Genetically modified food (or GM food), is food that has been, well, genetically modified. This means that some of the genes in a GM plant have been changed, or a new gene has been injected. For example, a gene that produces a crystal protein which kills insect larvae (the B.t., or Bacillus thuringiensis gene) has been injected into corn plants to protect them from deadly (to corn) insects such as the European corn borer. The resulting plants are GM plants, and their descendants will be GM plants as well because of their special genes.
Foods have actually been "genetically modified" for many years. Farmers have used a process called selective breeding to create plants that have desirable qualities. By cross-breeding and by only breeding plants or animals with good qualities, farmers have created many of the foods we eat without actually altering a plant's actual genes in a lab. The modern tomato started out as a small, wild plant, but through selective breeding, farmers have turned it into the large, round tomatos we see in stores today. But since this process is now considered "slow" (though it has served humans well since the start of agriculture), the march of GM foods goes on.
Whether people all over the world know it or not, GM food has probably crept into their diet. Though people talk about GM food a lot, nothing seems to have been done, at least not in the U.S., to halt its enormous growth. In the U.S. alone, 60% of all processed foods contain genetically modified ingredients. Growth over the past 10 years has been especially huge. Now, about 130 million acres of GM crops are grown around the world in countries like Argentina, Canada, Germany, Spain, and many others. But, the U.S. grows the most GM crops by far. After increasing 25-fold in acreage, from 3.6 million in 1996, the U.S. now controls over half of the GM foods market, with 88.2 million acres of GM crops in 2001. There are 50 registered GM crops in the United States, and many more in development, soon to be appearing on your grocery shelves. This means that if GM food protestors want to stop the expansion of GM crops, they need to act quickly.
Let's look now at why people fueling the GM food business think it is a great idea and why people who oppose it think it is a threat to our health and environment.
GM food is good for a variety of reasons. People who support GM foods imagine a world where huge plants bursting with natural pesticides and vitamins rule in farms around the world and put an end to hunger. With some work, this vision might not be far from reality.
GM crops allow farmers to do things that previously seemed impossible. With GM crops, farmers no longer have to spray plants with pesticides because the plants themselves have built-in protection. They can produce greater amounts of crops with less seed, cutting back costs immensely. Pesticides, weed-killers (herbicides), and fertilizer cost farmers staggering amounts of money every year. GM foods can eliminate much of this cost. Also, plants that are modified to resist herbicides (like the Roundup herbicide, which kills all plants) need not be tilled into the ground after they die, because one "broad-spectrum" herbicide is used instead of many. This could reduce soil erosion by a projected 70%, benefiting farmers enormously (farmers lose 25 billion tons of soil every year due to soil erosion). GM foods can be altered to resist diseases and freezing, which can catch entire crops unsuspected and lay them to waste. GM foods even hold the promise of crops that can grow in place that plants could never grow before such as salt-laden areas.
Genetically altered foods can also be manipulated to carry vitamins, minerals, and proteins that they otherwise would not have, increasing their healthiness. For example, many plants can be altered so that they have fewer calories and more fiber or starch. Many also have lower levels of pesticides, herbicides, and toxins than traditional plants because farmers don't need to spray them with chemicals and insects aren't able to release toxin into them. GM crops can help people in third-world countries by increasing nutritional value. "Golden rice" is one of the best examples of this. This GM rice stimulates the body to make Vitamin A and its goal is to prevent 2 million children from dying and another 500,000 from going blind because of lack of vitamin A.
GM crops can also carry medicines and vaccines to parts of the world where it is currently too costly to store and prepare them. Genetically altered foods also harbor a hope that 600 million people around the world won't have to go hungry every day, because crops will be plentiful enough to feed them.
Some environmentalists feel that GM crops help the environment because they reduce the need for pesticides. Every year, farmers spray 970 million tons of chemicals on plants. This has a significant effect on the environment. For people like cotton farmers, GM crops mean only having to spray chemicals one or two times instead of nine times, decreasing the negative effect of pesticides on the environment. GM crops could even help to clean up the environment (this process of using plants to clean up the earth is called phytoremediation). For example, poplar trees have been modified to clean up heavy metal pollution.
GM food companies say that all GM foods are completely natural and thoroughly tested for allergens and the like, meaning that the foods are completely safe for consumption. This is perhaps the most important of all, because transferring genes between plants and among completely different species increases the risk that a non-native allergen might enter a plant, causing sicknesses in people around the world.
While there are many, many benefits (or possible benefits) to GM foods, there are several arguments against the advancement of these foods. While there are people who think GM crops will help the environment, there are also some who think they will harm it. This is certainly plausible. Studies have found that when the pollen of B.t. corn (GM corn with insect-resistance) was dusted on a milkweed plant, monarch caterpillars who ate the leaves of the plant died or were stunted. When natural corn pollen was dusted on the milkweed plants, the caterpillars suffered no ill effects. This raises the concern that GM crops may cause other species to have unknown diseases that were previously not a problem.
There also are concerns that insects will become resistant to the natural pesticides in plants, just like mosquitos did with DDT. This would create a race of bugs that would be resistant to many pesticides, and a nightmare for farmers. Also, the transferrence via pollen of genes to weeds is a big concern. If weeds received herbicide-resistant genes, it could spawn a generation of "superweeds," weeds resistant to all types of herbicide--another nightmare for farmers.
Other people fear that GM crops pose more risks to humans. They fear that transferring genes between two unrelated species can transfer allergens that could make people sick. One allergen scare occured in 2000, when a variety of GM corn called StarLink found its way into many corn products. StarLink corn had previously only been allowed as cattle feed because it showed some qualities that suggested allergens.
There is also evidence that GM crops pose legal and economic risks. It could, for example, result in many, many farmers growing the same crop, which could result in vast amounts of food being lost to one overlooked disease or natural disaster. Also, huge bioengineering companie like Monsanto are suing small farmers because they were supposedly using GM corn that was resistant to the herbicide Roundup without a license from Monsanto. The result is a huge legal mess.
Clearly GM crops have a lot of problems and kinks that need to be sorted out, but they have many benefits if they can be used correctly and safely. Countries may promote GM crops--or ban them. There are reasons justifying each action. But as of now, GM crops continue to prosper and grow, charging ahead into whatever dangers or benefits may come.
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