Genetically Engineered Crops:
Improvement or Potential Disaster?
Worldwide, more than one billion people are plagued by hunger (Zalik). According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications, more than 800 million of those are malnourished. It also predicts that over the next fifty years the total amount of available farm land per person will be halved, meaning that global cereal yield will have to increase by 80% over the 1990 amount to feed the burgeoning population (“Benefits . . .”). Genetically engineered crops offer one solution to this problem, as they can produce bigger harvests with less fertilizer, allow fields to be farmed continuously, and in the future may be able to grow in conditions unsuitable to natural crops. However, food biotechnology has many critics who claim that genetically modified (GM) plants are untested, immoral, unsafe, and therefore should be regulated more strictly or outlawed altogether. While humankind can by no means afford to abandon biotechnology, from this point onward we should proceed with considerable care with these modified plants that could permanently harm the environment.
At least in theory, GM plants can produce more, better, more nutritious food for less money, and they require less fertilizer and pesticides than their natural counterparts. Some of the many beneficial modifications being planned or tested right now are: grains and fruits with more vitamins and minerals, rice with extra Vitamin A to counter blindness, allergen-free rice and peanuts, bananas with oral vaccines for diseases like Hepatitis, and fruits and vegetables that are simply better tasting and stay fresh longer. Many of the problems caused by vitamin deficiencies, which plague developing countries, could be easily solved by making foods such as rice produce more of the needed compounds (“Health . . .”).
Although some disagree, many scientists hold the opinion that genetically engineered crops will also actually benefit the environment in many ways. Even now, Monsanto’s bioengineered potatoes require 40% less chemical insecticide than is possible with normal strains of potatoes (“The Benefits . . .”). Figure 1 in the Appendix, distributed by Monsanto, shows the reduction in fuel and pesticides possible with their new potato. This decrease in insecticide and fungicide use is possible because the genetically engineered potatoes actually produce their own protection from insects and diseases. Other new crops have been designed to draw more nitrogen directly from the soil, thus reducing the amount of fertilizer that needs to be used. Consequently, there is less fertilizer and insecticide to run off, which means that environmental damage is lower than that for traditional crops. Lastly, as genetically engineered crops are more efficient, fewer acres need to be planted; with less crops to tend to, farmers use less fuel, labor, water, and fertilizer (“Environmental . . .”).
United Nations estimates state that the world population could reach 10.7 billion by the year 2050, with 95% of that growth in the poorest regions of the world. Clearly, to feed all these people with the same amount of land available today, the human race needs to find some way to drastically increase crop yields. At this time, it seems that the only solution for this problem within reach is the genetically engineering of plants. In fact, bioengineered plants are already being used in many areas of the world to augment food production. Biotechnology is in use in Nepal to grow disease-resistant potatoes that produce higher yields for lower costs. In the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and India genetically engineered plants are being used to increase legume production. By 2005, researchers at the Rockefeller Foundation’s International Rice Biotechnology Program plan to increase rice yields in Asia by up to 20% (“Benefits . . .”). All of these improvements, and countless others that will doubtlessly follow them, are only possible with genetically engineering.
Despite all the benefits of food biotechnology, many people feel that GM plants should be banned completely, or at least be much more strictly regulated. While some people have religious or moral objections to genetic tampering, most are just upset about the plants’ safety for both humans and the environment. No studies have yet shown conclusive evidence that genetically engineered plants are harmful to either; however, the inherent untestability of GM food products means that even if there were harmful effects they would be very hard to demonstrate in laboratory tests.
Most people who reject genetic engineering on a religious basis do so because they believe that men should not try to “play God” by tampering with the defined species that He created. They see bioengineering as blatant disrespect before God, and as extreme arrogance of man to assume that he can improve on what God created. Therefore, these objectors see genetic engineering as violating the free exercise clause of the First Amendment; tampering with genes or eating certain animals is against some religions, and without labeling of products containing bioengineered food people have no way of knowing whether what they buy contains GM products or not (“Why Genetically . . .”). For example, a Hindu to whom cows are sacred would have no way of knowing that produce she purchased contained bovine genetic material. While this reasoning could be used to make food companies label products containing plants with animals’ genetic material, there is no real valid argument for labeling foods containing genes for insecticides or other chemicals in trace amounts.
Another faction of the public is worried about the so-called “terminator” technology pursued by many bioengineering companies. “Terminator” research, which has been halted by Monsanto and other major corporations, involves making GM plant seeds sterile so that farmers have to purchase new ones every year. Its critics envision a world where all farmers are at the wrath of large corporations, in a kind of “bioserfdom (Shand).” However, they ignore the fact that farmers will always be free to use natural crops in farming; if companies charge too much for modified plants, then they just won’t sell any. That is not to mention the fact that companies like Monsanto have spent millions of dollars on research, and if they could only sell seeds once then they would go out of business. Lastly, since all genetically engineered crops of a certain brand are genetically identical, even without “terminator” technology they naturally inbreed and the next generation of seeds is poor anyway. People have gotten angry about the concept of the “terminator” plant, without thinking through the issue thoroughly.
A much larger constituency, however, is worried about bioengineered plants’ safety for man and the environment. Probably the largest outcry against genetically engineered crops was over the security of the monarch butterfly, which became the symbol of those worried about the environmental effects of GM plants. In August of 1998 Cornell entomologists reported that in a laboratory experiment almost half of monarch butterfly larvae, which feed almost exclusively on milkweed, died when they were fed milkweed dusted with pollen from insecticide-producing corn. However, it has been pointed out by many that this does not mean that the bioengineered corn is a threat to the monarch. For one, farmers with non-modified crops use the same insecticide produced by the corn, which when sprayed on milkweed also kills monarch larvae. More importantly, a concentration of pollen large enough to kill a monarch larva is unlikely on milkweed plants more than just a few feet away from flowering corn, and pollen is readily blown or washed away by wind and rain (“Poison Plants?”). Recent field studies have confirmed these predictions, and even shown that monarch larvae are more threatened by sprayed pesticides than by biotech pollen (Steyer). However, this is not to say that other animals might not be harmed by bioengineered plants, or that there might not be other negative consequences of using GM crops.
