Genetically Engineered Foods - Pros And Cons Essay

This essay has a total of 3518 words and 14 pages.

Genetically Engineered Foods - Pros And Cons


The world has seen many changes and advances over the last century, but possibly none that
hold as many possibilities as genetic engineering. Genetic engineering is turning up in
more and more places, and it is almost certainly here to stay. Just as computers and
plastics changed most aspects of living since they were invented, biological engineering
has the potential to do the same in the future. This new technology has a wide range of
possible benefits, from helping farmers, to improving foods, to helping the environment,
to helping sick people. Genetic engineering may even one day be used to help solve world
hunger. However, it also has its dangers and risks, which need to be considered along with
its benefits. The fact that not everything is known about genetic engineering, and that
large corporations use it to make a profit, is scary to many people. The recent technology
of genetically engineering crops, plants, and animals, which involves modifying their
genetic structure, has lead to benefits for farmers and everyday people; however, there
are also numerous concerns due to the fact that the long term results are unknown, the
possibility of dangerous accidents, and the danger of increased chemical usage.

In the past decade, the world has seen genetic engineering become more and more common,
and it is affecting many aspects of life. It has found applications in fields such as
pharmaceuticals, farming, and research, to name a few. But many people still don't
understand what it means for something to be "genetically altered." To understand this
technology, it is necessary to explain a few basic principles.

Every living organism in the world is made up of cells that contain deoxyribonucleic acid
(DNA). As many people learned from watching Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park, DNA is the
"blueprint of life." The online article "What is Genetic Engineering?" explains how DNA
and genes work in an organism. DNA contains information that the body needs for functions
such as cell reproduction (growth) and biochemical processes. All species have a unique
DNA code, and every feature of an organism depends on this code to function normally.
Genes are special segments of DNA, which control certain functions, characteristics, and
features of an organism (such as eye color, metabolism, size, etc.). Molecular biologists
have recently learned how to manipulate genes to a certain extent. They have discovered
enzymes that allow them to cut and splice specific genes and build customized DNA codes.
Also discovered were vectors, which are DNA codes that can insert themselves into other
separate codes. A virus is an example of a vector. Scientists learned how to build and use
special vectors to insert genes of their choice into an organism's DNA code ("What is
Genetic Engineering?"). Numerous techniques (such as selective breeding) have been used
for years to change gene codes, but through genetic engineering, scientists can move genes
much easier than before and with greater precision ("What are the Dangers?"). Scientists
believe that by using these techniques, they will be able to improve the quality and
characteristics of food that people eat.

Genetically modified food ("GM food") is food with ingredients that have been genetically
altered for traits such as larger size, pest resistance in the field, and faster growth.
For example, scientists have used this technology to improve a tomato's ability to resist
freezing. To achieve this, a gene from a flounder was added to the tomato's DNA code,
which enable the plant to resist frosts and extends its growing season ("What is Genetic
Engineering?"). Another gene was found that could help wheat grow in fields that normally
would not support it. Cows with altered DNA can even produce milk that contains chemicals
such as human insulin, which diabetics need to survive ("Frequently Asked Questions").
These are all examples of how scientists can use gene-splicing technology to alter a plant
or animal's characteristics.

The numerous potential benefits of this recent technology are very intriguing. Proponents
of this technology claim that biotech crops could, or do, reduce pesticide usage, increase
yields per acre, raise the nutritional value of food, and require less water to grow. In a
recent speech, the US Secretary of Agriculture, Dan Glickman, spoke of how the field of
medicine is being transformed by biotech. Human insulin, cancer medications, antibiotics,
and vaccines are all products of genetic engineering. A new genetically engineered (GE)
drug has the potential to save hemophiliacs from bleeding to death. Scientists are also
researching GE bananas that could one day be used to give vaccines to children in
third-world countries (Glickman).

Proponents of genetic engineering also believe that this technology will help the
environment. In the article "Monsanto: Playing God," by Kirkpatrick Sale, some of these
benefits are discussed. Monsanto, one of the largest corporations involved in genetic
engineering and research, has developed crops that can be sprayed with the powerful
herbicide Roundup (also manufactured by Monsanto) without being affected by it. This means
that a farmer can spray a field of crops with a chemical that is lethal to virtually all
weeds and plants and, as a result, not have to worry about cultivating or plowing. This is
beneficial since plowing fields causes much loss of topsoil through wind and water erosion
(25 billion tons of topsoil are lost each year). Monsanto claims that by using its
"Roundup Ready" seed, the need to plow the ground before planting is greatly reduced,
since weeds can be sprayed after the crops are planted. They also assert that using
"Roundup Ready" crops and Roundup in combination increases crop yields by five percent,
which also benefits the farmer through increased profits (Sale 17).

