In the contemporary society, there are various issues that tend to be very controversial yet essential for human existence. One of such issues is related to genetically modified organism (GMO) that is used in food production. GMOs are the organisms that were altered through genetic engineering for the improvement of their qualities and consequent different use in the human life. They are often used for food and industrial purposes. The aim of this paper is to explore the issue of genetically modified organisms from the contemporary perspective and outline their pros and cons. In this regard, attention is paid to food aspect and human consumption of GMOs.
The issue of GMOs is not very new and is a scientific response to the global trends in human development –lack of food and natural resources for the increasing human population. While ordinary food plants suffer from various diseases, weather conditions and are affected by pesticides, genetically modified cultures can withstand all of the harmful influences of the environment (Bertheau, 2012, p. 76). Starting from 1996 when the GM crops were cultivated for commercial purposes on 2.8 million hectares, the areas used for cultivation of GM crops began to increase worldwide. In 2005, the number was around 90 million hectares and in 2009 – 134 million (Kaphengst et al. 2011, p. 1). Moreover, figures vary by country but are largely conditioned by the large population of each country:
“The countries with major areas relying on GM crops in 2009 were the USA (64
million hectares), Brazil (21.4), Argentina (21.3), India (8.4), Canada (8.2), China
(3.7), Paraguay (2.2), and South Africa (2.1 million hectares). There are only four
major GM crops that dominate the market: soybean, cotton, maize and canola”
(Kaphengst et al. 2011, p. 1).
Thus, the aforementioned data demonstrates that GMOs are the contemporary reality of the human development, and its presence is unavoidable. Consequently, it is essential to realise both pros and cons of this technology and its implications for the human life and global development.
First of all, the primary advantage of GM foods is that they can provide more food within a short period rather than conventional agriculture. Consequently, GM foods are the primary solution of the global hunger problem. Since GMO can withstand low temperatures or draughts; they are prone to insects and other harmful organisms from the surrounding environment and their growth pattern can be altered, GMO crops can be easily predicted and used according to existing necessity of food on this or that country (Carter et al., 2011, p. 45). Moreover, from an economic perspective, although GM seeds are more expensive than the ordinary ones, their final harvest is higher and more nutritive. Farmers also do not need to use pesticides and any other mean of protecting crops from various diseases (Bertheau, 2012, p. 74).
In this regard, benefits are mutual both for farmers and consumers. From the farmers’ perspective, the availability of GM seeds gives an opportunity for the small-scale farms to survive irrespective of the conditions of the surrounding environment. Thus, the economy is stronger when smalls businesses can survive. On the other hand, from the perspective of consumers, people can get the desired amount of food within a shorter time, and its availability is more guaranteed than in the case of the usual foods (Jacobsen et al., 2013, p. 652). Moreover, the nutritive value of GM foods can be altered by the addition of desired nutritive properties specifically required in some geographical areas. For instance, one of the most significant nutritive modifications was Vitamin-A enriched rice – “golden rice” (Regis, 2015, p. 30). Also, GM foods have altered and improved taste, which often cannot be guaranteed in the case of the ordinary foods.
The counter-argument for the economic and nutritive advantage of GM foods is the negative impact on human health and lack of knowledge about long-term implications of GM foods on the future generations (Bertheau, 2012, p. 53). In this regard, genetic modifications of food are considered to be one of the causes of allergic reactions. The main reason for this is the fact that genetic modifications of food often add unusual proteins which could not be found in the ordinary plants. Consequently, the reaction of the human body to these new proteins can create an allergic reaction to the products to which people were not allergic to, at the first place (Carter et al., 2011, p.112). Moreover, another aspect is high toxicity of GM foods conditioned by the high toxicity of the transgenes and its impact on human genes.
