Main sticking points in GMO debate

Genetically modified foods are derived from organisms whose genetic material has been changed in a way that does not occur naturally. Changes in DNA are introduced through genetic engineering in biotechnology. This involves inserting a recombinant DNA into an organism, removing a specific gene from its genome or changing the configuration of a gene.

Most GMO foods available are derived from plants such as maize, soybean and canola. GMOs have a long history. Food enzyme production using microbial enzymes was the first application of genetically modified organisms, for example, the use of chamois in cheese production.

The first commercially available GMO food produced were tomatoes (FlavrSavr). They were genetically modified by deactivation of the gene responsible for the production polygalacturonase, an enzyme that is important in fruit ripening.

This allowed delayed ripening. This variety was licensed for production and marketing in the United States in 1983. Since then, many plants and even animals have been genetically modified, and debate has ensued with these developments.

Proponents and opponents of the GMOs have put up spirited defences of their positions in equal measure. What are the key arguments advanced by either parties? Arguments for use of GMOs Proponents argue that the world’s population has increased tremendously over the years, putting a lot of pressure on resources.

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Consequently, soils have been depleted and climate change has been induced by human activities. This, coupled with the emergence of plant and animal diseases, have served to reduce food production and the whole world is on the verge of severe food shortages.

Genetic modification is seen as a solution to the problem. Foods can be genetically engineered to withstand harsh climatic conditions, including low rainfall or common diseases. This is espoused to ensure food production in the wake of climatic change.

They also argue that these foods are rigorously tested for safety before being released for consumption using guidelines from standards’ providing organisations (FAO and WHO, 2001). In fact, there has never been any substantiated claim of human illness attributed to the consumption of these foods.

A paper published in the journal Food and chemical toxicology in 2012 by French molecular scientist Gilles-Eric Séralini, claiming that genetically modified maize induced cancer in rats, was retracted from the journal after fellow scientists questioned its methodology and findings. It is also argued that genetic modification has little difference with selective breeding in that they both cause changes in the genetic-makeup of closely related individuals.

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The only difference is that genetic engineering is precise because the scientist determines what genes to manipulate. Therefore, genetic change in organisms is not a completely alien phenomenon to be dreaded.

Genetic modification can be used to produce foods that provide vitamins and other deficiency causing substances, which will ensure a healthy Main sticking points in GMO debate world population. Vaccine producing foods maybe produced to protect people in the developing countries who are at risk of many diseases; hence preventing epidemics.

Arguments against GMOs On the other hand, opponents of GMOs argue that genetic engineering is fundamentally different from selective breeding. This, they argue, is because it causes the transfer of genes in ways that would never occur naturally. This, therefore, goes against Mother Nature and is unacceptable.

They cite the case when a gene from an animal is introduced into a plant. The most outstanding concern about GMOs is their safety.

While supporters argue that no proven case of ill health has been reported, opponents say that the safety of GMOs cannot be guaranteed. They insist that there has not been enough independent assessment to determine the safety of GMOs.

In addition, these foods may have long- term effects that are difficult to test for. The use of GM crops cannot be completely controlled. Therefore, they have the potential to damage the environment, the proponents say.

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Inadvertent cross-pollination could lead to the creation of ‘super weeds’, while insect-resistant crops could harm species that are not pests. Insect and disease resistant crops could also prompt the evolution of even more virulent species, which would then require more aggressive control measures, such as the increased use of chemical sprays.

Another fundamental issue about GMOs is that because of the work and resources required to develop them, they become patented to some corporations and/or individuals. This means that the owners of the GMOs will have control over the market and everybody else will be at their mercy.

This scenario is dangerous because poor farmers in the developing countries might not be able to afford them and this could worsen world hunger rather than alleviate it. The contentious issue of ethics also finds its way into the debate.

Creation of new life forms and introduction of genes from animals into plants is offensive to some people’s cultures and religions because they  are seen to go against their beliefs.

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