The use of genetically modified foods has been a controversial topic for many years. There are several potential benefits to their utilization, but some negative aspects as well. The negative aspects have been discussed earlier in this paper. There are potential human health and environmental costs to utilizing genetically modified (GM) crops. Benefits, however, may outweigh the risks. The use of genetically modified crops has provided food security, especially to developing nations. GM crops have also made food production more cost effective by reducing the amount of crop loss due to pests and weeds.
The use of GM crops has significantly changed the cost effectiveness of commercial crop production. One study estimated a benefit of three cent per product purchased, amounting to over 2 billion dollars annually (Rousu, 2004). GM crops are more resistant to pests, diseases, and herbicides (Jones, 1999). This is a valuable cost-saving measure in commercial crop production. GM crops can require less water, fertilizer, and pesticides. Crops produced by GM plants can yield produce that has less contamination by toxins and pesticides and can extend shelf life of the crop. This is an incredible cost savings to both the producers as well as the merchandiser. In several parts of the world where fertilizer and water are at a premium, GM crops are instrumental in supporting the food demands of the local communities. This has been vitally important in combating global poverty (Lipton, 2001).
Conversely, there are also economic costs to the use of GM crops. Traditional farmers in developed and developing countries alike that decide not to use GM crops are being out-competed in the agricultural marketplace . GM crops are typically utilized by large corporations which are drowning the market with high productivity, putting the small farmer at a high risk for bankruptcy (Egziabher, 2003). In addition, farming operations that wish to use GM crops have to sign an agreement that they will not reuse, resell, save, supply, or transfer GM crop seeds. Therefore, small farmers especially are at the whim of large corporations supplying the GM crop seeds. Historically, in agricultural areas, especially in developing nations, farmers select seeds from the strongest plants to use the next season. The use of GM seeds short-circuit this process, so natural selection is not able to work in the way it was intended. This could put farmers at greater risk for crop failure by losing natural genetic variability in their crops. The crops will be at higher risk for a catastrophic event (Windley, 2008). In order to compete with the large corporations that supply GM seeds, farmers might be lured to utilize higher concentrations of fertilizer and herbicides to increase crop yield in order to be competitive (Egziabher, 2003).
Environmental Benefits and Costs
The environmental benefits of using GM crops are numerous. As mentioned earlier, GM crops can reduce the water, fertilizer, and pesticide use in crop production. This has numerous environmental implications. Water is becoming a limiting resource in many areas of the world. Fertilizer and pesticide use are causing both water and air pollution. Using GM crops could therefore have a beneficial impact on pollution levels as well as preserving water resources (Whitman, 2000).
The environmental costs to utilizing GM crops primarily involve the loss of biodiversity. Native crops will be selected against compared to GM crops that can withstand greater environmental stress (drought and insect and weed infestations). Natural selection favors the hardiest individuals in a population. The incremental increase in hardiness to environmental fluctuations will give the GM crops an advantage and the native crop species will diminish. But retaining the genetic variation within crop species is very important. They are more adaptable to sudden changes in the environment in comparison to the genetic variation-deficient GM crops (Windley, 2008). In addition to a loss of plant biodiversity, there is the potential for impacts to bird and insect biodiversity in areas using GM crops (Losey et al., 1999).
Human Health and Nutrition Benefits and Costs
GM crops can provide numerous benefits to human health and nutrition. GM crops typically require a lot less herbicides and pesticides than naturally occurring crops. This has important implications in the exposure of the consumer to these chemicals. Technology can also potentially alter crops genetically so they produce less of the proteins that cause allergic responses in humans (Hefle, 2001).
There has been a lot of negative press on the risks of eating GM crops. Whereas there is the potential they could be modified to reduce allergens, many studies have shown an increased risk for allergic reactions from genetically modified food products (Hefle, 2001). The use of genes from various organisms (usually viruses and bacteria) also raising concerns for human health. It is postulated that genetically modified organisms used to make GM crops can increase resistance to antibiotics (Huffling and Sattler, 2005). There are also examples of toxins formed from GM crops was present in the bloodstream of 93 percent of pregnant women (O’Neil, 2011).
The use of GM crops still needs more research to determine the safety to human health, the environment, and economics. With the increasing anthropogenic stress on the environment, the effects of using GM crops could be magnified. Although there are considerable economic benefits, the long term effects of using GM crops need to be considered. In developing nations it may seem clear that it makes sense to use GM crops for food security and to alleviate environmental impacts, but the economic stress on small traditional farmers cannot be overlooked. This is an issue that needs to be addressed at the local level to weigh the potential costs and benefits of using GM crops.
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