ARE GENETICALLY MODIFIED FOODS SAFE?
SAIMA IBRAHIM (Saima_virgo1@hotmail.com)
Sep 14 - 20, 2009
Technology is a key factor in socio-economic development of a country. Technological advancements in the field of biotechnology have become too important in the global scene, which should not be ignored by any developing economy.
The traditional breeding programmes take two different varieties of plants which have individual characteristics that make each attractive. One might have a high yield and the other might be resistant to an insect pest. Breeders will cross-pollinate these two varieties, obtain seeds, and plant these.
The plants that grow will be a complete and random mix of the genes from the parental plants. The breeders will then select those plants that have high yields and insect resistance. Unfortunately, due to the randomness of the process, those plants might be sensitive to a virus that was not a problem in either parental strain but, when their genes were mixed, it became a problem. Therefore, those plants will have to be discarded and others selected. This is an extremely inexact process and very time consuming.
Genetic engineering (GE) is a tool of biotechnology, a broad term for any process that uses living organisms to accomplish a desired goal. It can be used to speed up this process, it will certainly never displace breeding- indeed genetic engineers are heavily dependent on plant breeders to ensure any introduced gene exists and operates in concert with the other genes of the plant. Every living thing from the most simple to the most sophisticated carries a genetic code that determines exactly what traits it will have.
Genetic engineering of plants enables scientists to take any gene from any living being and introduce it into a plant. The resulting transformed, or transgenic plant is referred to as a genetically modified (GM) plant.
The genes that are introduced are very carefully characterized - their entire DNA sequences will have been determined. Therefore this part of the process is, unlike breeding, extremely precise.
In this technology, a transferring genes into other body is used to achieve higher yields, more nutrients, better taste in cereals, higher sugar recovery in sugarcane, longer and stronger and finer fiber in cotton, more proteins in pulses, more oil in pulses, reduce in the demand of irrigation water, introduction of disease- free and pest -resistant varieties, and varieties which can tolerate heat, cold, flood, drought, and adverse soil conditions etc.
Using genetic engineering, scientists can pinpoint beneficial traits in any organism, in terms of added nutrition, better flavor, or greater ability to fight pests or diseases, and incorporate them into other organisms. This is done by isolating a particular gene responsible for a trait in one organism, removing it, and then transferring it to another organism, where this same gene replicates itself, creating a stronger and more resilient strain of the same organism.
With increasingly refined techniques, more new and alien characteristics can be transmitted. Quantitatively, new combinations of genetic material are now possible. Through the improvement in this technique, now genes can be isolated from bacteria, viruses, fungi, or other animals and are made to express without facing much difficulty in plants.
Most traits that have been introduced into plants to date involve herbicide tolerance and resistance to insects. These are the so-called 'input traits' of the 1st generation of GM crops. They are traits that improve the productivity of a crop and decrease dependency on chemical pesticides and herbicides.
The 2nd generation of GM crops is in the pipeline. These contain the so-called 'output traits' which will have more obvious advantages to consumers. These include 'Golden rice' which contains a compound that is converted by the body into vitamin A and hence prevents millions of poor Asian children from going blind. "Potatoes with higher starch content absorb less oil during the frying process.
Why do news headlines scream "Are you eating Frankenstein foods?", "Beware of genetic pollution!" and "Genetically modified foods reap a harvest of fears".
Of course, there are exceptions such as "Genetically modified rice saves millions of Asian children from blindness?" or "Genetically modified sweet potatoes save East African crops from virus plague?"
Let us look at safety of foods derived from GM crops for human and animal consumption. First of all, it is important to realize that there is no such thing as safe food - there is only the safe use of food.
SAFE FOR CONSUMPTION
However, GM plants are treated as if they were toxins. They are subject to toxicological tests, including ones that can detect potential long-term effects on humans or animals. Only then are they declared safe. By comparison, when a new food is introduced into the market, not derived by genetic modification, no such tests are required. No body has checked that it might not have any long-term adverse effects on humans.
SAFE FOR ENVIRONMENT
Most GM crops are either resistant or tolerant to insects and herbicides. Can animals die from eating an insect resistant plant? No, the toxic protein produced by the plant is specific to certain groups of insects and not to animals. Insect resistant crops produce one extra protein that causes the death of insects that feed on that plant. The introduction of herbicide resistant crops has caused a decrease in the number of times crops are sprayed that is clearly beneficial to the environment, and to the health of people on neighboring lands.
APPLICATION OF MODERN BIOTECHNOLOGY FOR FOOD AND AGRICULTURE
Researchers have been employing genetic engineering techniques in agricultural crops since the mid-1980s, but media coverage of these developments has increased sharply in the past few years, most people have little awareness of genetically modified (GM) foods and the controversies surrounding them.
