by Haran Cha
According to the Food Safety Act (2002), “food” is defined as food or drink that is for human consumption that can be used as an additive, ingredient or processing aid as well as any “agricultural or aquatic” product that is harvested for producing food or drink for human consumption (Arvanitoyannis, Tserkezou, and Varzakas 7). Genetically modified is defined as having had its genetic structure changed artificially, so that it will produce more fruit or not be affected by disease in the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary. In general, the consumer’s view of GM foods are perceived as positive because a survey done by the International Food Information Council Foundation (IFIC) in 2001 found that 51-77% of US consumers were willing to purchase GM foods (Xi, Harris 5). This willingness to buy GM food correlates with the labeling policy (Xi, Harris 5), where GM foods are not labeled in the market. People who are reluctant to buy GM foods are concerned with the effects GM foods have on the environment and public health (Xi, Harris 10). In the US, health and environmental risks are important factors to consider when deciding to accept GM foods or not (Xi, Harris 10). GM foods have to go to inspections to be sold to the public markets in the United States, but the same is not applicable globally. That means that when GM foods are sold in other countries, they do not necessarily have the same safety standards of the GM foods as the US does. Because of this issue, the US proposed legislation where the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) would be required to inspect foreign farms and block import if their fruits and vegetables did not meet the safety standards of the US. The GM foods in the US have to meet a standard called the substantial equivalence, which basically means that the GM food being inspected has to be genetically and physically similar enough to the original food to pass the test. The FDA, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and US Department of Agriculture (USDA) all evaluate GM organisms for food, environmental, and public health safety (Xi, Harris 8), but many are concerned about how strictly the GM foods are evaluated. The main controversies of GM foods are concerns about unexpected allergens and toxins that will negatively impact the environment and public health (Arvanitoyannis, Tserkezou, and Varzakas 13), and some ethical issues of scientists meddling with nature that should not be interfered with (Arvanitoyannis, Tserkezou, and Varzakas 11). Scientists being able to cut and paste genes and transferring them into other species is still a new science since there has not been enough testing done to see how safe rearranging genes are (Arvanitoyannis, Tserkezou, and Varzakas 11). There are obviously many views on the different impacts of GM foods on the environment and public health. This paper will talk about the different consequences, both positive and negative, of genetically modified foods on the environment and living organisms.
Regulation of GM Foods Sold in Market
Many people who are against GM foods are concerned with the safety of consuming GM foods, and the unexpected effects it may have on the environment or other living organisms. To ensure that GM foods are safe, the US has regulations. There are US legislation on meat, poultry, fish and their products that have to be followed before the meat is sold to the public (Arvanitoyannis, Tserkezou, and Varzakas 25). Even though these kinds of regulations exist to ensure the safety of consuming them, it is a voluntary program. According to an article titled “Why Genetically Engineered Food Is Dangerous: New Report by Genetic Engineers” by Earth Open Source, the FDA is not legally required to test the GM foods for safety, and so when they approve a GM food, they rely on the tests that the company who produced the GM food to deem it safe to eat (Earth Open Source, “Why Genetically”).
Another regulation that GM foods have to pass is the substantial equivalence which means: “if a novel or modified food or food ingredient can be shown to be essentially equivalent in composition to an existing food or food ingredient, then it can be assumed that the new food is safe as its conventional equivalent” (Arvanitoyannis, Tserkezou, and Varzakas 12). So, safety is ensured by demonstrating that there is no significant difference between the GM food and its original in either appearance or composition (Arvanitoyannis, Tserkezou, and Varzakas 12). This method is not sufficient enough to detect unexpected changes due to difference in chemical compositions (Arvanitoyannis, Tserkezou, and Varzakas 13) and discourages and inhibits informative scientific inquiry because if a product passes substantial equivalence, then the product is not required to get biochemical or toxicological tests. Another article by Earth Open Source, “GMO Myths and Truths Report,”US FDA does not require mandatory safety testing of GM crops, does not assess safety of GM crops but “deregulates” them from assurances by biotech companies that they are substantially equivalent (Earth Open Source, “GMO Myths”). Biotech companies have used patent claims and intellectual property protection laws to restrict access of independent researchers to GM crops for research purposes which means that only limited research has been conducted on GM foods and crops that are not biased or connected to the GM industry (Earth Open Source, “Why Genetically”).
GM foods that are being imported are also inspected through the initiative-proposed legislation requiring the FDA to inspect foreign farms and block imports of fruits and vegetables from foreign countries that do not have safety standards equal to those of the US (Arvanitoyannis, Tserkezou, and Varzakas 20). It is very important for all GM foods to be inspected for safety because it is not known what kinds of impact they will have.
Negative Consequences of Genetically Modified Crops on the Environment
Non target organisms are sometimes negatively affected by genetic engineering. An example of this is the monarch butterfly. The only source of nutrition for monarch larvae is from milkweeds, and milkweeds are in close proximity to corn fields. These corn are genetically engineered to have Bt insecticidal pesticide built in them, and when these corn pollinate, they land on the milkweeds in and around the Bt corn field. When the monarch larvae eat the milkweeds covered with Bt corn pollen, the pesticide in it kills the larvae. The monarch butterflies almost became extinct because of this problem. Even though tests were done on a wide variety of animals, it was not able to predict the affect Bt corn had on the monarch butterfly. This example shows that even when there is testing done, genetically engineered crops have unexpected results.
