What does a tomato, soybean, and McDonald’s French fry have in common? They are all some of the most commonly genetically modified foods sold on the market today. By using the genetic information from one organism, and inserting or modifying it into another organism, scientists can make food crops stay fresher, grow bigger, and have the crops create their own pesticides. Nevertheless, the technology to modify genes has surpassed its practicality. Genetically modified foods need to be removed from everyday agriculture because of the threat they pose to human health, the environment, and the impact on global economy.
Genetically modified (GM) foods could produce new toxic substances, and/or allergens. A gene from the Brazil nut was inserted into the DNA of a soybean plant to increase the nutritional value of the soybean. However, this particular gene in the GM soybean also produced an allergen (a substance that causes allergic reactions in people). Fortunately, the plant was not put into production (McHughen 119). Another example is of a GM tomato called “FLAVR SAVR”. The tomato is larger, tastier, and stays fresher longer than commercial tomatoes on the market. Combining conventional tomato genes with the genes of an arctic trout produces the “FLAVR SAVR”. Nevertheless, questions such as “Will people with sea food allergies be able to consume the tomato?” and “Will the trout genes in the tomato enable new bacteria growth, and thereby make the tomato hazardous to eat?” have still not been answered. This causes the “FLAVR SAVR” to be a potential hazard to human health (McHughen 14, 112). Since technology is new with regards to genetics, there is no real way of knowing whether genetically modified foods would take a negative impact on the body. An incident that occurred in 1989 concerning the nutritional supplement L- Tryptophan is one way of testing the long-term effects of a GM food (Background on L-tryptophan and 5-hydroxy L-tryptophan and the eosinophilia myalgia syndrome, U.S. Food and Drug Administration). The manufacturer had apparently altered its manufacturing process to speed up production, and had not realized the toxic side effects. However, it caused a potentially fatal illness called Eosinophilia Myolgia Syndrome in which 37 people died and 1500 more were permanently disabled (Background on L-tryptophan and 5-hydroxy L-tryptophan and the eosinophilia myalgia syndrome, U.S. Food and Drug Administration). Therefore, it was taken off the market shortly after the reports of widespread illness among consumers of the supplement. Another two examples of diseases that have been created by GM crops are glufosinate (Hart 21), which causes birth defects in mammals, and glyphosate (Hart 88), which is now linked to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Therefore, it is evident that the general public is the guinea pig for GM food, and today’s drugs may not be able to combat the diseases that may arise from eating the food.
Superbugs are created when genes transfer from one species to another, and if an antibiotic-resistant or pesticide-resistant gene were to transfer from an organism into a disease creating bacteria, then an antibiotic-resistant or pesticide-resistant bug would be created (Miller 83). This applies to bacteria and viruses that are symbiotically related. Gene modification is indirectly making life resistant to diseases, and these bacteria and viruses will adapt to the new form of life and create new disorders. Furthermore, GM crops may make the “normal” biological pest spray obsolete. This is because pests will soon develop resistance to the spray because of the widespread planting of GM crops. Nevertheless, superbug pesticides have not yet been manufactured, nor have superbug antibiotics been created (Miller 92). Consequently, the health risks for humans through superbug infections or by eating GM food is very serious, and the consequences that may come about have the potential to be life threatening.
Genetic engineering of food crops has the potential to affect the biodiversity of a region in effectively two ways. First, wild populations of weed may be replaced by GM crop/weed, due to the GM crop spreading outside the crop field and interacting with natural weed and slowly becoming GM weed. Since GM crops are produced to be resistant to pesticides and herbicides, there is the possibility that they could invade wild grasslands and other places and prosper because of these special characteristics. If this happened, the native grasses would be unable to compete and biodiversity would be lost in these regions. Also, many genetically engineered crops contain anti-viral genes and there is the potential that these genes could combine to form new and dangerous strains of viruses, which could destroy specific crops. Although, to date, there is no direct evidence of these occurring naturally, the potential is clearly increasing (UK Agricultural Biodiversity Coalition. What is happening to Agricultural Biodiversity?). The second way in which the biodiversity of a region is potentially affected is by the decreasing crop varieties that are being planted. This is a problem already existing in agriculture today, and results in a loss of genetic variety within crop cultures. Farmers being forced to use only patented seeds are an example of a potential decrease in biodiversity. If traditional seed varieties are used, farmers will be at a financial disadvantage due to better tasting, better looking crops produced by farmers using GM seeds. In the U.S., and some other countries, laws have been passed and are currently in effect stating that the use of non-patented seeds is prohibited. This will restrict the crops to a few species, leaving them more at risk to new pests that may form (UK Agricultural Biodiversity Coalition. What are the underlying causes of the Losses of Agricultural Biodiversity?).
