This paper is about Biotechnology and its use in creating new food products. In researching this paper, I found there is a lot of information on this subject and a lot of debate on the creation of genetically altered food, medicine, crops, and more. I decided to do my paper on the genetically altered food part of the subject. I will discuss what biotechnology is, who is for it and who is against it, and what some of the ethical concerns are when it comes to growing genetically modified (GM) crops.
THE FOOD BIOTECHNOLOGY DEBATE WHAT IS BIOTECHNOLOGY?
Biotechnology is a broad term that applies to all living organisms. It is used for everything from microorganisms used to ferment beer to the most sophisticated forms of gene therapy. There are two categories of activities in biotechnology: the traditional methods and new scientific methods. The traditional methods are the way that farmers have been breeding their crop for centuries, cross breeding plants until finally some generation down the line is exactly the way they want it. The new methods are taking genes from different organisms and inserting them into another organism in the lab.
This eliminates the waiting period to get the results they want, instead they get the exact plant they want right away. The United States government defines it as being “any technique that uses living organisms or parts of living organisms to (1) make or modify products, (2) improve plants or animals, or (3) develop microorganisms for specific uses. The purpose of biotechnology in foods is to create better tasting and more nutritious foods, that have higher crop yields, and plants that are naturally protected from disease, insects, and drought. Through biotechnology scientist can develop plants with only specific beneficial traits and leave out the undesirable traits. They can change one characteristic or a few characteristics at a time with current technology. This enables them to release, for use, the modified seeds one step at a time instead of spending years to develop the best tasting and hardiest plants all at once.
It takes 10 – 12 years to breed plants in the traditional way. With biotechnology, breeders can select the exact traits they are looking for and mix them together enabling them to get the plants they want in only 1 – 2 years. Crops that are currently produced in the U.S. through biotechnology are soybeans, corn, canola, tomatoes, squash, and potatoes. These crops are suppose to be improved versions of the traditional ones with added beneficial traits.
Some of the risks, to humans, that scientists have identified are new allergens in the food supply, antibiotic resistance, a concentration of toxic metals, and enhancement of the environment for toxic fungi.
New allergens could cause problems for people that are sensitive to certain things and do not know that they are now part of something else that they were not allergic to. For example if they put certain milk proteins into carrots, parents would know not to give children allergic to milk the milk but they would not think twice about giving them the transgenic carrots that now contain milk proteins. A study done at the University of Nebraska showed that soybeans that were genetically engineered to contain proteins from Brazil nuts caused people allergic to Brazil nuts to have reactions to the soybeans.
In genetic engineering the often use antibiotic resistant genes as what they call “selectable markers”. The markers help select cells that have taken up foreign genes. Although the cells no longer have a use for the genes, they still stay in the plant tissues forever. Having these antibiotic genes in foods could cause two problems. This first is eating the foods that contain the genes could reduce the effectiveness of taking antibiotics that need to be taken with food when you are sick. An example is if you eat a tomato with the antibiotic genes at the same time as you take an antibiotic, the genes could destroy the antibiotic in your stomach. The second thing that could happen is the resistance genes could be transferred to humans making the antibiotics taken when ill useless. Although number two is unlikely with out some kind of scientific mediation, the possibility should be closely checked.
CONCENTRATION OF TOXIC METALS
Some of the new genes being added to plants have the ability to remove heavy metal, such as mercury, from the soil and concentrate then in the tissues of the plant. The reason, they have added these genes in some plant, is so that municipal sludge can be used a fertilizer. The sludge contains nutrients that are good for the plants, however the sludge is also contaminated with heavy metals. The idea is to make the plant so that they can remove the metals to non-edible parts of the plant. For example, in a tomato plant the metal would concentrate in the roots and in a potato plant, the metal would be in the leaves. To do this they use some kind of genetic on and off switches. The risk is that if the switch is not completely off the edible part of the plant could be contaminated.
ENHANCEMENT OF THE ENVIRONMENT FOR TOXIC FUNGI
It is possible that removing genes from plant could cause problems. The example I found is the caffeine in coffee beans, by turning the gene off or removing it completely to grow decaffeinated coffee they could create a fungal problem. The caffeine in coffee beans actually protects the plants from fungi. If beans are unable to produce the caffeine, they could be coated with a layer of toxic fungi, such as aflatoxin, which is toxic to humans and these toxins can remain in the food through the processes of food preparation.
There are many potential benefits of genetic engineering of organisms. Some of the envisioned benefits are engineering animals for leaner meat, drug-producing facilities, to resist diseases and sources for transplant organs. Engineering plants to resist herbicides, diseases and pests, to be more nutritious, to grow faster and to improve the taste and quality. Bacteria to produce drugs for livestock and food processing aids. So far, the plants and the bacteria are the only genetically engineered products on the market. Currently tomatoes, papayas, peppers, squash, corn, soybeans, and cotton have been genetically altered to resist herbicides, insects, and disease and to improve the flavor and quality. Plant can produce larger crops than before with less space. Bacteria have been reengineered to produce rennet, which is an enzyme used to make cheese and is widely used by U.S. cheese producers. Bovine Growth Hormone (BGH) is made for engineered bacteria and is used to increase milk production in cows.