Genetically altered foods arrived on the commercial scene in the early 1990s, with the introduction of Flavr Savr, a delayed-ripening tomato. Soon after, genetically altered corn and Roundup Ready soybeans and cotton were commercially released. These modified crops are designed to resist pests, diseases, and herbicides. Other GM foods on the market today include varieties of squash, papaya, radicchio, sugar beets, and potatoes. Biotechnological-engineered cotton and canola seeds reached the market in 1995 and 1996 a wave of biotechnology crops, including the first insect- resistant cotton, corn and potatoes as well as herbicide-tolerant soybeans. Cotton and canola are expected to become widely available to farmers.
Plant biotechnology is emerging as a commercial reality. There are more than 300 commercialized agricultural and environmental biotechnology products currently available. According to statistics, more than 60 percent of the foods we purchase from the supermarket today have ingredients derived from genetically modified crops. Corn and soybeans are the base for many food ingredients, including starch, oils, proteins, and their derivatives.
Most of the GM foods we find on the market today are in that category because they contain ingredients from GM crops. So a food is considered genetically modified even if its ingredients contain only a trace of GM material.
Plant Biotechnology programmes have been vigorously going on in many countries of the world for the purpose of producing genetically engineered crops and also the uses of technique in medicine and industry etc. in countries such as USA, Canada, UK, France, Russia, China, India, Australia, European countries, Holland, Malaysia, Philippines, Brazil. New Zealand, Germany, Ireland, Israel, Egypt, Pakistan etc.
NEED OF APPLICATION
It has been estimated that the supply of food required to adequately meet human nutritional needs over the next 40 years is equal to the amount of food previously produced throughout the entire history of humankind. Feeding the world, though, is not simply a matter of producing more food. Right now, there is enough food in the world to feed everyone, but availability is not the same as accessibility. Approximately 40,000 people die each day because of illnesses related to malnutrition, and half of those people are children. Some 800 million people go to bed hungry each day, and it is not because there is not enough food, but it is because of politics and distribution issues.
Genetic engineering techniques, though not a panacea, certainly hold promise for helping to alleviate hunger. We need to use biotechnology techniques that enhance food production efficiency.
There is one economic development theory that articulates how biotechnology can help meet the food distribution challenge? If a farmer in a poor country could be given access to crops that can withstand drought and pests, and be able to produce that crop locally, then that farmer no longer has transportation and accessibility problems because he can meet demands of the local market. This, in turn, can boost the farmer's income, and as farmers get more income they are better able to participate in the global economy.
Biotechnology can be a valuable tool in making the most of the tremendous variety of crops that already exist in developing nations. Many countries around the world are home to valuable genetic material that could increase both variety and nutritional content in the world's food supply. College research efforts include work in China to grow soybeans in low-phosphorus soils, modifying staple crops in India to be more disease-resistant, and genetic research on cocoa in South America. Many poor farmers depend on cocoa crops for income, and about 40 percent of the crop is lost each year to disease.
Agricultural biotechnology techniques to improve disease resistance could help boost cocoa yields.
The benefits provided by biotechnological methods and transgenic traits can significantly improve the world's ability to feed itself on land already in cultivation, by increasing per unit productivity, improving nutritional quality and reducing pre and post-harvest losses.
Hence, crop improvement through biotechnology culture techniques will be an appropriate way to strengthen the agricultural sector as a meaningful preparation in the context of the 21st century.
CRITICAL ISSUES AGAINST GENETICALLY MODIFIED FOOD
Agricultural biotechnology programmes invite skepticism from public because of the ill effects after its use. Time to time report publishes in the newspapers about the poisonous effects of genetically engineered crops. Recently, a report published in a newspaper saying, "The French Government ordered the destruction of 46 hectares of soya crop after tests revealed that the seeds had been contaminated with genetically modified organisms (GMOs).î
France in May ordered the destruction of about 600 hectares of rapeseed containing traces of GMOs after seed company Advanta Seed Company announced it had inadvertently sold imported seeds with traces of genetically modified material to farmers in Europe. However, officials decided last month that not to destroy thousands of hectares of maize planted with imported US seed containing traces of GMOs.
French government also announced that farmers affected by such order would be compensated. Last month the Russian government announced to ban the entry of genetically modified cereals crop in the country.
Last year, in Pakistan a pulse - Masoor dal was imported from Australia and there was a great resentment in the public about its taste and flavor which was harmful to the users and the people made hue and cry and thus, it was not imported again.
Introduction of genetically engineered food presents unquestionable opportunities for increased yields, higher quality crops, better nutrition, enhanced variety of foods, and an improved quality of life for developing countries. But, along with those opportunities come potential health risks as well as logistical and marketing challenges.
By altering nature through genetic engineering, are we coming dangerously close to playing with the God? While these larger debates will likely never be resolved, further research and testing may reveal whether the health advantages of biotechnology outweigh its risks. One thing is certain i.e. biotechnology has made its marks on the food system and will continue to play a critical role in world food production in years to come.