The European community is by far the most anti-GM, so to speak, when it comes to the retail of GM food in their supermarkets (Tackling Food Safety Concerns over GMO’s, Consumer attitudes and decision-making with regard to genetically modified food products). Regulations are being imposed on the European Parliament, individual European nations, and some stores themselves have all imposed restrictions on GM foods. Manufacturers must label all foods that might have genetically altered ingredients. This includes food with genetically manufactured organisms, food with an intentionally modified molecular structure, and food that has been isolated for microorganisms, fungi, and algae. Furthermore, the genetically altered food must not mislead the consumer, present any danger to the consumer, or differ from the food that it is intended to replace so that the altered food is a nutritional disadvantage to the consumer (Tackling Food Safety Concerns over GMO’s, Development of methods to identify foods produced by means of genetic engineering). This legislation has now created trade barriers for food coming into Europe – some imported food is genetically modified and creates a risk to the people’s health and safety. Nevertheless, because some supermarkets in Europe have decided to be non-GM only, this has created a competitive disadvantage for the “half”-GM supermarkets. This response to consumer pressure is also having an effect on some companies or countries that cannot meet the legislative needs, and are obliged to lose markets and/or market shares (Tackling Food Safety Concerns over GMO’s, European network safety assessment of genetically modified food crops). If the world finally agrees to the consumption of GM food, European countries will be the last to “give-in” to the more lenient regulations.
If one is to ask a North American if the product he or she is eating contains GM food, he or she will most likely show a blank stare. This is because regulation of GM food in North America is relatively relaxed when compared to Europe (Borger, second paragraph). Since the manufacturer is not required to label their products, the consumer is oblivious to buying GM food at the supermarket. Agriculture and technology are both being heavily invested in the United States. Profit is an important driving force for the developed world, and agricultural exports make up a large portion of exports from the United States (Borger, third paragraph). Since the demand for food is always increasing, the demand to produce more food at a faster rate requires the need for better biotechnology to be put into practice. And because of the lax laws in effect for the United States, and Canada, North Americans are “in the dark” with regards to what they are eating during their meals. North Americans are not educated about the risks of GM food, nor are they aware of where to find information regarding how much GM food is in their groceries (Borger, 12th paragraph). This poses a serious threat to the potential health of North Americans, as they are nothing but “lab rats” waiting for their first abnormal “twitch”.
Human health can be seen as the greatest factor when considering the manufacturing of GM food. This is because of the few diseases and viruses that have been discovered which formed through the use of GM food. Also, the potential for new diseases and/or viruses through the use of GM food is increasing, and people are not aware of the risks. Antibiotics or pesticides have not yet been created to combat the superbug, and this is a concern for humans, as it will infect people, and crops altogether. There is a potential for the biodiversity to decrease because of gene transfers from one species to another, creating more powerful crops, which may take over the natural populations of weeds and grasslands. An additional way for the biodiversity to decrease is by farmers planting only a single variety of crop, thus wiping out the varied species needed to keep the diversity within crop fields. Europeans are the most aware of GM food, and are taking the necessary precautions and legislative actions to protect themselves against the use of GM food. However, North Americans are the least aware of GM food, and their government has not yet educated their citizens on the risks of GM food. There are too many risks involved in the use of GM food, and its removal from the agricultural and biotechnological industries will benefit human health, the environment, and global economy.