Scientists have made great strides in the agriculture industry, public health, and medicine since the discovery of genetics by William Bateson in 1905. The recent field of biotechnology (the early 1970s) as a result of genetic research has led to the alteration of agricultural plants through genetic engineering. Genetic engineering is a radical new technology still in its early investigational stages of expansion. This technology poses a threat to smashing down the fundamental genetic barriers to humans, plants, and animals. By randomly inserting together the genes of non-related species – utilizing bacteria, antibiotic-resistant genes, viruses as vectors and markers, and promoters – and permanently altering their genetic codes, gene-altered organisms are produced, which afterward pass these genetic traits onto their offspring through heredity.
Gene engineers all over the world are now rearranging, snipping, recombining, inserting, editing, and programming genetic material. Animal genes and human genes are randomly inserted into the chromosomes of plants, animals, and fish, which create up-to-now unbelievable transgenic life forms. For the first time in history, transnational biotechnology corporations are becoming the architects and ‘owners’ of life. This paper seeks to explain the threats that arise from genetically engineered food, it will tackle safety which includes healthy and environmental threats, ethical and molarities, as well as global dangers of genetically modified food, and finally, it will explain the positive impact of genetically modified food.
The plants that have been genetically altered include; tomatoes, potatoes, corn (maize), tobacco, cotton, and others. The gene inserted improves the product, protects the plant against pests, herbicides, viruses, or turns them into pharmaceutical factories. For instance, genetically modified tomatoes become harder, making its transportation for long distances easier with minimal damages, modified corn is used to produce tryptophan, which can be synthesized into a medicinal for Parkinson’s disease (l-dopa); others include anti-clotting hormones, such as erythropoietin, and alpha-interferon used to treat hepatitis C.
There are some controversial issues raised by biotechnology on genetically engineered foods which are classified in; safety, ethics, and morality which are discussed in this paper.
The dangers associated with genetically engineered foods are as follows.
Firstly, the unnatural gene transfer from one species to another is dangerous. Normally, the biotechnology companies erroneously claim that their manipulations are similar to the natural genetic changes or traditional breeding techniques, but in actual fact, the cross-species transfer being made do not happen in nature hence creates new toxins, diseases and weakens the biochemistry of the host.
Secondly, the methods adopted by biotechnologists are not precise and sophisticated since they are random and can damage normal genes. This random damage resulting from gene insertion inevitably result in side effects and accidents (Palmiter, 1986)
Thirdly, genetically engineered food has unpredictable health-damaging effects when genetic engineers insert a new gene into any organism; there are position effects that normally lead to unpredictable changes in the pattern of gene expression and functions. The protein product of the inserted gene may carry out unexpected reactions and produce potentially toxic products.
The use of genetically engineered viruses may be dangerous as they may be a vector in the generation of transgenic plants and animals. This can destabilize the genome and possibly creates new viruses and hence dangerous new diseases (Green et al., 1994)
Many yeast strains are engineered to boast higher metabolism and, as a result, enhancing fermentation properties in processes such as bread baking and beer production. Yet, an investigation of GE yeast containing additional copies of genes concerned with the metabolism of glucose was found that they also build up a highly toxic and mutagenic substance known as methylglyoxal. Yeasts are used in food-related fermentation processes, especially since current risk assessments based upon the principle of substantial equivalence are unlikely to detect any harmful substances.
The process of genetic engineering can introduce new allergens and toxins into food that were previously naturally safe; for instance, one generic engineered soybean was found to cause serious allergic reactions and bacterial engineered to produce large amounts of the food supplements, tryptophan, produces toxic contaminant that can cause death when consumed or lead to permanent disability (Nordlee, 1996). This implies that genetically engineered food carry more risks than traditional foods.
The majority of the crops developed by biotechnology companies are resistant to herbicides and reliance on pesticides which leads to a threefold increase in the use of herbicides and pesticides, hence resulting in even greater pollution of our food and water with toxic agrochemicals. This effect also leads to a high cost of production hence lowering the profit margin. Also, the high content of agrochemicals to the end product of the agrochemical-resistance crops when consumed may lead to health problems or death (Goldberg, 1994). Maximiser, which has been genetically modified to generate its own pesticide, contains a gene that confers confrontation to the antibiotic ampicillin. This has raised the problem that the ampicillin resistance gene can be transferred to bacteria either in the soil, from rotting vegetable matter, or in the gut of animals and humans who have eaten products derived from maximizer maize. The consequence of using this antibiotic is compromised if the resistance gene is picked up by harmful strains of bacteria.
