Genetic Modification of Food

By Caroline Santoro

     Human beings have been genetically enhancing organisms for thousands of years. In fact, selective breeding seems almost ubiquitous in our daily lives – in our seedless watermelon, in our wheat bread, and in our purebred dogs. However, scientific innovation in this field allows us to now move beyond selective breeding by transferring genes between organisms. Biologists identify a desired gene in an organism’s’ genome, cut it out, and paste it into another organism. With this technique, the benefits of that gene are transferred. Through these seemingly simple steps, scientists can genetically modify flowers to make them resistant to beetles, along with a multitude of other modifications. Genetic Modification has grown so much that today roughly seventy percent of processed food sold in the US contains at least one genetically modified ingredient. As genetic modification in food becomes more and more common, the controversy behind such changes will grow as well.

     Genetically modified crops can improve agricultural productivity, the environment, and human health. Creating crops that are resistant to threats like disease, pests, and severe temperatures and weather will decrease the amount of crops that are ruined by such threats, resulting in greater agricultural productivity and greater revenue for farmers. Since these crops require less land to produce the same output, they also help the environment. In addition, farmers would use fewer chemicals like pesticides to defend their crops. Finally, human beings could benefit from the removal of genes associated with allergies and the addition of genes that enhance nutritional value. Vaccines could even be genetically incorporated into foods to create widespread vaccination in poor countries that do not usually have good access to vaccines. Along with these extensive potential benefits, GMOs also carry many potential risks.

     The risks of genetically modifying food extend to the environment, human health, and the economy. If genetically modified organisms cross-breed with wild populations, they may give traits to those wild populations that would ultimately be harmful. For example, if a weed-killer resistant gene mixed with a weed, it might start an uncontrollable weed problem. In addition, genetically superior modified organisms might compete with the natural ones and threaten biodiversity in an environment. For human beings, the insertion of different genes might pose threats to people with allergies, as they will not know from which organism the traits were added. For example, if a gene from peanuts was placed into an apple, someone deathly allergic to peanuts may unknowingly eat an apple and have an adverse reaction.  Finally, genetically modified crops might harm small-scale farmers that will not be able to compete against the lower costs of large-scale GMO production.

     Consumers in the United States and worldwide are more exposed to genetically modified food each day. Within the aisles of a supermarket, only 30% of the processed food does not contain genetically modified ingredients. However, the United States government does not require companies to label their ingredients as genetically modified as do countries like Australia, China, Brazil, Russia, and India. Some organizations combat this lack of labeling; for instance, the Non-GMO project is a non-profit organization that verifies products as non-GMO and labels them as such to show consumers that nothing in the product has been genetically modified. It seems unjust that the companies feeding America refuse to explain exactly what people are eating. Whether GMOs are ultimately harmful or beneficial, consumers should make that decision for themselves and know if what they are buying contains genetically modified ingredients.


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