In this regard, human genetics explores the impact of GM foods on the human genome. The primary concern is that human genes can mutate under the impact of various factors including the trends in the surrounding environment and presence of certain pathogens within the human body. Consequently, the addition of new genetically modified proteins into the human body and it consequent processing can result in stimulation of certain genetic changes in the human body and formation of abnormal cells, which can be triggered both by internal and external factors (Legge and Durant, 2010, p. 69). The potential development of abnormal cells, or in other words, cancer is perceived by some researchers to be due to the GM foods (Forman, 2010, p. 82). However, due to the vast number of causes of cancer and their inter-related nature, very few studied can tell exactly whether GM foods cause cancer on their own or not (Bertheau, 2012, p. 45).
The most recent argument regarding GM foods and cancer was related to the independent research conducted for the World Food Organisation regarding Roundup Ready Corn produced by Monsanto Company. The findings of the report demonstrated that thanks to GM modification, corn crops could survive the impact of glyphosate pesticide, but they would absorb it and carry to the human body. The report suggested that clinical exploration showed that glyphosate was carcinogenic, meaning that it was causing cancer in the human body (Forman, 2010, p. 60). The primary implication of these findings for the GM foods discourse is that it demonstrates the secondary issues related to genetic modifications. Although GM changes in the plant itself were not related to cancer in this instance, this case demonstrates that various health issues related to GM foods and interaction with other pathogens were not studied systematically (Regis, 2015, p. 32).
This was not the first wave of public critics of American Monsanto Company, which is the leader in GMOs in the USA and has the strongest position in the national food supply sector. It is also one of the global GMO companies, with seeds and trait sales of $7,797 million in 2009. It owned 29 per cent of the global seed market in 2009 and it continued to invest significantly into agro-technological research and development, emphasising the significance of GMOs and creating the impression that they are the only solution (Regis, 2015, p. 33). This company and its dominance in the market of the American foods is an example of the corporate nature of the GMO industry and that one of the primary public concerns is that GMOs are not designed to be healthy for people but easily to grow and sells for the benefit of multinational corporations like Monsanto Company (Jacobsen et al., 2013, p. 653).
Another health issue related to GM foods is the decreased efficiency of antibiotics. The primary minus of antibiotics is that with constant use, the human body get used to them and their efficiency decrease. That is why many healthcare systems in the world are fighting the war with over-prescription of antibiotics. The role of GM foods in this context is that often various plants are modified with the use of antibiotics in order to increase their survivability against various diseases. Consequently, when GM food with present antibiotics in it is consumed the human body processes that amount of antibiotics and becomes more immune to their future effect (Jacobsen et al., 2013, p. 652). From a long-term perspective, the implication of this tendency is the increase in long-term infectious diseases and further weakling of the human immune system (Regis, 2015, p. 35).
“€300 million worth of EU research conforming GMO safety was co-financed by the
European Commission. This work involved more than 400 independent research
groups and confirmed that the use of more precise technology and the greater
regulatory scrutiny probably makes GMOs even safer than conventional plants and
foods, and that GMOs are not per se more risky than conventional plant breeding
technologies ” (EuropaBio, 2013).
Thus, it can be argued that concerns related to allergies, cancer and antibiotics can also be present in the case of ordinary plants and foods that can be exposed to various factors of influence from internal and external environments. For instance, the ordinary plants not protected by genetic modifications are more likely to mutate under the influence of the surrounding environment and pollutants. In other words contemporary environment is far from being pure and ideal for the conventional plants; thus, their modifications are essential for the pants survival and reduction of further unexpected mutations (Jacobsen et al., 2013, p.652).
Exploring the significance of GM foods from the environmental perspective, it also has dual views. From the positive perspective, the cultivation of GM crops results in the decreased amount of used chemicals and environmental pollutants. In this regard, GM foods tend to be more eco-friendly than the conventional ones and their cultivation. Consequently, the preference of GM food contributes to the decrease of greenhouse gas emission. For instance, “10 million cars off the road is the equivalent of how much greenhouse gas emissions were saved in 2011 with the use of GMOs” (EuropaBio, 2013).
