The Dangers of Genetically Engineered Food

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It has been estimated that the Earth’s population didn’t reach one billion until the 1800s. Roughly two-hundred years later, the human population is now above seven billion. This shocking population boom has led to an increased rate of malnutrition and starvation because the world’s food supply has not increased at an appropriate rate. However, science has provided mankind with the ability to genetically alter plants and animals to make them yield more food while simultaneously being less susceptible to disease. To many, genetically engineered food is a scientific miracle that will help to end world hunger. However, many critics have recently begun to see the flaws in these heralded foods. Genetically engineered foods are dangerous for three main reasons; they negatively impact the environment, they cause health problems for the humans that consume them, and they have not been sufficiently regulated. These three flaws show that the benefits of genetically altered foods do not outweigh the long-term consequences that are associated with them.

Genetically engineered food is dangerous because it can have a negative impact on natural plant and animal species. Genetically altered crops that create their own pesticides can carry the unintended side effect of creating insect populations that are more resistant to these pesticides. These genetically altered crops create higher levels of pesticide residue in the surrounding soil. This results in insects being exposed to greater amounts of pesticides for longer periods of time (Homer 97). The dire consequence is that “this heightened exposure to pesticides increases the likelihood that insects will develop pesticide resistance, rendering both GE pesticides and the natural pesticides used by organic farmers less useful” (qtd. in Homer 97). Just as overuse of antibiotics has helped to create more virulent strains of disease that are resistant to antibiotics, overexposure to pesticides forces pest populations to adapt which creates insects that are unaffected by pesticides. The long term result would be that farmers, whether they use genetically altered plants or not, would have to face the threat of having their crops decimated by pests that they could no longer get rid of with pesticides. An inability to get rid of pests that destroy crops would dramatically reduce the world’s food supply.

Genetically altered animals also pose a very real risk to the environment. According to Michael Homer, the editor of the Columbia Journal of Law & Social Problems, genetically engineered salmon is poised to become the first genetically engineered animal product available to consumers in the United States. Homer notes the environmental risks of farming genetically enhanced salmon by claiming that, “Multiple studies have suggested that if GE salmon were to escape their pens and mate with wild populations of Atlantic salmon, entire wild fish populations could become permanently wiped out” (110). Like genetically engineered plants, genetically engineered animals are detrimental to the natural populations of both plants and animals. These two examples show that genetically engineered plants and animals create a very real risk of permanent harm to the environment.

In regards to the environmentally damaging nature of genetically engineered food, the most pressing and controversial impact is related to rapidly rising honeybee mortality rates. Honeybees pollinate many of the world’s plant species, and their numbers have been steadily decreasing. There is a legitimate concern that genetically altered plants may play a role in rising honeybee mortality rates. Though there has not yet been a definitive link between genetically altered plants and the rising bee mortality rate, a recent study showed that: Pollen from Bt corn caused high mortality rates in monarch butterfly caterpillars. Monarch caterpillars consume milkweed plants, not corn, but the fear is that if pollen from Bt corn is blown by the wind onto milkweed plants in neighboring fields the caterpillars could eat the pollen and perish. (Pandey, et al. 478)

This study proves three things; genetically altered food crops can increase the mortality rate of certain types of insects, the pollen from genetically altered crops is the main culprit for transferring negative side effects from crops to insects, and insects do not have to come into direct contact with genetically engineered plants to be adversely affected by them. These three facts show that honeybees are highly susceptible to negative effects stemming from genetically altered plants. Honeybees, which pollinate a wide variety of plants, carry a higher risk of exposure to pollen from genetically altered plants than monarch butterfly caterpillars, which only feed off of the pollen of the milkweed plant. However, more research needs to be done to prove a definitive link between rising honeybee mortality rates and increased exposure to genetically engineered plants.