The counterpart to the monarch investigation with regard to human safety was British researcher Arpad Pusztai’s study, which he claimed showed that genetically engineered potatoes are poisonous to rats. After feeding them modified potatoes for 110 days, the equivalent of ten human years, he found that their growth was stunted and they were more vulnerable to disease than normal rats (“Poison Plants?”). However, when other scientists went over his data they found no significant correlation between eating the GM potatoes and health problems in the rats. It seems that rats dislike raw potatoes, which means that Pusztai couldn’t get them to eat enough food. This, combined with the fact that the rats were getting no other essential nutrients, meant that they were suffering from malnutrition. In addition to suffering from undernourishment, the rats were also poisoned by natural toxins found in all raw potatoes. While Pusztai’s study was discounted, it still serves well as an introduction to the concept that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to accurately test genetically modified food for safety (MacKenzie).
If it were possible to thoroughly test genetically engineered crops for safety, there would probably already be a law requiring testing. When a normal additive is being analyzed, the approach is to keep feeding it to a rat until the rat dies. However, this approach doesn’t work for genetically engineered food. The chemical produced by the original gene can be tested in this way, but the problem is that when the gene is inserted into plant DNA it can be expressed differently, or even change the expression of genes located around the insertion point (and thereby change the concentration or structure of other chemicals produced by the plant). Therefore, the only way to truly test a bioengineered plant is to feed it in its entirely to an animal and observe the effects. However, it is impossible to feed an animal enough of a GM plant that the negative effects, if they existed, would be seen quickly. There are several methods under development to try to compare the entire chemical composition of two plants, but they aren’t very exact yet. Preliminary tests show that there are greater differences in composition between the same variety of tomato grown in different conditions than between GM tomatoes and regular tomatoes grown in the same ones. While this is very encouraging for the biotech industry, there is still no way to test whether any of the differences between the GM and normal crops involve compounds that are toxins or allergens to humans (“Unpalatable Truths”).
Because of the above reasons, many people want the government to require that foods containing genetically modified foods be labeled as such (as an alternative to banning them). They say that labeling would protect people with allergies, assist people who have religious problems with bioengineered food, give people the option of whether to support the genetic engineering industry, and would follow public opinion (which strongly supports labeling). In addition, proponents of the proposed policy say that it would help ease trade relations between the U.S. and the European Union, which won’t import genetically modified food (“Why Labeling?”). However, there are also many opponents of labeling who support the current FDA policy requiring a label only if nutritional or allergen content has been significantly altered. Labels have never had to describe the development processes of the plant, only the final product; the proposed changes would require rethinking the entire system of labeling now in place. Opponents feel that requiring labels for GM plants could mislead consumers into thinking that they have been shown to have different health effects than natural plants; since there is no evidence that this is true, it would be an unfair imposition of the government to require labeling (“Accurate . . .”)
Current FDA policy states that genetically engineered food is not intrinsically dangerous, and what is important is the final product rather than the method used to produce it (“Gene-Altered . . .”). Many European countries, however, have been stricter in their dealings with GM organisms; several of them have even placed five-year moratoriums on the approval of new bioengineered crops. To try to resolve differences in dealing with GM products, a conference of 170 nations met on February 15-24 of this year; however, the talks broke down over the topic of whether a drafted treaty would apply to all products containing GM organisms or just the organisms themselves. The delegates agreed to reconvene in May of 2000, and try to work out a final solution at that point (“Genetic . . .”). This means that, at least for now, each country has its own regulations concerning bioengineered crops, making trade difficult. Perhaps by the time talks resume minds will have changed, so that a uniform treaty can be signed into law.
For the most part, as of this point there is no solid evidence to either prove or disprove allegations that GM plants could cause environmental damage and/or harm humans in the long run. It is an indisputable fact that the risks do exist, and that once a GM plant is grown in the wild there is no recalling it. However, biotechnology has too much promise in nutrition, environmental safety, and economy to just throw it away. In everyone’s best interest the government should pass regulations requiring biotech companies to perform what tests do exist, but should by no means ban genetic engineering of crops and reject its myriad benefits.
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“Benefits of Food Biotechnology for World Hunger.” BetterFoods.org. 1999.
“Environmental Benefits of Food Biotechnology.” BetterFoods.org. 1999.
“Genetic Engineering Treaty Talks Fail.” Facts on File News Services. 25 Feb. 1999.
“Health and Nutritional Benefits of Food Biotechnology.” BetterFoods.org. 1999.
MacKenzie, Debora. “Unpalatable truths.” New Scientist 17 Apr. 1999. 08 Nov. 1999.
Shand, Hope. “Terminator Terminated?” Rural Advancement Foundation International. 4 Oct.
Steyer, Robert. “Scientists Discount Threat To Butterfly From Altered Corn.” St. Louis Post-
Dispatch 02 Nov. 1999. Online. 11 Nov. 1999. Available: http://www.biotechknowledge.com/showlib_us.php3?2341.
“The Benefits of Biotechnology.” Monsanto Company. 1999.
Alliance for Bio-Integrity. 1998. (11/05/1999).
“Why Labeling?” The Campaign to Label Genetically Engineered Foods.