A reduction in the need for pesticides is another benefit of genetic engineering that is
often cited. Robert Shapiro, the CEO of Monsanto, explains this theory in the magazine
article "How Genetic Engineering Will Save Our Planet." Ninety percent of the costly
chemicals sprayed on crops are wasted, which is not good for the environment, or for the
farmer who is paying for them. But by using biotech, plants can be genetically coded to
resist or kill insects and pests by themselves, without using chemical pesticides. The
genetic technology is also more efficient than chemicals, which take a large amount of raw
materials and energy to produce and apply (Shapiro 29). Bt, a pesticide that naturally
occurs in the environment, has also been incorporated in genetically modified (GM) crops.
Crops such as corn and soybeans have been engineered to produce the Bt substance by
themselves, using a gene from the Bt gene code. This allows the plant to defend itself
from pests by manufacturing its own natural pesticide. One statistic shows that Arizona
farmers who use Bt corn have reduced their usage of chemical insecticides by 75 percent
(Nash 46). GM crop advocates cite these types of statistics as proof that genetic
engineering in agriculture will benefit the environment.

Probably the most-used argument for genetically engineered food is that it will help solve
world hunger. In "How Genetic Engineering Will Save Our Planet," Shapiro states that 800
million people in the world are so malnourished that they can't even work or live normal
lives. As the population continues to grow by the billions, the demand for food will, too.
By some estimates, the world will need two to three times as much food to feed its people
than it requires now. For this reason, food production will need to greatly increase to
meet these needs, and Shapiro believes that biotech is a large part of the answer (Shapiro
28-29).

In the article "Grains of Hope" by J. Madeleine Nash, the argument of world hunger and GM
foods are discussed in great detail. Over one million children die each year from vitamin
A deficiency, and 350,000 go blind from it. Many poor people in developing countries eat
only a few bowls of rice a day, which obviously does not supply all their nutritional
requirements. Seeing this, two scientists, Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer developed a GM
rice seed with genes that enable the plant to produce beta-carotene-enriched rice.
Beta-carotene, which is a nutrient found in such foods as carrots, would supply vitamin A
and also benefit the immune system. A deal was struck with a British biotech corporation
to give Asian farmers the GM rice seed for free, but the efforts to distribute the seed
have been protested by anti-GM food activists. They claim that it would make third-world
countries even more dependent on the United States and other successful countries.

Nash goes on to describe other ways that genetic engineering can help third-world
countries. In Africa, sweet potato fields produce yields which are less than half of the
rest of the world. The potatoes are affected by a disease called "feathery mottle virus,"
which is very hard to control- the plants can't be bred for resistance, and the disease
cannot be controlled in the field. However, scientists are currently developing GE
potatoes that are genetically coded to resist the virus (Nash 46). In another example from
"Grains of Hope," half of African produce is lost because it rots on the way to market. If
transgenic produce could be developed that ripened slower, there would be a much greater
amount of available fruits and vegetables to Africans. In the same article, Florence
Wambugu, a Kenyan plant scientist, is quoted as saying, "Weeding enslaves Africans; it
keeps children from school." She believes that herbicide-resistant crops would allow Asian
farmers to use pesticides on their crops, which would free people from constantly weeding
the fields (Nash 46).

Genetic technology has also helped papaya farmers in Hawaii. In 1994, a ringspot virus had
infected half of the papaya fields and forced many farmers out of business. The virus was
very hard to control and almost got out of hand. Genetic scientists worked to develop two
transgenic papaya strains which were able to resist the virus, and had good results in the
test fields. In 1998, most papaya growers switched to the transgenic virus-resistant
lines, which grew healthy, and have had excellent luck since then (Nash 46).

However, even with all of these benefits and potential solutions that genetic engineering
offers, there has still been a tremendous amount of public outcry and protest. In a recent
speech, US Secretary of Agriculture, Dan Glickman, shared an experience he had had with
the protests: "When I chaired the US delegation to the World Food Conference in Rome in
1998, I got pelted with genetically modified soybeans by naked protesters" (Glickman).
Protesters have a number of concerns with genetic engineering and what it may cause.

One foremost concern in the debate is whether or not GM crops will actually reduce
chemical usage, as the manufacturing corporations claim they will. The online article
"What's Wrong with Genetic Engineering?" cites the fear that with the increased use of
pesticides such as Roundup and Bt, pests will evolve that can resist the chemicals being
used against them. This would, in turn, cause the need for even stronger and more
dangerous chemicals. In fact, researchers at Michigan State University found that plants
engineered to resist certain viruses may cause the virus to mutate into a stronger form
capable of attacking other types of plants. Another concern is that the
pesticide-resistance genes could spread to the same weeds that the pesticide is meant to
kill- and "superweeds" would be created that could not be killed by herbicides. However,
ecologist C. Neal Stewart, Jr., tracked the spread of spliced genes in offspring from
herbicide-resistant plants, and found that while the offspring does contain the resistance
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