There is considerable debate concerning the safety of genetic engineering and our food supply these days, and with both sides of the pros and cons constantly battling in the matter, how do we decide who to listen to? As with any issue presented before us, the more informed we are, the better we are able to make decisions that fit our lifestyle. T
he ongoing controversy over GMOs (genetically modified organisms) has Americans wondering if the foods on their grocer's shelves are really safe enough. As it currently stands, there are no regulations in the U.S. requiring GMO labeling – despite European bans on GMOs – leading consumers to question the regulation process, the safety of genetic engineering and whether or not what we are consuming will affect our long term health.
Genetic engineering has been around for centuries. People have long manipulated gene transference through hybridization and natural selection in an effort to better production and quality consumption. What is new to this process is the emergence of new and costly technologies and unnatural methods of injecting selected genes into plants and animals. Any time there exist methods that seem to go against nature regarding food and crop supplies or material interests, environmentalists take an active stance to ensure not only the preservation of our ecosystems, but our overall health. These efforts help in keeping the public informed of issues regarding the air we breathe, the food we eat, the products we purchase, as well as ensuring that regulations are put into place to protect not only the planet, but every organism that inhabits this massive terrene. Scant regulation policies and little or no labeling have environmental activists and average consumers greatly concerned. So, what is the debate surrounding GMOs?
The Good Side of Genetic Engineering
Before discussing the cons, it's important to understand that there is a positive side to genetic engineering. An array of bad publicity, especially directed towards such biotech companies as Monsanto, tends to give the impression that this is nothing more than a corporate-based commodity with the sole purpose of generating profit. As already mentioned, genetic engineering is nothing new, and its purpose has always been to improve crops for more productive, healthier, sustainable farming practices. This holds true for today's technologically based methods of genetic engineering.
The goal of genetic engineering is to help decrease the need for potentially harmful herbicides and pesticides by generating a resistance to insects and other damaging contaminants that threaten crops and animals. Making animal and crop production more productive leads to environmental benefits by decreasing greenhouse emissions generated by reducing the amount of natural resources lost through plowing and tilling. Substantial loss in crops due to harmful insects and other natural contaminants is not only a financial burden, but an enormous environmental burden caused by wasted re-sources.
Reducing this loss also generates greater production, which not only helps sustain food supplies in developed countries, but helps combat famine in third world countries affected by heavy losses in crops and livestock. Such technologies also claim to lower cost due to minimizing waste, while generating greater nutrition value by enhancing the breed of certain plant and animal organisms. In addition to conserving crops, this biotechnology also creates the potential of maintaining animal breeds that might otherwise be diminishing. All of these components are beneficial to maintaining food supplies, and supplementing malnourished populations with lack of access to sustainable food and nutrition, as well as stabilizing food costs and production in developed countries.
The Not So Good Side of Genetic Engineering
Scientifically modifying nature tends to make the general public a little nervous, especially with cancers and other health issues at a seemingly high rate in comparison to earlier times (though history is full of diseases and plagues). Consuming foods that have been altered by lab techniques, especially when said techniques and which foods they manufacture are kept hidden from the general public, certainly add to the uneasiness and distrust. But the truth is that there is cause for concern over the process. As mentioned above, the purpose of genetic engineering is to lessen crop damage, cut the cost of financial loss to farmers, increase food supply, and to have an overall benefit to poverty-stricken regions as well as prevent further poverty. Unfortunately, this is not what is happening. The poor continue to suffer and go hungry, and farmers are negatively, rather than positively affected by biotechnology.
The high cost of the technology for GMOs is not obtainable to small and medium-sized farms, leaving such farmers out of competition for the market. In addition, since most biotech farms are corporately subsidized, they can afford to purchase more land, ultimately pushing smaller farms off their land, and basically monopolizing the agricultural market. This creates a huge problem for the more remote regions that rely on growing their own food and have little access to public markets. This puts a dent in the claim of benefiting poverty-stricken populations, especially since hunger is not typically caused by a lack in food production, but a lack in access to food, land, and money. So, in the end, this idealized sustainability is actually creating a bigger problem rather than solving any issues surrounding hunger and poverty.
There is ongoing debate as to whether GMOs are safe, with one side claiming they are perfectly safe and natural, and the other claiming that biotechnology will lead to increased allergens and toxins. The method of gene transference concerns consumers about food allergens being transferred into foods that did not originally contain them, as well as other health issues or dietary concerns that come along with being uninformed of altered food. Scientific claims state that this is not possible, since allergens do not typically reside in the protein being transferred, but much of the research into this problem is conducted and/or funded by the very corporations manufacturing GMOs. The jury is still out on the environmental impact that GMOs will have, bringing into the controversy the potential hazard to local ecosystems with plants and weeds cross-generating after being genetically altered. Environmental activists against biotechnology are not willing to sit around and wait for any potential ecology disasters, instead preferring to preserve the natural environment.
How Do I Decide If GMOs Are Safe Or A Potential Risk?
The bottom line is to do the research and consider both sides equally, and then make the decision that best fits your dietary wants and needs. Push for the FDA to require labeling so that consumers are given the right to make informed decisions regarding their food intake. As it currently stands, unless the label on your processed foods clearly states that the ingredients are organic, chances are it's likely to contain genetically modified ingredients. More scientific research needs to be done to either put the public at rest, or determine its risks.
The biggest concern is that all research is being conducted by the corporations seeking to gain a profit from GMO production. There needs to be more room for public research that serves the interests of the public – farmers, the local community, and especially the interests of the poor. If the people that should benefit most from biotechnology are actually suffering more because of it, this should raise some eyebrows. More research can show that genetic engineering could in fact improve crops and farm animals leading to greater food security, but it needs to be done with this interest in mind, without corporate profit being the driving force.