Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are essentially organisms (including plants and animals) that have undergone manual engineering processes, effectively altering the organism’s DNA. Foods that have been produced from or that use GM organisms are often referred to as “GM foods.”

Technology currently exists that allows scientists to transfer genetic material between organisms (gene transfer technology.) Since this is a highly complex procedure, it is beyond the scope of this work to describe gene transfer in detail. For the sake of simplicity, this process can be thought of as an intricate “cut and paste” genetic function between two organisms, consisting of seven steps:

  1. Isolate the desired gene: Identify the gene that carries the desired trait in the organism (example: insect resistance, ripening properties.)
  2. Insert the extracted gene into a transfer vector: Utilize a DNA molecule to carry foreign genetic material to target cells.
  3. Copy the vector in target cells: Replicate modified cells in the target object.
  4. Monitor cellular transformation: Replication efforts are monitored to ensure successful transformation.
  5. Regenerate process via tissue culture: Duplicate efforts to develop wholly modified organisms from the root.
  6. Verification of quality transfer: Test newly produced organisms to ensure genes were normally inserted and inherited, that they are intact, and that proper functioning takes place without unwanted effects.
  7. Continued testing of performance and safety: Continue product testing and safety protocol.
DNA
Image courtesy Andy Leppard | Flickr

Genetically modified foods are developed for various reasons. Generally, the process is undertaken because it will benefit either the consumer or producer of the food in some way. A lower price, nutritional benefits, increased shelf life, and crop protection (increased resistance to insects, viruses, herbicides, etc.) are common reasons to genetically modify foods.

Producers of GM foods are often concerned for the safety of their crops. Most crops are susceptible to diseases caused by insects or viruses and to potential destruction from herbicide infestation. Currently, farmers and others utilize a gene for toxin production named Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a common insecticide determined to be safe for human consumption to eliminate insects.

In order to protect against viruses, a gene is implemented that has been known to cause disease in some plants. However, the process increases the crop’s virus resistance and can aid the producer in achieving a higher production. Herbicide resistance is generally attained through a bacterial gene that demonstrates resistance to some herbicides. This process has been shown to be quite effective in many harvested crops.

Despite the proliferation of GM foods, many people are not sold on the safety, ethics, or necessity of the practice. Food & Water Watch (www.foodandwaterwatch.org), a prominent food safety and consumer rights organization, states: “The onslaught of genetic engineering has not only diminished the ability of farmers to practice their own methods of seed selection, but also turned another sector of agriculture into a business monopolized by a few corporations.”

wheatRobert Goldberg, a cellular biologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, is a staunch supporter of GM foods. Goldberg insists that the anti-GM crowd is ignoring over 40 years of evidence that reaffirms the safe nature of GM foods, and that any arguments against the production of GM foods are bogus and unnecessary. “In spite of hundreds of millions of genetic experiments … and people eating billions of meals without a problem, we’ve gone back to being ignorant.”

David Williams, a cellular biologist at the same University, is of a different school of thought, stating: “A lot of naïve science has been involved in pushing this technology. Thirty years ago we didn’t know that when you throw any gene into a different genome, the genome reacts to it. But now anyone in this field knows the genome is not a static environment. Inserted genes can be transformed by several different means, and it can happen generations later.”

Agricultural scientists and other experts overwhelmingly take Goldberg’s position: GM food is safe, and its benefits far outweigh the costs. The disproportionate numbers of scientific studies that affirm the safety of GM foods far outnumber those that reach an alternate conclusion.

David Zilberman, an agricultural and environmental economist at the University of California, Berkeley, is a trusted expert in both pro-GM and anti-GM circles. He is inclined to side with the pro-GM group, stating that genetic modification has effectively lowered the cost of food, improved farmer safety, and raised the output of certain crops. Zilberman also believes that the genetic modification of food is a viable solution in the effort to curb world hunger.

Given the rate of population growth and the potential effects of climate change, it is difficult to argue against the foreseeable use of technology for genetic modification. Furthermore, the majority of scientific studies attest to the safe nature of the practice, making the case against the genetic modification of food a more difficult one. Barring a widespread public health incident or a groundbreaking scientific study, the practice of genetically altering food seems assured.

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