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GENETICALLY MODIFIED MADNESS:THE PROBLEMS, SOLUTIONS, AND POSSIBILITIES

By Susan D. Maples
  

Genetically modified foods: Three simple words that have incited much angst in the international trade arena. Bombs in Seattle, the burnings of crops, vandalism of Burger Kings and McDonalds, and the boycotting of major brands are all results of this controversial topic. What are the causes of this uproar? How can they be solved? Where will the future take the “hot potato? of genetically modified (GM) foods?

I. THE PROBLEMS

The suspicion that genetically modified foods will somehow harm humans is one of the main cries of the opposition. The logic behind this argument is that animals may eat foods that have been genetically modified with a pesticide, such as the commonly used Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). The animals may then be eaten by humans and the Bt will harm the human system. Surprisingly enough, there seems to be no evidence for this often made claim. The fear seems to stem from the European food paranoia that resulted from the “mad cow disease?crisis as well as a few other food problems all within a matter of a few years of each other. This category of fear due to myth is discussed in more detail later. In addition to harming humans, opponents of GM foods cite the possibility of harm to animals as a reason to ban GM foods. This argument became common after the experiment that biologist Arpad Pustazai performed at the Rowett research Institute. He found that rats fed GM potatoes for ten days developed intestinal deformities and seemed to have weakened immune systems compared to rats that were fed natural potatoes. Others cite the case of the lakewing, a beneficial predator commonly found in the maize fields (maize is a major GM crop using Bt). In a laboratory in Switzerland, lacewing larvae that ate Bt-fed corn borers had a lower survival rate or developed more slowly than those that ate non-Bt corn borers. Similar harm was found when using alternative species that prey upon the corn borers.

Complaints about the harmful effects of GM foods include what is known as the “treadmill effect?and the “high dose/refuge?theory. The treadmill effect refers to the tendency of some insects to resist the Bt and mate with others that survived, thus causing each generation to become more and more resistant until the Bt is no longer useful. In addition to the Bt being ineffectual for the Bt-modified corn growers, and it would also be problematic for organic corn growers. This new breed of resistant corn borers will be able to destroy fields that are protected by traditional pesticides, which usually rely on Bt. The high dose/refuge theory has farmers use higher doses of Bt in the crop, nearly guaranteeing the death of the corn borer. The few that do survive will be forced to mate with nearby corn borers that have been in regular fields that surround the modified field. The theory is that the surviving borer’s gene will be diminished in the next generation since it mated with a regular borer. The problem with this method is that it requires a lot of extra work from the farmer (keeping the corn separate) and the survival gene may be a dominant gene and would be passed on anyway. Even worse, the survivors may mate.

Farmers have also expressed concern about soil contamination. Ecologists have discovered that the Bt toxin remains active in the soil for at least 234 days after the crop is plowed under. The Bt toxin can kill important soil organisms, affecting processes such as the breakdown of organic matter, which is essential to soil fertility. This concerned farmers that are unable to buy expensive chemical fertilizers. Also worrisome is the possibility that GM crops-- which are endowed with traits such as resistance to viruses, insects, and herbicides--may pass those characteristics along to wild relatives, thus creating “superweeds?that will spread over farmer?fields.

Aside from the possible harm to plants, animals, and humans, critics say that GM technology is not being given to the poor farmers that it claims to help so much. One of the main arguments of people who are for GM foods is that it will help poor farmers in developing countries in that they could produce more food and spend less money on harmful chemicals. Because of Intellectual Property Rights (IPR)--this allows patents to be liberally given for technological advances in the biotech industry--poor farmers cannot afford the expensive GM technology. Initially, it was necessary to have very specific patenting in order to spawn detailed and profitable research. Currently, only big corporations can afford GM technology.

Even if poor farmers could afford the new technology that was once supposed to save them, it would not do them very much good. Many struggling farmers live in extreme climates--very arid, tropical, or steep mountainous regions. With very few exceptions, GM food technology has focused on the cash crops that grow in moderate climates, such as maize, soybeans, and potatoes that have been modified with Bt (the pesticide). Poor farmers need GM technology that will allow them to grow massive amounts of food that can withstand the harsh elements of their climates.

Supporters of GM foods say that it will solve the problem of world hunger and all will be fed with all the new food. Curiously, the statistics on world population growth, how hungry people are, and why, all vary greatly. Some claim that the world can feed itself now and well into the mid-21st century. It is the poverty and marginalization throughout the world that is the cause of starvation. According to others, without the help of GM food, the earth will not be able to feed her rapidly growing population.

The problem is not actually having enough food in many cases; eating the wrong food is.

There is a push among developing countries to become self-sufficient. For example, the government in India subsidizes wheat and rice, largely to the exclusion of other crops. This has resulted in protein-rich crops such as chickpeas, mung beans, and lentils to be abandoned. Thus, more than half of the country’s population is short of energy requirements and three-quarters do not meet minimum protein requirements; 624 million Indians, though fed, remain malnourished.

