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FOOD FOR THOUGHT: BENEFITS AND BREAKTHROUGHS OF GENETICALLY MODIFIED FOODS

By Heather Meyer
  

The growth of technology has been plagued with opposition because of public concern. The advancement of genetically modified foods has been no different. Despite all of the benefits that are possible with this type of engineering, this technology has faced intense heat from the public and the media. Not only do scientists have current uses for these products, but new uses are being discovered every day. The Green party has taken a strong stance in opposition of genetically modified foods, which has fueled the fire of negative public support. The industrial and scientific communities must find a way to converge the importance of this innovative technology with positive public opinion and support. The new breakthroughs in the area of genetically modified foods are far too important for progress to be slowed. Public misconceptions must be rectified in order to improve global conditions.

Genetically modifying foods, or transgenic crops, refer to specific "ways of plant breeding that allows scientists to improve food crops by introducing a copy of a gene for a specific trait into the seeds of another organism to create that trait? (Dorschel, 2000). Genetically modified foods really are not a new thing. Most plants share very little with their ancestors after natural breeding. So, the argument that scientists are playing God, is incorrect. Scientists are really only speeding up the natural evolutionary process for the common good. In times of crisis, it is sometimes necessary to take risks to avoid catastrophe. One advantage of this intervention in breeding is the precision that it allows. Natural cross breeding is extremely imprecise, but the genetic engineering allows for precise calculations and trials before any problems may arise. Research on genetically modified foods enables scientists to tell which proteins or other substances are toxic before they enter the food supply, which would be nearly impossible to detect in the natural breeding situation (Cook, 2000). So, as consumers fight to stop the introduction of genetically modified foods into their grocery stores, they ignore the fact that these foods may actually be safer than what they eat at the present time.

For scientists and producers, increased productivity and usefulness was the impetus for the proposal of altering the genetics of agricultural products. The practical purposes of genetically modified foods include faster growth, larger products, and more resistance to pests, heat, cold, or drought. However, there are many other far-reaching purposes for these foods. The increased growth and larger products are intended to help stop the global hunger problem in developing countries. New developments in this technology can also combat human and animal diseases, introduce improved nutritional value in foods, and help the environment by reducing pesticide and herbicide use. Decreasing soil deterioration and erosion are other improvements of genetic engineering in helping to protect the environment.

Specific innovations have been proposed in recent years that would be impossible without this biotechnology. Tomatoes and bananas that are genetically modified to contain a vaccine for hepatitis B that could eliminate the disease altogether has been discussed by the Monsanto group of the UK (Monsanto, 2000). This group has also started experimentation in a genetically modified rice crop infused with vitamin A that may stop the blinding of children in developing countries caused by vitamin A deficiency. With all of these impressive innovations, how is it that genetically modified foods are opposed by so many? The concerns that have been introduced regarding genetically modified foods are widespread. Some feel that these foods are not safe enough for consumption and worry that regulation of the products is lacking. Another concern of these products is that they will introduce allergens into the food supply. This means that if a gene from one organism is introduced into the seed of another, then if a person is allergic to the original organism, he or she may have an allergic reaction to the genetically modified product. As with most technological advances, people fear that the producers of these products will monopolize the food industry leaving hard working farmers with no business left. Finally, consumers are skeptical about these foods because producers will not agree to label the foods as genetically modified, which reinforces their belief that producers have too much autonomy in the area of production of these foods.

Many of these claims in opposition of genetically modified foods practically ignore scientific evidence. Much of this negative sentiment comes from a lack of knowledge. Consumers not only fear the unknown, but sadly, they also do not take the time to research what they propose to believe. If these people would only take the time to review the outcomes of some of these products, they would realize that the benefits of these foods far outweigh the risks. However, in defense of consumers, some of the findings may be difficult to understand without a scientific background. This supports the idea that many opponents of this biotechnology are not scientifically knowledgeable.

In terms of the concern about allergens entering the food supply, it has been noted that no genetically modified food on the supermarket shelves has ever been linked with food allergens (Dorschel, 2000). Scientists can never be sure that allergens will not be introduced, but the testing of these products is so extensive that it appears unlikely that problems would be overlooked. It seems more likely, however, that natural cross breeding may introduce these allergens since natural foods do not undergo the rigorous testing that genetically modified foods do. Many people have problems with the actual process of genetic modification, safety should be assessed based on the product produced by genetic modification and not the process by which it is made. Safety standards are set at extreme levels for all of these products.