Another essential issue in the contemporary agriculture is the exhaustion of land resources and the consequent use of fertilisers of the increase of the required soil properties. Although fertilisers can boost crops’ yield for a certain period, sooner or later the land loses its natural capacities and becomes virtually unusable for the agricultural purposes (Bertheau, 2012, p. 68). Under the conditions of the increased world population and the use of land for constructions and other activities, the loss of fertile soils is a tremendous issue. The primary benefit of GM crops is that their increased productivity reduces the amount of land resources required. For instance, the recent findings demonstrate:
“108.7 million hectares of land were saved from being farmed between 1996 and
2011 with the use of biotech crops. Higher productivity of GM crops means more can
be grown on a given piece of land, which contributes to preserving land that currently
provides a haven for biodiversity or is used for conservation” (EuropaBio, 2013).
On the other hand, the antagonists argue that the presence of GM plants in the surrounding environment has destructive implications for the ecosystem and survival of various species. In this regard, it is stated that the natural eco-cycle becomes even more distorted with the presence of GM plants that can stimulate the destruction of some insects and consequently stimulate population of the others. Ecosystem is very vulnerable to changes even in single element and consequences can be tremendous (Carter et al., 2011, p. 109). The example is bees that are found to be reluctant to pollinate some GM plants that can develop new diseases in bees the population of which is decreasing globally (Forman, 2010, p. 53).
Other ecological concerns are related to domino effect of GM modifications. By growing GM plants in the natural environment, there are no precautions and limitations to the natural processes of cross-breeding and further mutation of both natural and GM plants. In this regard, while in the laboratory environment all factors influencing the studied genetic modification are known and controlled, in the natural environment they are unpredictable and can result in a long-term irreversible impact on the ecosystem. Moreover, these constant mutations and cross-breeding would require further genetic modifications and their consequent control (Regis, 2015, p. 37).
At the present stage of the argument, particularly regarding environmental issues, protagonists look at the issue from the contemporary perspective and the current necessities of human survival and the reduction of the greenhouse effect gases. On the other hand, the antagonists of GM food are thinking from a long-term perspective of potential negative implications. Although both arguments are relevant, due to the relatively short-term presence of GM foods in the human practice, there is no profound research on how GM foods will affect ecosystem in the future (Forman, 2010, p. 59). In this regard, it is hard to predict many other factors that are shaping the contemporary ecosystems in various regions of the world. For instance, other aspects of human activity, pollution, radiation, natural disasters reshape ecosystems tremendously. With such crucial changes and powerful factors, the impact of GM plants on ecosystem looks very insignificant (Legge and Durant, 2010, p. 63).
Thus, it can be argued that irrespective of both pros and cons in the matter of GM foods, the issue has to be addressed in terms of present-day necessities and relevance for human survival. For instance, in the places where people are dying from hunger this discussion is absolutely irrelevant since the food is crucial for one’s survival (Bertheau, 2012, p. 81). Another aspect is that under the conditions of global recovery from the economic crises, various countries could invest money in the research of more essential matters than GM foods, especially since various research institutes continue to research the issue within their own diverse scopes. The best example is the case of the EU:
“€ 9.6 billion of unnecessary cost to the EU economy is what a report by the
European Commission estimated when examining the impact of trade-related
incidents with shipments sent back to the countries of origin, as a consequence of the
slow pace of the GM authorisation process in the EU, combined with a zero
tolerance policy” (EuropaBio, 2013).
Overall, it can be concluded that the issue of GM modifications remains quite controversial in the contemporary society. Irrespective of numerous advantageous and crucial necessities of GMOs in the contemporary society, their long-term impact on human well-being might be more harmful than the interim benefits that seem to be so attractive. Although it may seem that scientists know what they are doing for the common good, history demonstrates that human alterations of nature usually have irreversible consequences that make human life virtually impossible. Although the existing economic and nutritive problems require immediate responses and actions, there are more harmless options than GMOs, and they should be used.
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