Finally, public fear and myth cause trouble for the acceptance of GM technology. European consumers seem to be very distrustful since the 1996 “mad cow disease?scare, though it had nothing to do with the genetic modification of food. This fear was exacerbated by the Belgian recall of chicken, due to a high content of toxic dioxin. Following that was the $103 million recall of Coca-Cola in Europe. Combine this with the fear that comes with any new technology and the future of GM food may be in danger if no serious solutions come forth.

II. SOLUTIONS

There is so much conflicting information (believe me, I think I read all of it in writing this!) people do not know who to turn to for the truth; thus, they are bewildered and begin to be skeptical. The easy answer is: EDUCATION. The problem is how to educate people. I propose an internationally funded team of experts to fully research genetic modification in food. No private funds should be used and many different fields of expertise from various countries, developing and developed, should be included. This is to try to create as little bias as possible so that the matters of science would be done in the proper manner--empirically and without ulterior motive. Without this, people will not trust the research and will continue to believe myths. Once governments and their constituents know the truth about GM food, they will be much more likely to buy the products and produce them. International trade relations would be improved vastly. The press will have real facts to cover instead of incidents only incidents like that of the WTO (World Trade Organization) in Seattle.

Once the myths of GM food have disappeared, interest groups, private foundations, and governments will be much more apt to start research that will help poor farmers. A historical comparison illustrates this more fully. Hundreds of millions of poor farmers in the developing world (those on good soil at least) benefited from the green revolution the leaders were governments, international financial institutions, and private philanthropies. These groups come to the aid of poor farmers again, except this time for those in poor climates or by today’s standards, unworkable land. Thus, opponents of GM food will no longer be able to protest that those who need GM technology most are not getting it. Monsanto, a major GM seed producer, has already hired two researchers from Kenya to tailor their product for poor Kenyan farmers. GM food research has also produced “golden rice.? Fortified with Vitamin A and Beta-Carotene, this new rice could save millions of malnourished people, specifically in South-Asia where rice is already a staple. Not only will the people of developing countries benefit from being fed and fed nutritiously, the growth in the economy due to new trade opportunities. The entire world will benefit economically since a whole new sector of trade will be open.

In addition to focusing on benefiting poor farmers, several other changes should be made concerning the focus of GM food. The mass production of food is very beneficial. Though some statistics say the world can feed itself at present (which is debatable), very few say it can continue doing this infinitely. There will come a point when the use of GM food will be necessary to feed the world’s population. Mass production of food also benefits biodiversity by using less land (possibly even halting the exploitation of rain forests) so that natural habitats can continue undisturbed. These points were rarely made by proponents of GM food.

Finally, I think that more research should be making food more nutritional. Who does not want their croissant to be practically fat-free and have the nutritional benefits of eating a fruit-salad for breakfast instead? Not only would regular consumers like to have the food they love be more nutritious, but the malnourished would too. It seems like there is a universal demand for better nutrition. Focusing on better taste would also be received well. Americans are constantly craving new tastes and exotic food. The success of Olestra in potato chips and other snacks shows that people want taste but health also. This market could be huge. III. III. III.

POSSIBILITIES

What can be done with the genetic modification of food? The mind just dances with the thought of all that can be done. The tomato is a good example. Tomatoes have been genetically modified to be larger and stronger so that shipping will not damage them nearly as much as in the past. The produce world will never be the same. No more throwing out half of a shipment of peaches or plums or pineapples because they were bruised from shipping. With GM, these foods could be delivered in near perfect condition. The life of a fruit or meat or cheese could be prolonged so that the banana one bought two weeks ago is still good. The possibility of making bananas with harder peels and eggs with harder shells to protect them is real. How about a watermelon without annoying seeds? Or a peach with no pit and no fuzz on the skin?

Produce is not the only food that can be improved; though it will probably be a little further in the future. If beta-carotene can be put into rice, why not into bread? And a favorite candy bar? Many foods that are now considered “junk food?(food that is bad for a person) or “empty food? (food that is not necessarily bad, but has no real nutritional value) could be a health staple in the future. Imagine how excited the alcohol drinkers of the world would be if they were getting Vitamin C every time they ordered a beer! Of course, the parents of the world might be a little alarmed--but the possibility is there. Foods with much more flavor could have a modification to have a sweeter taste. Think of a sweet potato with a butter flavor, brown sugar, and cinnamon all grown within starting from day one. When ready to be picked, just bake it; and it already has these wonderful tastes since it has had its lifetime to soak into the potato. To say that what I have written about above is without use to society is pure madness. The benefits of genetically modifying food are immense. This is why the public must be informed, not believing myths and unrealistic possibilities. Action should be taken soon. There are people starving and malnourished who need this technology now. There are people like me who want to eat like a king, but have the health of an Olympian, and the body of a super-model. It can all be done--so why not start now?


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