic poisoning, allergic reactions, antibiotic resistance, and even cancer in humans. Research hasn't proven all the concerns, but there's enough evidence to warrant caution.

Some short-term effects include the potential for GM crops to "contaminate" non-GM crops when their seeds migrate over distances. Contamination means that GM seeds can begin growing in non-GM areas, meaning that the non-GM crops would no longer be considered free of GM material, which is a huge issue, especially for organic growers who - through no fault of their own - would suddenly be prevented from calling their crops organic. Other concerns include the potential for organisms, such as insects and viruses, to evolve and become more powerful super pests that overcome the resistant GM animals and plants.

In addition, the idea of manipulating living organisms at the DNA structural level raises serious ethical questions. This interference goes well beyond the ways in which humans have traditionally interfered (by cross-breeding, for example). Experience should have taught us that interfering with nature can create unforeseen results (such as when high-end predators like wolves were culled from the food chain, causing an overpopulation of deer that were then prone to starvation because there weren't enough food sources to sustain them).

Genetic engineering changes the fundamental building blocks of life: Researchers don't know how changing the genes of crops will affect wildlife that coexists with the crops, or how changing the genes of animals may affect them (possibly causing diseases or deformities and therefore suffering). If farmers introduce GM crops that have been designed to resist herbicides, for example, how will they be able to remove those crops if they later realize that the GM crops have unexpected and undesirable effects? Until we can answer these ethical questions, we need to err very much on the side of caution. more



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