The emergence of super weeds that are resistant to herbicides, which leads to increased use of herbicide that has negative effects on other plants and the surrounding environment, is another example of a negative consequence of genetic engineering. Bt insecticidal GM crops are not sustainable in reducing pesticide use, but just change the way it is used which is from sprayed to built-in. The use of Bt technology is proving unsustainable because pests evolve resistance to the toxin and secondary pest infestations are becoming common. When more pesticides and herbicides are used, it pollutes the water and promotes cancer in some individuals. This example shows a case of where the natural form of Bt is deemed safe, but when genetically engineered, it is slightly different chemically (Earth Open Source, “Why Genetically”). Even if it is only a slight difference, there could be a significant impact that results because the structure of a gene or chromosome also plays a role in the function of that gene. The no-till method of farming promoted with GM herbicide-tolerant crops avoids plowing and uses herbicides to control weeds instead, but this method is not as climate-friendly as plowing is, and does not store the same amount of carbon in the soil as plowing does. This method of farming increases the negative environmental impacts of soy cultivation because of the herbicides used (Earth Open Source, “Why Genetically”). Contrary to popular belief that high-yielding, pest and disease-resistant, drought-tolerant, and nutritionally improved super-crops are genetically engineered, they are actually products of conventional breeding, which continuously outstrip GM crops in producing these kinds of crops. Conventional plant breeding seems to be a safer and more powerful method than GM to produce new crop varieties required to meet current and future needs of food production (Earth Open Source, “Why Genetically”).
Negative Consequences of Genetically Modified Crops on Living Organisms
Some negative consequences of genetically modified foods on living organisms are shown through some examples. An animal feeding testing was done where animals were fed high levels of individual “foods” for a long period of time to see how it affected them. The results showed that the animals had nutritional imbalances that made interpretation of toxicological studies extremely difficult (Arvanitoyannis, Tserkezou, and Varzakas 13). This finding is important because it means that when the animals’ meats are ready to be inspected to be sold to the public market for human consumption, it will be difficult to determine whether their meat is safe to eat or not. There was also notable disturbances in liver and kidney function and immune responses (Earth Open Source, “Why Genetically”) and GM Bt toxin was found to be toxic not only to insect pests, but also to the laboratory animals in the feeding trials (Earth Open Source, “Why Genetically”). There haven’t been many human trials on GM foods, but few studies that have been carried out give cause for concern (Earth Open Source, “Why Genetically”).
Another big concern about GM crops is that genetic engineering can potentially introduce hazards such as allergens and toxins, and the possibility that the GM crops could contaminate traditional food crops is worrisome (Arvanitoyannis, Tserkezou, and Varzakas 13). Unexpected allergens and toxins could result from slight differences in chemical structure in GM crops that might not agree with some individuals and the pollination of GM crops could potentially contaminate traditional food crops nearby. Roundup, a herbicide that over 50% of all GM crops are engineered to tolerate, has been found to cause malformations (birth defects), reproductive problems, DNA damage, and cancer in test animals. In human epidemiological studies, it was found that there is an association between Roundup exposure and miscarriage, birth defects, neurological development problems, DNA damage, and certain types of cancer (Earth Open source, “Why Genetically”). Also, in South America, people who are exposed to spraying with Roundup report escalating rates of birth defects and cancer (Earth Open Source, “Why Genetically”). These findings indicate that the public should be better educated about the negative consequences of certain herbicides, and warned to protect themselves with proper gear when they are using them.
Large number of studies seems to indicate that Roundup is associated with increased crop diseases as well, especially with Fusarium, which is a disease that cause wilt disease in soy and can have toxic effects on humans and livestock (Earth Open Source, “Why Genetically”). GM Bt crops have been found to have toxic effects on non-target organisms in the environment. An example of an unintended effect on other living organisms is where the Bt toxin is not fully broken down in digestion and has been found circulating in the blood of pregnant women in Canada which affects the blood supply to their fetuses (Earth Open Source, “Why Genetically”). Young will elaborate more on the effects GM crops have on humans in her paper in this collection.
Positive Consequences of Genetically Modified Crops
Despite all these negative impacts on the environment, there are still positive consequences from genetically modified foods. GM foods can provide food in more quantities and produce them faster which leads to the potential of solve world hunger problems. It is also cost-reducing and/or yield-enhancing. In China, GM foods concern food availability, nutrition, and economic advantage (Xi, Harris 13). In regards to nutrition, in China Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) is a problem in the population, and one way to fix this problem was to genetically engineer golden rice to have Vitamin A in it (Xi, Harris 14). This way, the Chinese population would be able to get Vitamin A on a regular basis since rice is eaten daily.
The major problem with GM foods is that the public is not included in the process. There has not been a public vote on how strictly regulated GM foods should be, what kinds of regulations should be there to ensure the safety of public health, or on whether GM foods should be labeled. There are definitely pros and cons to genetic engineering since even slight differences in chemical composition of food can have unexpected effects on the environment and public health. The negative consequences affect the environment and other living organisms. The environment is affected by herbicides when plants evolve and become super weeds, which leads to the use of more herbicides. The public health is affected by unexpected toxins and allergens that are the results of consuming genetically modified foods. Even though there are some problems that needs to be fixed, genetically modified foods is capable of producing more amount of food for cheaper, which can potentially solve world hunger problems. To insure the safety of the public’s health from unexpected toxins and allergens, there should be more thorough testing done before products go on the market and laws that require better inspection of GM crops. Also, if independent researchers were able to conduct research on GM crops and their effects, it would prevent unnecessary actions such as recalling products because it was found to have negative impacts on the environment and other living organisms.
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