Overview of GMOs
Food is essential for human survival and since the beginning of human civilization, people have strived to attain food security. For millenniums, food was obtained from plants and animals that were grown and bred using natural methods. However, the last century has witnessed scientific advances that make it possible to alter the genetic makeup of food in a laboratory. This has given rise to genetically modified foods, which are essentially food products created through biotechnology.1 Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are organisms whose genetic composition has been changed by inserting a foreign gene. Recombinant DNA technology is used to create organisms that have desirable traits such as increased yield, higher nutritional value and inbuilt resistance to pests and diseases.2
The first successful application of genetic engineering in food production occurred at the end of the 1980s when this technology was successfully used to produce chymosin in cheese production.1 This was followed by the introduction of the Flavr Savr tomato, which was the first GMO presented to consumers on a large scale. From this time, tens of GM crops have been approved for commercial production and sale. Due to the huge potential by GMOs to produce foods that are beneficial to consumers, intensive research work on more GM foods is currently underway.
Before GMOs can be approved for commercial food production, they have to undergo rigorous testing. The tests check if the products are safe for human consumption. Commercial production is only possible after the approval has been granted.1 To ensure that consumers have a choice in the food they eat, there are a number of procedures for the identification of GM foods. The main identification methods are the PCR-based methods, protein-based methods, and the detection of enzymatic activities.
Merits of GMO
A significant merit of GMOs is that they lead to the improvement in the quality and yield of crops. The demand for food is growing even as the population of the world increases. However, this increase is not matched by an increase in land and water resources. Methods for producing optimal products from the limited land and water resources therefore have to be devised in order to ensure global food security. Through genetic modification, scientists are able to increase the yield of plants and animals.2 GM crops take relatively shorter periods of time to mature when compared to conventional crops. Shorter planting cycles lead to increased food production over a given period. In addition to this, genetic engineering is used to remove unpleasant characteristics in plants and animals leading to the development of product of a superior nature.
Proponents of GM foods state that these foods have higher nutritional value compared to their conventional counterparts. Most staple food crops such as rice and maize only contain a large percentage of carbohydrates and inadequate amounts of the other nutrients needed to ensure that a person has a balanced diet. Therefore, people who rely exclusively on these single crops to supply their entire dietary needs are likely to suffer from malnutricion.1 GMOs can overcome the nutrition deficiency of single crops by incorporating extra nutrients. Through genetic engineering, scientists can infuse additional vitamins and minerals into single crops such as rice. By producing nutrition-fortified stable foods, GMOs present an efficient solution to the malnutrition and foot shortages faced by many third world countries.
Another significant advantage of GMOs is that they are more resistant to pests and diseases. Pests and diseases present the most significant problem to farmers. They decrease crop yields and can even result in the loss of entire harvests leading to devastating financial losses to farmers.1 Farmers are therefore constantly seeking effective ways to tackle the problem of pests and diseases. Traditionally, large quantities of pesticides and herbicides have been used to control pests and diseases. While agro-chemicals are effective in tackling pests and diseases, they are expensive and can cause harm to the environment. In addition to this, the pests and diseases develop immunity to the chemicals after some time necessitating higher concentrations of the chemicals or the adoption of new chemicals.2
GM foods can tackle this problem by presenting crops that are resistant to pests and diseases. Through genetic engineering, scientists have been able to develop special strains of herbicide tolerance and pest resistance crops. Maghari and Ardekani acknowledge that the use of pest and disease resistant crops leads to the reduction of broad-spectrum pesticides and herbicide use.2 Lower usage or the complete elimination of agro-chemicals use leads to great benefits to farmers, consumers, and the environment.
Proponents of GMOs argue that GM foods are able to survive in harsh environmental conditions. Food production is greatly influenced by the soil and climatic conditions. For positive yields to be obtained, favorable environmental conditions must exist. This has restricted food production to fertile arable land in areas with conducive climate. However, by using GMOs, these traditional restrictions to food production can be overcome.
Through GM technology, scientists can develop crop varieties that can withstand and even thrive in extreme cold weather conditions. The salinity tolerance of crops can also be increased making it possible to crops to grow and thrive in previously inhospitable lands. As such, GM contributes to the increase in global food production by making it possible for farmers to carry out cultivation in land that would be unsuited for conventional crops.
Demerits of GMO
A major argument made against GM crops is that they lead to environmental degradation. Introduction of new organisms can cause unintended harm to other organisms in the environment. The use of pest and disease resistant crops also reduces the effectiveness of agro-chemicals. Opponents of GM crops argue that insects gain resistance to the modified crops and the herbicide resistance genes might also be transferred to weeds creating super weeds.1 As such, while GMOs promise to reduce agro-chemical usage, they end up requiring increased chemical usage over time due to the inherent resistance in the crops. The environment is therefore damaged by the greater volumes of agro-chemicals needed to tackle the pests and diseases.
