An issue that has entered the mainstream media in a lot of countries (noticeably not really in the US) is Genetic Engineering (GE) or Genetic Modification (GM) of food.
A lot of food that we eat today contains genetically modified ingredients and usually without our knowledge. Supporters of this technology maintain that it ensures and sustains food security around the world as the population increases.
As time goes on, the science behind genetic engineering is no doubt improving. While biotechnology could be the wave of the future and genetically modified foods could really provide alternatives to help increase food production, there is a growing wave of concern from citizens, farmers and scientists who question the way the research is currently being handled by a few large, profit-hungry corporations. That is, as well as scientific debates on the merits of genetically engineered food, there are equally, if not more important, debates on the socioeconomic ramifications of the way such science is marketed and used. Critics believe:
- The problem of food shortages is a political and economic problem.
- Food shortages and hunger are -- and will be -- experienced by the poorer nations.
- GE Food is an expensive technology that the farmers of the developing nations would not be able to afford easily.
- Patenting laws go against the poor around the world and allow biotech companies to benefit from patenting indigenous knowledge often without consent.
- This is also a very young and untested technology and may not be the answer just yet.
- Crop uniformity, which the biotech firms are promoting, will reduce genetic diversitymaking them more vulnerable to disease and pests. This furthers the need for pesticides, which are created by the same companies creating and promoting genetically engineered crops.
Hence this leads to questions of the motives of corporations and countries who are using the plight of the developing world as a marketing strategy to gain acceptance of GE food as well as dependency upon it via intellectual property rights. That they are against any labeling or other precautionary steps and measures that states may wish to take is of paramount concern.
The way in which we reach the answer to the question, "are GE foods safe?" is where a lot of the problem lies. A quick acceptance of GE foods without proper testing etc. could show corporate profitability to be very influential, while a thorough debate and sufficient public participation would ensure that real social and environmental concerns are in fact adhered to. And this pattern would probably indicate to us how other major issues in the future ought to be dealt with.
There is also the issue of do we actually need genetically engineered food, given that agriculture in small biodiverse farms are actually very productive. It has been largely international and national politics and economics that have prevented food reaching hungry people, not a lack of production. These same causes have also created a lot of, or contributed a lot to, poverty, which prevents people from being able to afford food in the first place.
The potential benefits of genetically engineered food are exciting. At the same time though, there are real concerns on biodiversity, the ecosystem and people's safety if such food has not been tested properly and guaranteed to be safe. As economics are factored in, there is also some concern as to who benefits from such technology, people in need, or people who need more.
No Adequate Testing
The reason that genetically engineered food could be dangerous is because there has been no adequate testing to ensure that extracting genes that perform an apparently useful function as part of that plant or animal is going to have the same effects if inserted into a totally unrelated species. It may be that in the long term, genetically modified food could provide us with benefits and be a safe alternative, but we cannot know that at this time due to the lack of safety testing.
The testing that has been done is often to ensure the crop grows. There has been less emphasis on testing the effects or testing the wider ecology and the associated impacts.
Bit Different to the way Nature Works
Crossbreeding by farmers and evolution by Nature, has always involved gene transfer between similar species, not completely different species like a fish and a potato.
With the increasing drive for maximized productivity and profits, the diversity of crops used is being reduced. If the diversity is reduced enough the benefits that the diversity gives -- resistance to disease, better ability to cope with environmental extremes, increased yields etc. -- is also reduced.
Scientists have warned that non-target species can be affected by genetically modified food. They also urge a precautionary approach to allow science, law and regulations to catch up with the advances that have been made. Some GM crops still seem to require pesticide use as well.
Long Term Effects are Unknown
Even if there has been some testing, the long term effects to humans, animals and the environment are unknown. The full ramifications of modified genes "escaping" and mixing with unmodified ones are unknown.
It may be that genetically modified food can benefit us, but we cannot know that at this time because much needed testing has not been done and current studies point to dangers rather than benefits. However, a group of scientists in UK do claim that GE food may be safe, but mention that the long-term effects are still unknown. Also, note that a lot of field tests that companies do perform are aimed at assuring that their products are grown as expected, not always necessarily looking into wider effects.
Reducing Pesticides, Increased Yields?
Part of the promising and exciting aspects of biotechnology is that it could perhaps reduce harmful pesticide use, and increase yields to help provide food for the hungry and large world population. However:
- pesticide usage has actually remained the same, or even increased, with the use of GE food. And the companies that make pesticides are the ones that also make GE food ingredients.
- the Institute for Science in Society reports, for example, that as well as pesticde usage increasing, yields have been lower with GM Crops.
So why are they still being given the go-ahead?
One reason is that there is a lot of money and profit involved in this. Hence from a business perspective it is more favorable, for example to produce crops that can be resistant to your pesticides (so that you can apply more of them). If you are a chemical company that produces pesticides as well as GM crops, then this is a good way to sell both products.
Another reason seems to be that in campaigns and referendums, a lot of emphasis is put on the fact that transgenic research-animals would help in the field of medicine and so distorts the purpose of the referendums that are usually about patent and food related effects of genetic modifications.
From a science perspective there are many issues to address, and there are chances that the GM technology can improve over the years. However, the issues above hint towards some of the political and economic issues of this, which can be very significant. As a result, these factors influence the claims of biotechnology being able to feeding the world.