December 14, 2010

Biotechnology -The pros and cons of genetically modified foods - APPSC Group 1 Mains - Paper 4- S3 - Unit 3

Genetically modified food or genetically engineered food, is food whose genes (i.e., hereditary units) has been altered to produce a  product that has any or a combination of these properties: better tasting, longer lasting, higher-yielding, and more resistant to pests and adverse environmental conditions.

Although genetic engineering may seem to be a novel buzzword, the practice of genetically modifying plants and animals is not new. Humans have been cross-breeding plants and animals for hundreds of years to create species that possess certain desirable traits. However, the changes that are brought about by this traditional practice of genetic engineering, unlike those that occur because of current practices, are slow in coming and as time has shown, carry negligible risk to both humans and the environment.

In contrast, modern genetic engineering involves significant and rapid modifications in the characteristics of living organisms by laboratory manipulation of their genes. It does not rely on the process of natural selection. At present, genetic engineering is widely used in propagating vegetables and other crops and there are essentially two ways by which plants designed for human consumption are biologically modified: by altering existing genes; and/or by introducing new genes from other species.

Modern genetic engineering has resulted in plants that are high-yielding and resistant to disease, pest, drought, heat, frost, and other adverse conditions. These biologically modified plants need fewer herbicides and insecticides; and, they yield plant products that are more nutritious, more palatable and that have longer shelf life than their non-modified counterparts. Corn, for example, has been altered to be naturally insect-resistant, while tomatoes have been modified to slow down the rotting process.

Thus, production of genetically modified food is cost efficient. It reduces the cost of producing the food. It could therefore be the key to fighting hunger in this world where the population is rapidly growing. Also, some companies are now producing crops that provide specific nutrients, such as milk proteins and iron. Genetically modified crops such as these that are loaded with specific nutrients can certainly help ease the micronutrient deficiency in the diet of many population groups throughout the world. 

Furthermore, genetically engineered plants reduces the need for chemicals, pesticides and other toxic substances that are employed in growing of crops and should theoretically make the environment and the food we eat safer.  But are genetically modified foods really safe?

Scientists who are proponents of genetic engineering say they are. Governments say they are. However, evidence to the contrary is accumulating. The long-term adverse effects of early technological breakthroughs that have been performed on plants are now just surfacing — pollen from genetically modified plants has been found to be harmful to certain beneficial insects; many varieties of biologically modified corn produce natural insecticides that stay and accumulate in the soil for a long time; genetically modified soy beans have given rise to allergic reactions; genetically modified potatoes weaken the immune system of rats (and therefore, also that of humans?), etc.

What is becoming apparent is that in some instances, genetically modified food products could indeed adversely affect humans and the environment (ecosystem). And this realization should, at the least, caution those concerned against unleashing "technological breakthroughs" before their long term effects are fully observed, evaluated and understood.


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