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Genetically Modified Foods

Genetically modified foods are inventions of biotechnology. Genetic Engineering is the method used to amend the genetic material, by transferring specific genes from one organism to another. Selective breeding is the technique used to transfer genes. Certain crops have the capacity to develop immunity to viruses and insects. Soybean, potato, maize, canola oilseed, tomato, squash and chicory are some of the genetically modified plants that endure herbicides.

Genetically modified corn is used as a fodder. It is also incorporated in bread, corn chips and breakfast cereals. Cauliflower, beet, coffee and yeast are more GM products available commercially.

Genes, that are modified might be available or absent in the final food product. Phytochemicals are gene products that aid in disease prevention. Organic foods are devoid of any genetically modified (GM) ingredients. Benefits of GM foods are diversified. Genetic engineering is a vital method, used in crops, to enhance the quantity of nutrients, such as vitamins. Nutritional enhancement is a process, in vogue now. Research is underway in prevention of vitamin A and iron deficiency. Removal of allergic proteins from peanuts is being studied.  Modification in genes results in increased yield with better quality and nutrients.

Foods with enhanced antioxidants, such as carrots, that are cost effective and nutritious are produced. Increased shelf life and standing period results in long lasting vegetables, like tomatoes. Edible therapeutic bananas carrying rotavirus antigens or bacterial antigens are produced by genetic modification. Environmental degradation is prevented by genetic engineering. Genetically modified crops are at decreased risk to attacks by micro organisms and herbicides. This calls for a reduced usage of herbicides and fungicides, making these genetically modified crops, eco-friendly. Residual levels of these products in the environment are thereby, less.

Risks of genetically modified foods include triggering of allergic reaction and toxicity. Stability of the transferred gene is questionable. Unintentional hidden effect of the inserted gene is to be assessed. Genetically modified foods are compared with their respective counterparts, with respect to its safety levels and nutrient content. The intensity and effectiveness of antibiotics might be reduced, due to the consumption of genetically modified foods.

Incidence of allergic reaction to the inserted gene is possible. Environmental degradation is also seen to a particular extent, based on the surrounding weeds. Genetically modified crops give rise to the production of specific toxin resistant insects. Effects on biodiversity are yet to be identified. Studies are underway, regarding the effect of genetic engineering on flora and fauna. Genetically engineered crops, for the production of medicines and others might pollute other food products.

What are genetically modified foods?

Genetically modified foods, also known as GM foods, have been in the news a lot, especially in the last few years, mainly because of the several health organizations and institutions that have been staging protests again the production of such food items. However, several people still end up asking “What are GM foods and why are they harmful?” Before getting into the disadvantages or even the advantages of GM foods, it is important to understand what exactly GM foods are.

Genetically modified food can be described as food which is derived from Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO). Like the name suggests, a GMO is an organism that has had specific changes introduced to its DNA using genetic engineering techniques. The techniques that are use for genetic modification are a lot more accurate than mutation breeding or mutagenesis, in which an organism is exposed to chemicals or radiation to evoke a stable change, which may be non-specific. Some of the genetic engineering techniques commonly used by humans to modify food organisms are selective breeding (for breeding of plants as well as animals) and somaclonal variation. The first time that genetically modified crops and foods were introduced into the market, was in the early 1990s. The genetic modified foods list mainly includes transgenic plant based products such as corn, soybean, cotton seed oil and canola oil. Up till a few months ago, certain animal products were also on the market, but are no longer available. Health experts strongly criticize and object to the creation of genetically modified foods, on many grounds, touting health and safety concerns as the main one.

There are certain human health risks that have been associated with genetically modified food and the most important one is related to allergens. There are thousands of people in Europe and America who have developed a serious, life-threatening allergy to peanuts and certain other food items. If a certain gene is introduced to a plant, it may give rise to a new allergen, which could bring out an allergic reaction in unsuspecting individuals. Since GM foods need to be tested for a while, some of the consumers may be exposed to severe food allergies. However, this problem can be reduced to some extent by labeling the GM food carefully. Another cause for concern though, is the introduction of a foreign gene in plant based foods, which could have an adverse effect on human health. Lab studies of genetically modified food tested on animals indicate that there is a considerable difference between animals that were fed a certain genetically modified vegetable, as compared to those that were fed non-genetically modified foods.

However, genetically modified foods are not all bad; there are certain benefits of genetically modified foods too, which is probably why this industry is expected to double in the next few decades. First of all meeting the food supply for the current booming population can be a challenge for any government, but fortunately, it is possible for genetically modified foods to meet this requirement in several ways. Some of the other advantages of genetically modified foods are:

•   Disease resistance: There are several plant diseases that are caused by bacteria, fungi and viruses. However, through genetic modification, plant biologists can create plants that have been engineered to resist such diseases.
•   Higher tolerance towards the cold: Every year, thousands of sensitive seedlings are destroyed due to unexpected frost. However, in some plants, such as potatoes and tobacco, an anti-freeze gene has been introduced (from cold water fish). Because of this change, these plants can now withstand cooler temperatures including the ones that would normally have killed unmodified seedlings.
•   Nutrition: The majority of the population in several developing countries relies on a main crop, which is generally the main staple of their diet, for example rice. However, on its own, rice probably cannot provide a sufficient amount of nutrients that may be required to prevent malnutrition. However, if rice were genetically modified to provide all the required vitamins, minerals and other essential nutrients, then the nutritional deficiencies suffered by a majority of the population can be prevented.
•   Resistance to pest: Every year, a staggering amount of crops are lost because of insects and other such pests. This could cause farmers to use higher doses of pesticides, to avoid facing extensive losses. These foods could then lead to several health hazards in the consumers. Hence, the production of genetically modified food can help reduce or even eliminate the use of chemical pesticides. This will also reduce the costs of making the food available in the markets.
•   Phytoremediation: There are certain genetically modified crops, which are not grown for consumption purposes. Since groundwater and soil pollution continue to be a growing concern all over the world, there are certain plants that have been modified genetically, with the main intention of cleaning up the heavy metal pollution, from the soil that may have been contaminated.

Hence, while genetically modified foods could be helpful in solving several problems, especially world hunger and malnutrition, there are several challenges that the government may face, especially when it comes to testing such foods, for safety and proper labeling purposes. However, it is absolutely essential to proceed with care and caution in order to avoid any harm to human health as well as the environment. Unfortunately, there is not much information available on Genetically Modified foods, as well as the drawbacks and benefits of GM foods due to several reasons. This could be because it is more difficult to analyze the safety of crop derived foods, as compared to drugs, individual chemicals and food additives. Food crops are far more complex in composition and nature. Their composition varies a great deal, based on the differences in their agronomic conditions and growth. Moreover, the overall tendency of health experts is to compare the compositions of genetically modified foods and non-genetically modified foods. Since their compositions are not very different from each other, genetically modified foods are regarded as being as safe as their counterparts.

Submitted on January 16, 2014
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