Recently science has developed to the point where it can read and understand the very ‘language’ of life – the genetic code that determines our phenotype and makes every living organism the way it is. This understanding has lead to the additional ability to ‘alter’ that code and so create new variations of common breeds, combinations of features from various different species and potentially entirely new life-forms. This can apply to humans, animals (GMOs or Genetically Modified Organisms) or plants (GM Crops). This of course has gigantic implications for mankind and offers as many potential solutions as it does problems.
One area in which genetic modification becomes particularly interesting is in the production of genetically modified foods. Potentially the positive effects of genetically altered food are massive – and plants can be bread to yield more produce, to withstand insect infestations better, to grow in harsher conditions, to grow faster, to reproduce more quickly and to be more tasty and wholesome. This would mean foods in greater supply, that tasted better and could be grown in almost any condition. With world hunger being one of the most concerning issues of our time, genetically modified foods offer one of the most real and optimistic solutions – potentially enabling farmers in 3rd world countries to grow more crops more quickly and for less cost.
The positive effects of genetically altered foods are receiving even more attention in recent times too as global warming threatens to reduce our supply of food and limit our ability to grow crops in areas where the weather conditions and climate were previously perfect. This has lead to governments ordering farmers to look into any means necessary to increase their output of produce and to streamline their operations as much as possible in preparation for future difficulties. At the same time there is a strong possibility that we may face restrictions and rations in the West on how much we can buy.
Other positive effects of genetically altered foods are more subtle. For example, by producing crops that are more resilient the use of pesticides can then be kept to a minimum which will have knock on effects keeping the plants healthy and preventing damage to the environment. Similarly fertilisers can also be used more sparingly and all this will help to keep down farming costs. All these same benefits apply to GMOs helping livestock to survive harsher conditions and provide more meat.
So what are the downsides to genetically altered foods and why is there so much controversy surrounding the concept? Well first of all there are the potential health threats. These are varied and worthy of consideration, for example the use of genetic engineering may cause individuals to find themselves allergic to foods that they weren’t previously. However it is encouraged not to use well known allergens where possible in genetic engineering and as individuals can develop allergies randomly over time this is not a major threat, and certainly not one serious enough to counter all the positive effects of genetically altered food. A more serious health concern for GMOs and GM crops is that they may cause ‘horizontal gene transfer’ (HGT) in which one organism picks up the genetic traits of another without being its offspring. While it’s highly unlikely that an individual consuming gm crops would be affected by those genes (horizontal gene transfer is rare and not fully understood in humans and animals – and are no more common in GM crops than they are in ‘ordinary’ produce), it can be more of a concern in bacteria and other microscopic organisms (it is thought that HGT is the main factor influencing evolution in organisms that reproduce via mitosis and is also how bacteria adapt to new environments). This could then theoretically effect the bacteria found in the human stomach and intestines developing new mutations and permeations. One concern is that they could this way become more resistant to antibiotics and indeed some studies have shown this to be possible. However again as a means to limit this effect, the use antibiotic resistance genes has been advised against.
At the moment it still seems likely that the positive effects of genetically altered food outweigh the concerns. However further problems exist for both the environment and the health of the consumer. For example ‘outcrossing’ describes the movement of genes from GM crops and organisms into organic produce. This can occur simply through breading in the case of organisms, through compost in the case of plants, and through cross pollination. This can be a particular problem when crops that are designed as feed for animals end up mixing with those intended for human consumption (which has in fact occurred). Through this process and gene transfer it’s possible that there are both negative and positive effects of genetically altered food on the environment.
In conclusion then, genetically modified foods should neither be warmly accepted without reservation, nor rejected entirely based on their shortcomings. While their implications for both our health and the environment will likely not be fully understood for some time, growing demand and more severe environmental conditions may mean we have little say in the matter. Whether they prove ultimately to be a good thing or bad thing only time will tell.