Do we know what we are really eating nowadays? How many people stop to read a label on the food that they buy? These labels provide a lot of information, such as the content of the item with regard to: calorie, fat, vitamins, and minerals. What these labels lack is information about whether your food is natural or whether it originated form a genetically modified source. Because there are no requirements in the United States to label genetically modified foods as such, there is no way you can tell by just looking.
Genetically modified foods are those which had their genetic blueprints modified in some way to produce a result that the modifier hope will be attractive to the consumer. Genetic engineers locate a specific gene on one plant, for example, and then transplant this into the gene of another. They do this because they are hopping to transplant a desirable characteristic from one plant to another. For example, scientists insert genes that produce a natural insecticide into corn to prevent corn borers. The idea behind these transplants is to produce some kind of beneficial effect for mankind.
While it may seem that changing the genetic make-up of a plant, like the corn, is a good idea, genetically modifying the food we eat has raised a firestorm of controversy. Not everyone agrees that it is a good thing, nor do many people trust the scientists who change these genes. They believe that the scientists are too much influenced by a profit motive, and have lost their perspective on doing good for humanity. Many feel that genetically modified foods should be banned in the United Sates because these foods may contain health risks, and may possibly harm the environment, to say nothing about the moral issues that are raised.
Genetically modified foods (GMO foods) are a threat to human health. Independent (non-industry) research on the health effects of genetically modified foods is rare, especially long term studies about the effects of consuming GMO foods. In an experiment at the prominent Rowett Institute in Scotland, Dr. Arpad Pusztai and a team of researchers found that potatoes that had been genetically modified with the Cauliflower Mosaic virus, were apparently poisonous to laboratory rats. This virus is commonly used in GMO foods.
This is frightening in that it may indicate there are significant chemical and compositional differences between the normal and GMO foods. In addition, it would be impossible to predict allergies caused by GMO foods. The Center for Disease Control estimates that two percent of all adults and eight percent of all children suffer from food allergies with symptoms ranging form mild unpleasantness to more lethal consequences. According to the Consumer Union, medical polls show that twenty-five percent of Americans report that they or family members suffer from food allergies or sensitivities.
Further studies need to be done before GMO foods should be generally accepted and considered safe for society. There are some indications that genetically modified foods may be harmful to the environment. Genetic pollution occurs when the pollen from a GMO plant or crop is carried by wind or insects to pollinate plants in the surrounding environment. This spreading of altered genes is unpreventable. The effects GMO crops are more unpredictable than chemical pollutants.
In 1999, Nature published a letter from Cornell University scientists in its May 20 issue claiming that pollen from genetically modified Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) corn crops was poisonous to Monarch butterflies. The Scientists found that 44 percent of Monarch caterpillars that ate milkweed leaves dusted with the pollen of Bt corn died. Those that survived suffered a sixty percent weight loss. Many farms rely on beneficial insects, birds, and bees to ward off pests and keep their crops healthy. These studies should send a warning flag that genetic modification of foods can potentially have a large ecological impact.
There is also a moral concern regarding GMO foods. As modern technology began to be developed, farming began to change. Over the past century, agriculture has become more industrialized, and has a tremendous decrease in the variety of crops being grown. As Michael Fox stated in his book Eating with Conscience: The Bioethics of Good, “[it is] estimated that we have lost more than half the varieties of the world’s twenty most important food crops that existed at the beginning of the century, which includes corn, rice, wheat, potatoes, and bananas.
Mankind has shown a traditional arrogance towards the natural environment, and it is frightening to see this played out. Yet again as GMO foods makes it into our food chain with very little control. In 1992, Dr. Louis J. Pribyl of a Microbiology Group warned that there is “a profound difference between the types of expected effects from traditional breeding and genetic modifying. ” Some people argue that over time, nature itself makes many genetic changes, but this is vastly different form suddenly changing many of the plants which we depend on for nutrition.
No one really knows what the long range effects will be on humanity. Because genes from bacteria, fish and animals have been integrated into crop plants, concerns have been raised by vegetarians. Many vegetarians find the consumption of food plants containing animal genes unacceptable. Before we condemn the human race to unstructured and immoral genetic manipulation of its food and supply, we had better consider carefully the issues involved. Proponents for GMO foods argue that nutritionally-enhanced, GMO crops that produce better and more reliable crops can help end starvation.
And if genetically modified food really can cure hunger, how could anyone be heartless enough to oppose it? Interestingly most people believe that starving people don’t have enough food to eat. Yet in a country like the United States, a major exporter of food and crops, there are tens of millions of malnourished people1. According to the United Nations’ statistics, our world grows more than enough food right now to feed everyone. Those facing starvation are too poor to produce or buy the food that they need. Therefore, some argue that the adoption of genetically modified crops by farmers might actually increase hunger.
Rather than farmers saving their seeds year to year, companies control what is sown and how it is protected. Control of their crops makes farmers dependent on outsiders, forcing them to buy high-priced seeds. A better way to improve the lives of subsistence farmers is to teach them ecological farming methods by which they can grow better crops without the expense associated with adapting GMO technology. Genetically modified crops can reduce the use of toxic herbicides and pesticides by farmers. This might make the crops unattractive to manufacture companies selling pesticides.
Unfortunately, GMO foods are not completely resistant to disease and therefore, pesticides may still have to be employed. Although it might be hoped that GMO foods would reduce the amount of pesticides used, research has revealed quite the opposite. According to USDA government statistics, farmers using genetically modified seeds on millions of acres of crop land in the United States in 1997-1998 used on the average just as many pesticides and herbicides as the farmers who planted non-genetically engineered crops.
As Dr. Charles Benbrook, Dr. Michael Hansen and others point out in the book Pest Management at the Crossroads, “the only real way to reduce pesticide use is through organic or sustainable agricultural practices-practices that include integrated pest management, crop rotation, beneficial insects, planting a variety of crops, manual or mechanical weeding and natural bio-pesticides. ”
Genetically modified food should be banned in the United States because they can be dangerous to the health of humans, harmful to the environment, and there are overwhelming moral issues to be solved. Despite these risks, companies continue to produce and research GMO foods because there is an obscene amount of money to be made on them. Our only defense as consumers is to be watchful and informed to pressure government bodies for adequate controls.