When Genetically Modified (GM) foods were first introduced they gave the public the impression that the world was about to be saved from famine. Those genetically altered crops were trumpeted by vested interest groups as not only producing much higher yields but also to eradicate poverty and hunger in many parts of the world. Numerous exaggerated claims were made by multinational corporations regarding properties of the GM crops, such as their resistance to pests, disease and drought conditions, and their ability to adapt to harsh climatic conditions in countries across the planet.
The science of genetically modifying technology is however still in its infancy, having been introduced to the public for the first time in the mid-1990s. At that time, the agricultural industry and those multinational corporations having vested interests in genetic engineering were eager to demonstrate the viability of the technology and the process by putting the GM crops on the market. That eagerness led to what some would call an irresponsible rush to promote and sell those products, yet there simply had not been sufficient time to research the possible long-term health effects on humans caused by eating genetically-altered foods. There is no doubt therefore that GM foods need further research and study and should be the subject of regulation, due to their potential ability to harm human health, to destabilize the global food supply and to cause damage to the environment.
Gebre Egziabher (2003) stated that because GM crops are produced using genetic engineering techniques, it is possible they could introduce into the original crop “exotic genes” (p11) that may later prove difficult or impossible to remove if found to be unwelcome. Without adequate research, it could be that any problems are not discovered until the harm has been done, until the GM foods have been in production for human consumption perhaps for years. Whilst fears of possible effects including cancers and birth deformities may be labeled by some as scaremongering, we have only to recall the so-called thalidomide tragedy, (Fintel, Samaras, & Carias 2009) to realize that thorough research and testing is essential for the safety of humans exposed to new products devised by scientists and marketed for human consumption. That supposedly safe drug was prescribed to pregnant women as a morning sickness cure, but resulted in countless malformed babies in many countries worldwide.
Genetic engineering technology uses vectors – usually derived from disease-causing viruses or bacteria – and genes from various organisms, to promote and express the gene attributed to the required trait. Those techniques carry risks, as stated by Huffling and Sattler (2005), who said:
The use of antibiotics traits in genetic modification has been one of the sources of controversy and raises a red flag for nurses. There is concern that those traits could be transferred to the humans and animals that consume these foods, thereby exacerbating an already widespread problem of antibiotic resistance (p1).
The point here is not whether that has yet been shown to occur, but that the needed research to disprove it has not been done. As Colin O’Neil – a Regulatory Policy Analyst at the Center of Food Safety cited:
A recent independent Canadian study found that a toxin from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), which has been engineered into Bt corn, was present in the bloodstream of 93 percent of pregnant women, as well as in the fetal cord blood of 80 percent of the pregnant women. These findings cast grave doubt on the biotechnology industry’s assurances – accepted at face value by federal agencies including the FDA – that the genetically engineered Bt would be broken down by the human digestive systems before entering the bloodstream (O’Neil, 2011, p33).
Whilst the presence of that toxin in the bloodstream of those women tested does not conclusively confirm that it has not been broken down, it must surely be of real concern that it is present at all, and in the great majority of the women tested.
As well as the potential harm to human health posed by GM foods, they represent a significant threat to the livelihood of small farmers in developed and developing countries, who for the most part rely on traditional farming. Egziabher (2003) rightfully lamented the consequences of introducing GM seeds into the developing world.
With a few exceptions, GM crops are developed and produced by a small number of Northern multinational corporations. Also, all GM crop varieties, whether produced by those corporations or by Northern public research institutions, are patented. If these GM varieties are planted by the millions of Southern smallholder farmers, these already poor farmers will have to pay royalties to the Northern-based corporations, which are usually economically larger than their respective Southern governments (Egziabher, 2003, p12).
In order to purchase these patented genetically modified seeds, customers must sign an agreement with the seed manufacturer. The agreement stipulates that reuse, resale, saving, supplying or transferring the seeds to any person is prohibited because of the existence of the patent. By this means, the multinational companies retain an absolute monopoly in the production and distribution of the seeds, thereby undermining and compromising the livelihood of the small and mostly poor farmers. The more the GM crops gain a larger share of the world markets, concerns about the continuity of the global food supply escalate, as many small farmers may be bankrupted when they are unable to pay the required royalties to the corporations.
Finally, because most GM seeds are intentionally genetically engineered to be herbicide tolerant and to have high insect and disease resistance, scientists and environmentalists have expressed concerns that farmers may be tempted to increase the use of herbicides and pesticides. Egziabher (2003) expressed the fear that:
These GM crops may also adversely affect the biological diversity they come in contact with directly and indirectly – for example, by affecting pests, and other grazing animals directly and other species in the food web indirectly in a similar manner and thus shifting competitive fitness and eventual population dynamics. If different companies develop their respective herbicide-tolerant varieties of the same crop, the cross among all of them could become a weed that no herbicide could kill. (p12).
Another concern is that toxins contained in the GM plants may harm other organisms such as butterflies, bees and birds. Huffling and Sattler (2005) echoed those same fears voiced by other environmentalists, stating: “There is evidence that Bt enhanced crops may negatively affect monarch butterfly populations (as cited in Losey et al. 1999). (p.1).”
In the light of all the concerns raised and the evidence gathered against GM foods, the complex issues of the safety of genetically modified foods need to be tackled on a basis of caution and diligence. For that reason, GM foods must be regulated and studied for a greater length of time to evaluate not only their perceived benefits but their safety. Only then can we ensure their safety to prevent harm to humans, and to achieve a stable, global food supply that will also conserve the fragile balance of the planet’s flora and fauna biodiversity. A more thorough study of these foods before they become almost universally used should prevent possible far-reaching negative outcomes (such as major health problems and/or irrevocable damage to the environment and ecosystems). Such an approach would place us on a safer, more prudent and precautionary path.
Fintel, B., Samaras, A., T., & Carias, E. (2009). The Thalidomide Tragedy: Lessons for Drug Safety and Regulation. Science in Society: NorthWestern University. Retrieved March 3, 2013 from http://scienceinsociety.northwestern.edu/content/articles/2009/research-digest/thalidomide/title-tba
Gebre Egziabher, T., B. (2003). The Use of Genetically Modified Crops in Agriculture and Food Production, and Their Impacts on the Environment – A Developing World Perspective. Acta Agriculturae Scandinavica: Section B, Soil & Plant Science, 538-12. Retrieved Feb 10, 2013 from EBESCO database.
Huffling, K., & Sattler, B. (2005). The genetically modified food debate. Maryland Nurse, 7(1), 24. Retrieved Feb 8, 2013 from Gale database.
O’Neil, C. (2011). Consumers Call on FDA to Label GE Foods. Genewatch, 24(6), 31. Retrieved Feb 8, 2013 from EBESCO database.