In addition to negative environmental impacts, genetically engineered food also carries many direct risks to the humans that consume it. There have been several studies on the effects of genetically altered food on animal test subjects, and, in many cases, the results have shown many negative side effects. Biotechnology researchers Behrohk Maghari and Ali Ardekani note that: Animals fed by GM crops have been harmed or even died. Rats exposed to transgenic potatoes or soya had abnormal young sperm; cows, goats, buffalo, pigs and other livestock grazing on Bt-maize, GM cottonseed and certain biotech corn showed complications including early deliveries, abortions, infertility and also many died. (112)

If genetically engineered crops can result in these problems in animal test subjects, it is logical to assume that humans are also susceptible to these risks. Though reproductive and mortality risks evince the dangerous nature of genetically engineered food, there are also other dangers involved with the consumption of these crops.

Another critical argument against human consumption of genetically engineered food is that these modified crops can wreak havoc on a person’s immune system response to allergies. Introducing new genes into a plant species carries the risk of inadvertently creating new types of allergens in foods. Furthermore, genetically altered food can cause allergic reactions in people who have existing food allergies (Pandey, et al. 479). There have already been a few instances where genetically engineered food has evoked an unforeseen allergic response in humans. According to a recent scientific study that assessed the risks of human consumption of genetically engineered soybeans that had been crossed with genes from brazil nuts to provide better nutritional value, “people with common nut allergies experienced significant allergic reactions to these GE soybeans” (qtd. in Homer 93). This study presents direct scientific evidence of genetically engineered food causing health problems for the humans that consume it.

Unfortunately, there are more hazards associated with ingesting genetically engineered food. In addition to the aforementioned reproductive and allergenic hazards, genetically engineered food also presents humans with the risks of “antibiotic resistance, […] nutritional changes and the formation of toxins” (Maghari and Ardekani 111). The fact that genetically engineered foods have proven negative consequences for both animals and humans, yet are still available to consumers, leads to one of the most dangerous characteristics of the current state of genetically engineered food.

Regulation of genetically engineered food is not sufficient and has led to many potentially hazardous foods being available to consumers. This lapse of regulation is apparent when genetically engineered food production and consumption continues to grow in spite of a continuing influx of information concerning environmental and health hazards posed by these foods. Recent statistics show that “In 1997, 17% of U.S. soybean acreage was genetically modified. Today, that percentage has skyrocketed to 93%. Other crops that are widely used in processed foods- from cooking oil to cornflakes- have followed similar trajectories” (qtd. in Helme 357). It is illogical and dangerous for production and consumption of genetically altered foods to increase while many scientific studies continue to unearth new dangers posed by these foods. Furthermore, many consumers have unknowingly ingested genetically modified foods because regulatory agencies do not require these food products to be specifically labeled as “genetically modified”. In order to discern that the regulation of genetically engineered food is not sufficient in the United States, one needs to assess who is ultimately making the decisions on food safety. According to Anton Wohlers, a professor of history and government at Cameron University, during the 1990s, “staffed with many former employees of major agribusiness corporations, the Food and Drug Administration cooperated closely with entities like Monsanto and touted the benefits of GM food” (22). The fact that the FDA, which is tasked with deciding what types of food are available to public, is staffed by former employees of agribusiness companies that have a vested interest in the proliferation of genetically altered foods is damning. This close relationship between the FDA and giant agribusiness companies presents a logical reason for the FDA’s positive slant on the safety of genetically enhanced foods. It is important to note that agribusiness companies like Monsanto are, at their core, concerned with profits. A regulatory committee’s main concern should be the public’s safety, and it appears that agribusiness companies are getting a say in regulation which is both unethical and unsafe. The idea that companies that produce genetically altered foods are getting special treatment from the government and regulatory agencies leads to the unraveling of one of the main claims that genetically engineered foods are completely safe.