Generic engineering, which leads to genetic pollution, is self-perpetuating which implies that it is irreversible; this means that genetic mistakes will be passed on to all future generations of the species.
Another problem is inadequate government regulation. The regulatory authorities normally take the position that a processed food product in which the genetic material (DNA) has been either destroyed or removed and which has been shown to be substantially equivalent to the non-genetic variety, needs little in the form of health risk assessment and can be marketed without labeling. The main risk that is perceived arises from the presence of the viable DNA, and if this is not present, all is well. This is an erroneous assumption because it ignores the real dangers caused by a disturbance in the host biochemistry, which results as a consequence of genetic manipulation and which can persist into the product regardless of the fact that DNA may have been removed.
There are also some ethical concerns in genetically engineered food. Transferring animal genes into plants raises important ethical issues for vegetarians and religious groups. Genetic engineering involves the use of animals as experimental specimens, which raises morality issues as it is unacceptable to many people.
Finally, there are global threats to humanity’s food supply since giant transnational companies are carrying out a hazardous global experiment by attempting to initiate large numbers of genetically engineered foods widely into our food supply. Since genetic manipulations can cause unexpected harmful side-effects and because genetically engineered foods are not tested satisfactorily to get rid of those that are dangerous, this experiment not only jeopardizes the health of individuals but could also lead to national or even global food shortages and large-scale health threats.
There is no rational scientific explanation for exposing society to this risk; also, it is not necessary to take this risk for the purpose of feeding humanity. It only benefits the biotech industry, which will acquire short-term viable gains at the cost of the health and safety of the entire population. Tampering with the genetic code of food is irresponsible and poses a severe threat to life. It can easily disturb the delicate balance between our physiology and the foods that we eat. There is already sufficient scientific explanation for an urgent ban on genetically modified foods in order to safeguard our health.
Benefits of genetically engineered food
Despite the threats encountered by genetically engineered food discussed above, there are some benefits associated with them which are; pesticide resistance and herbicides tolerance; growing genetically engineered crops such as Bt corn helps in abolishing the appliance of pesticides hence reducing the cost of production. It is also not cost-effective to remove weeds by tilling for some crops. Hence the farmer sprays the land with large quantities of different herbicides, which in turn is time consuming and expensive process since it requires great precautions not to harm both the farmer and the environment. But, a genetically modified crop that is herbicide resistance reduces the quantities of agrochemicals required thus reducing environmental damages, water pollution, and health problems. For instance, soybeans that are genetically modified require one application of weed-killer rather than multiple applications that are experienced by the non-modified species.
The introduction of the antifreeze gene from cold-water fish into plants such as tobacco and potatoes has rendered these plants to be tolerant to the cold and mild temperatures which destroy the unmodified seedlings, which can lead to drought and starvation. Engineered plants that are able to withstand long periods of drought as well as high salt content in soil and underground water help farmers to grow crops informally inhospitable places. The enhancement of nutrient density of food crops by recombinant DNA techniques promises in addressing worldwide health issue, For instance, the introduction of genes into rice which results in the production of beta-carotene which is a vitamin a precursor has contributed to the alleviation of blindness which is caused by deficiency of vitamin a in the body and a common problem in the third world countries. Genetically engineered food has also addressed the issue of malnutrition, especially in countries like China where people rely on single crop such as rice by providing additional vitamins and minerals which alleviated nutrient deficiencies. Currently, researchers are working on the development of edible vaccines in potatoes and tomatoes, which will be easier to ship, store and administer than traditionally inject able vaccines. pharmaceutical medicines and vaccines which are costly to produce and require special storage conditions which are not available in the third world countries can now be achieved through genetically engineered food.
In conclusion, it is rather clear even from obtainable research that a ban on genetically engineered foods and a suspension on the discharge of all genetically modified organisms is vital to protect health since there are more threats to human health, environment, and global threats to human food supply. In the meantime, labelling ought to be necessary for all foods which have any genetically modified element, even if it is only one, or where genetically modified organisms have been used in the production of the food. Full-disclosure labelling will allow consumers to choose what they eat. It will also help scientists trace the source of health problems that may arise from these foods.
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