Biodiversity is also adversely affected by the cultivation of GM crops. Some GM crops are designed with toxins, which are meant to kill harmful pests but end up indiscriminately killing many insect species.1 Another harmful effect of GM crops is that they might lead to contamination of conventional crops. Through cross-pollination, conventional crops growing near GM crops are contaminated with genetically modified genes.
Another significant demerit of GMOs is that they may pose health risks to humans. Scientific studies demonstrate that when crops are genetically modified, there is likelihood that new allergens will be created as foreign genes are inserted into the conventional crops. To a large extent, the effects of introducing foreign genes into food crops remain unknown. There are concerns that these effects could be negative to human health. Already, soya allergies in the UK and the USA have been attributed to GM crops.2 Scientific studies on the effect of feeding animals with GM crops have produced troubling results. Some animals have developed complications including abortions, infertility and even death as a result of eating GM crops.2
Opponents of GMOs assert that their use will lead to increased expenses to farmers. A major feature of GM crops is that they have to be purchased from agribiotech companies. Farmers who cultivate GM crops have to keep buying the seeds to plant since unlike conventional crops the GM seeds cannot be reproduced naturally.1
The situation gets worse since companies are already engaging in the patenting of certain crop genes. This creates a monopoly in the market enabling the agribiotech businesses to set the price for the crops and obtain high profits. There are already concerns that due to the monopoly created by patenting, some GMO prices will be so high that small farmers will be unable to afford the crops.1
GM foods have the potential to create unfair competition with the conventional food crops. Due to the inherent advantages of high yields and higher resistance to pests and diseases, GM crops result in higher profits while ensuring that the farmer incurs reduced production costs.1 As a result of this, it is possible to offer these crops to consumers at relatively lower price. Farmers who do not cultivate these crops will not be able to compete in the market and this might lead some of them out of business. As such, GM crops are likely to force small-scale farmers and poor farmers in developing countries to abandon agriculture. This would have the undesirable effect of reducing the global food production.
Global food security is becoming a major concern for many governments even as the world population increases and the land and water resources world decrease. Research indicates that the global food demand will double in 36years while the land available for farming will decrease significantly over this period.1 Considering that there are already millions of people dying from starvation annually, the world is at risk of facing acute food shortages in future. It is therefore obligatory for higher crop production methods to be used in order to prevent a global food crisis from being faced. GM foods promise to alleviate these problems by increasing food production and reducing the environmental impacts of cultivation. For this reasons, genetically modified foods have been presented as a feasible mean of using science and technology to solve the food shortage problems that the world faces.
GM crops also increase the nutrition value of the staple foods consumed all over the world. The nutritional enhancement of crops is of particular significance to third world countries where vast sections of the population rely on single crops. For this reasons, I believe that GM crops are a positive force in the world and their widespread adoption should be encouraged to ensure that the whole world benefits.
For GM crops to have a truly positive impact on the world, the various negative effects of these crops have to be addressed. As noted in this paper, there are some risks associated with adopting GMO’s. These risks to human health and the environment have led to the rejection of GM products by some people. Currently, there are numerous regulatory laws that exist to assess the risks presented by GMOs. These laws ensure that new GMO products undergo rigorous testing before they are certified for commercial production.
The safety of GM crops to consumers has to be proven before they are allowed to the market. Even so, there exists great uncertainty concerning the safety of GMO foods. The government and the biotechnology companies that develop and distribute GMOs should take measures to decrease the safety uncertainty that most consumers have. By doing this, consumers will be able to appreciate the benefits of GMOs and support efforts to increase the production of GM crops.
The reality is that there is a universal need for greater food production. Proponents and opponents of GM crops agree that there is need to take action to ensure that global food security is achieved. Presently, GM crops are the best solution since they provide farmers with the means to increase their food production capacities immediately. From the discussions made in this paper, it can be seen that GM crops have numerous benefits to humans and the environment. In addition to producing greater yields, GM crops can survive in harsh environments where conventional crops cannot be planted. As such, tracts of land that are currently not considered arable can be made productive.
This proves that using GM crops will assist raise the global food production levels significantly. This will ensure that farmers are able to meet the future global food demands therefore preventing starvation. The future survival and prosperity of the human race will therefore be assured thanks to GMOs.
- Pandey A, Kamle M, Yadava LP, et al. Genetically Modified Food: Its uses, Future Prospects and Safety Assessments. Biotechnology. 2010;9(4): 444-458.
- Maghari BM, Ardekani AM. Genetically Modified Foods and Social Concerns. Avicenna Journal of Medical Biotechnology. 2011;3(3): 109-117.