The argument that genetically modified products are not properly regulated is erroneous. Several agencies are engaged in the regulation of these products. Two branches of the USDA, the Department of Health and Human Services, the FDA, and the Environmental Protection Agency all have regulatory duties regarding the approval of every biotechnological product that is proposed for sale to the public. APHIS is a specialized agency that regulates the safe and proper testing of new biotechnological plants. If any of these agencies find problem areas with the product then it will not be released for public consumption until the problem is rectified. Along with these regulatory boards, individual producers have set up voluntary guidelines and standards that each product must meet. Although this biotechnology is heavily regulated, some feel as though it is not enough in terms of the long-term effects of these products.

It appears that acceptance of genetically modified foods will only occur if the benefits are to consumers rather than to producers or the environment. The higher yields and more effective production benefits everyone. The direct benefit is to the producers because of the profit, but the consumers benefit from the producers being able to offer the highest quality products. Not only can the producer offer quality items, but they can also

develop new items such as the tangelo, which is a combination of a tangerine and grapefruit.

With all of the current opposition to genetically modified foods, there have been no findings that show any real problems with these products. So, in actuality, all of the negative hype regarding this biotechnology is based on propaganda from the Greens and scare tactics initiated by the media. Critics of genetic engineering will have to wait until some concrete negative effects are seen before their argument will be upheld in the scientific world. But, that does not really matter, does it? The hard work and technical knowledge of scientists will not change the minds of the public. So, what will it take to change their minds? This is the question faced by the producers of these miraculous foods. As stated earlier, the most important feature of a product to consumers is how much it will benefit them. Although these products have proven how beneficial they can be, it may take an enormous breakthrough such as the cure for cancer, to change people's minds. In the meantime, however, the current improvements, that may not hit as close to home such as improving nutrition in developing countries, will not reach their full potential because of the resistance of the global consumer.

In some way or another, every food at the grocery store has been genetically modified. This is the irony of the situation. Consumers have no problem purchasing miniature carrots or seedless grapes just because they are familiar and were introduced before all of this negative attention arose. Do global consumers actually believe that carrots grow that small or that grapes just grow without seeds? This is one of the most

convincing pieces of evidence for the effects of the media on public opinion. It is not only the media that has played an important role in the struggle against biotechnology. ?

Politicians are also vital in this cycle. As the media and the Greens inject negative attitudes into the general public, the consumers then cry out in opposition, and even if politicians can see the benefits of these products, they must follow the wishes of their constituents. For this reason, the government shows skepticism concerning biotechnology and scrutinize these products as to their safety.

To combat the reservations about genetically modified foods, producers must do several things. First, producers must make the public feel as though they are concerned about the issues that they raise. In this respect, a special task force should be compiled to gather as much information about the possible costs and benefits of this technology. Not only should this task force study previous findings, but it should also work for improvements as well. If industry can show the public that they are willing to invest time and money into making these products as safe as possible, then attitudes may change. This concept will also prove that producers are willing to take responsibility for their creations.

One of the most important revisions that must be made in this area is the amount of factual information that the public receives. Since the impetus of the opposition is misinformation, then the remedy must be increased knowledge of the subject matter. This biotechnology is not an easy concept for most to comprehend, so scientists and producers must develop some way of conveying these technical proposals and findings in terms that are understandable to all. To do this, companies should devise pamphlets or

magazines so that consumers can keep up with current products, future products, and new ideas. This may also give the public a chance to give feedback to the producers and to

propose ways that they might feel more comfortable with this new technology. In taking this step, producers are opening the lines of communication between industry and consumers.

Finally, the most prominent issue at the current time is the labeling of these products. People want to know what they are putting into their bodies. This is not a preposterous request. To rectify some of the misconceptions and mistrusts between producers and consumers, labels should be placed on all genetically modified foods. If for nothing else than to take some of the heat off, producers should concede to this request. By not labeling these products, producers are leaving themselves wide open to feelings of irresponsibility and skepticism. In the consumer's mind, by not labeling the foods, they must not be safe for consumption. Although this is not true, why not avoid the hassles.

In conclusion, genetically modified foods, just like all aspects of the biotechnological revolution, have come under extreme scrutiny as their numbers increase. Although the negative attitudes have little basis, producers have still felt their effects.

Amazingly, people are willing to overlook all of the miraculous breakthroughs that these products have provided just because they allow themselves to be strongly influenced by unscientifically supported theories. Nothing is perfect. But,just as the skepticism of past technologies has been refuted, so to will the skepticism over genetic engineering of

foods. The evidence of the benefits is far too convincing to be able to look the other way. With these health and productivity improvements, the global consumers must decide to

take the risk that they are confronted with, and take advantage of all of the innovations that these products have to offer.

References

http://www.monsanto.co.uk/. September, 2000.

Cook, John. http://www.usis.usemb.se/biotech/eur007.html. 2000.

Dorschel, Ryan. http://www.hermes.ecn.purdue.edu/Links/cfs_in_mg/0323.html. 2000.


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