BGH is currently being used by approximately 10% of the U.S. dairy farms. Some other benefit expected in the near future are reduced levels of natural toxins in the plants, extending the shelf life of food, and simpler and faster methods in located pathogens, toxins and contaminants. Some products being released soon with these benefits are healthier oils, sweeter peas with higher plant yields, bananas and pineapples with delayed ripening qualities and higher protein rice using genes transferred from peas. Further in the future it is expected to help avoid starvation as the world population grows to over 10 billion people by the year 2050. This is expected to be accomplished by increasing a crop’s ability to withstand drought and other environmental factors. The benefits expected down the road include safe foods with less allergenic proteins, drought and flood resistance, and tolerance to salt, metals, heat and cold.
This part is going to touch on some of the opponents to genetically modified (GM) foods. One of the biggest is the Prince of Wales and all of England. The Prince has been very vocal in the past on this issue he has given a few speeches and even starting an online forum on the subject. He is pushing for public debate on GM food. He believes GM is more than just an extension of selective breeding techniques that mixing genetic material from different species that would normally not breed “takes us into areas that should be left to God.” He says we should not meddle with the building block of life. He does feel that genetic manipulation could lead to good in the field of medicine, agriculture and the health of the environment, but that advanced technology brings dangers with it also. He, along with several others, think that herbicide resistant crops will lead to more chemicals being used on crops not less. Him and others says that the trait for herbicide resistance will spread to wild plant life and make weeds that are resistant to weed killer as well. If plants produce there own pesticides it will kill the good bugs as well as the bad ones.
Also, with the pesticide everywhere in a crop, it will lead to a tolerance to the pesticide on the part of the bugs and they will eventually be immune to it. During pollination and with winds the pollen can spread from the GM crops to conventional and organic crops contaminating them. He wonders about the claims that GM crops are needed to feed the world’s growing population. He thinks it is more a lack of money than a lack of food that is the problem. The representatives of 20 African states, including Ethiopia, have published a statement saying that GM crops will not help their farmers produce the food that will be needed in the 21 century. In fact, they think it will destroy the diversity, the local knowledge and the sustainable agricultural systems and undermine their capacity to feed themselves. He also wonders how the developers of all this technology are planning to make a profit from selling their product to the poorest parts of the world where they claim it is need the most. He feels it would be better to concentrate on sustainable techniques that can double or triple the yields from the traditional farming systems.
England has been pushing for labeling requirements to inform the consumer that food is genetically altered, so that they can make their own decision as to whether they want to eat it or not. The questions raised by opponents are “Is it safe?” so far there is nothing showing that it is not, but there is also not much data showing that it is either. “Why are the rules for approving GM foods less stringent than those for new medicines produced using the exact same technology?” If GM food is going into our bodies just as medications do, it should be subject to the same testing. “What is the effects on the environment?” Laboratory test have already shown in the U.S. that the pollen from GM corn has damaged the caterpillars that turn into the Monarch butterflies, if it can hurt them what is it doing to other species?
They are not even testing the corn it is in widespread production and this should have been caught if testing had been done. It should have been caught by the company that makes the seeds or by the regulatory authorities that let the seeds be sold on the market. It would make sense to plant a small test section of a crop and see what will happen. “If something goes wrong with a GM crop, who will be held responsible?” This is a “big one” who is going to be legally liable for the damage, whether it is to human health, the environment, or both. Will it be the company who produced and sold the seeds, the farmer who grew it based on being told it is safe, or will it be everyone which is the case with BGH. There has been a statement put out by a group of scientists from 13 countries all over the world calling for a moratorium on GM crops and an outright ban on patents of GM seeds. They put out to all the governments of the world this statement and have asked the governments to do the following: Impose an immediate moratorium on further environmental releases of transgenic crops, food and animal-feed products for at least 5 years.
Ban patents on living organisms, cell lines and genes. Support a comprehensive, independent public inquiry into the future of agriculture and food security for all, taking account of the full range of scientific finding as well as socioeconomic and ethical implications. They are concerned that there needs to be more testing due to growing evidence of hazards to biodiversity, food safety, human and animal health. They do not feel that neither the need nor the benefits of genetic engineering of agriculture have been proven. They say that new scientific evidence warrants an immediate moratorium. They say that cross pollination is already happening creating many species of superweeds and that the chances of transgenes spreading to other plant is 30 times more likely than a plant spreading its own genes. These 61 scientists have me convinced after reading their statement that the governments need to put a halt to this and have further testing and refining done before anymore are grown commercially.