By Eduardo Gonzales, MD
What are genetically modified foods. What are its pros and cons?
The term genetically modified food (GMF) refers to food derived from organisms whose genes (i.e., hereditary units) have been altered to allow for introduction of new traits. The process of altering genes is called genetic engineering. It can be applied to plants, animals, bacteria and other microorganisms, but currently available GMFs are only from plants. In the near future, however, GMFs from animals and microorganisms are likely to be introduced into the market, too.
GENETIC ALTERATION IS AN AGE-OLD PRACTICE
The practice of genetically modifying plants and animals is not new. We have been selectively breeding plants and animals for hundreds of years to create species that possess certain desirable traits. Examples of products of selective breeding are pedigreed dogs and plants that produce flowers of various colors. But the changes that are brought about by these traditional practices depended on nature. They are slow in coming and, as time has shown, carry negligible risk to both humans and the environment. In contrast, genetic engineering, which only started in the 1990s (the first GMF, a delayed-ripening tomato was introduced into the market in 1994) involves significant modifications in the characteristics of living organisms, not by natural selection, but by manipulation of their genes in the laboratory.
At present, genetic engineering is widely used in propagating vegetables and other crops and is focused on cash crops that are in high demand. It consists mostly of inserting foreign genes (i.e., from other plants or animals) into the genetic code of plants.
BENEFITS OF GENETICALLY MODIFIED FOODS
Genetically modified plants need less herbicides and insecticides and they yield products that are more nutritious, more palatable, and have longer shelf life than their non-modified counterparts. Genetically modified corn, for example, is naturally insect-resistant, while genetically modified tomatoes stay fresh longer.
Likewise, production of genetically modified foods is cost efficient, which translates into cheaper crops and products. It could therefore be the key to fighting hunger in this world where the population is rapidly growing. Some companies are also now producing crops that provide specific nutrients, such as milk proteins and iron. GMFs such as these that are loaded with specific nutrients can help ease the micronutrient deficiency in the diet of many population groups throughout the world.
ARE GENETICALLY MODIFIED FOODS SAFE?
Genetically engineered plants reduce the need for chemicals, pesticides, and other toxic substances that are employed in growing of crops. Theoretically, this should make our environment and the food we eat safer. But is this true?
Scientists who are proponents of genetic engineering say GMFs are safe and governments believe them that is why GMFs have been allowed to penetrate the market. Evidence that GMFs are not totally safe, however, is accumulating. The long-term adverse effects of early technological breakthroughs that have been performed on plants are now just surfacing, to name a few: pollen from genetically modified plants has been found to be harmful to certain beneficial insects; natural insecticides that many varieties of biologically modified corn produce stay and accumulate in the soil for a long time; many allergic reactions to genetically modified soy beans have been documented; rats that have been fed genetically modified potatoes have weakened immune system (and if this is true in rats, it could be true in humans, too).
What is becoming apparent is that in some instances, genetically-modified food products could adversely affect humans and the environment (ecosystem). This realization should, at the least, caution those concerned against unleashing “technological breakthroughs” before their long term effects are fully observed, evaluated, and understood.