One of the main arguments that agribusiness companies use to support their claims that their genetically engineered foods are safe for human consumption is that there is no definitive research proving any detrimental effects of genetically modified crops or animals. This seems illogical when considering all of the aforementioned studies proving a link between genetically altered foods and health and environmental hazards. However, these companies make sure to include the qualifier “definitive” when assessing links to genetically modified food and potential hazards. The statement that there is not a definitive link between genetically altered plants and animals and negative environmental and health hazards is technically true. Just as there are many studies that show the dangers of genetically altered foods, there are many studies that show these same foods to be completely safe. However, the flaw in this argument comes from the identity of the various researchers. All companies that manufacture genetically engineered food retain copyright to their methods of production and the products they produce. According to a recent article in the Cardoza Journal of International and Comparative Law, the giant agribusiness company Monsanto has used this copyright to prevent reproduction of their products and “have also explicitly forbidden the use of the seeds for any independent research” (Gregory 766). What this means is that the corporations who have a vested interest in selling their genetically engineered foods serve as the gatekeeper for any scientists interested in doing research into the safety of these foods. It is too easy for these companies to hide negative research results and proclaim the results of studies that reflect positively on the safety of genetically engineered foods.

Another common argument for the proliferation of genetically altered food is that it is incredibly beneficial to farmers who live in poor countries and do not own much land. While it is easy to view giant agribusiness corporations as evil and profit-oriented, the plight of small landowners who use genetically altered foods to increase their crop yield and nutritional value is tough to explain away. Genetically engineered food can be a boon to these farmers and the rural populations who depend on them for food. A recent study was conducted to find the benefits, if any, of small landowners in a poor region of India using genetically modified crops. “The results of this research confirm that the income gains through Bt cotton adoption among smallholder farm households in India have positive impacts on food security and dietary quality” (Qaim and Kouser 7). Though the crop in this study was not a direct food source, the genetically altered cotton plants did have a positive impact on the rural communities. Many supporters of genetically engineered food tout other benefits that can make huge positive impacts on poor regions that depend on local farmers to provide them with food. Genetically engineered foods can provide increased nutrition, crop yields, and create plants that are more resistant to insects and weeds. There is no doubt that genetically engineered food has many positive attributes that make it a perfect fit for farmers that do not own large tracts of land and live in poor counties. However, the argument that genetically engineered foods can have a positive impact on poor regions of the world is irrelevant. The benefits for poor regions are the same as the benefits to every region. The overarching theme is that regardless of the socio-economic status of the people this food is intended for, the short term benefits of genetically altered food do not outweigh the long term consequences.

Finally, many have claimed that genetically engineered plants and animals are an answer to the Earth’s overpopulation crisis. As the world population balloons out of control, malnutrition and starvation are becoming more prevalent. According to Will Ream, a professor of Microbiology at Oregon State University, “[the] shortcomings of traditional and organic agriculture are erosion-promoting cultivation practices and use of toxic chemicals that could be minimized or avoided altogether” (401). When this is coupled with the greater yield of genetically enhanced crops and animals, it is clear that these genetically modified foods can help fight the growing rates of malnutrition and starvation. However, even if you remove the specter of permanent health and environmental hazards from these foods, they still are not an “answer” to overpopulation. These foods are only attempting to fight the effects of overpopulation rather than the cause. In a sense, growing more food with better nutrition will only enable the world’s population to continue to grow. A true answer to overpopulation would examine the cause and then attempt to rectify it rather than simply treating the effects. If genetically engineered foods are an answer, they are only a temporary answer. Increased sexual education or education in general, combined with greater access to birth control methods in third world countries would be a better combatant of overpopulation than simply throwing more food at the problem.

In conclusion, genetically engineered food is dangerous and should be illegal because it creates dire environmental hazards, health problems for humans, and it is not being regulated correctly. Genetically engineered plants have been shown to increase insects’ resistance to pesticides, and genetically altered animals put wild populations at risk of extinction due to interbreeding. The health problems, for humans, caused by genetically altered foods include; greater resistance to antibiotics, reproductive hazards, and allergenic problems. These issues are compounded by the fact that the regulation of these genetically engineered foods has been poor. This has resulted in many dangerous foods being available to consumers who, because labeling is not required, remain ignorant of the fact that they are ingesting a potentially dangerous product. Though the public consciousness has grown concerning the dangers of genetically engineered food, there are already vast amounts of it being cultivated and distributed. Should these foods be determined to be too dangerous, the damage that they have already done may be irreversible.

Works Cited

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