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Review on GM organisms

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A Genetically Modified (GM) or transgenic crop is a plant whose DNA has been altered or modified using genetic engineering with the aim of introducing a desired trait to the plant which doesn’t exist naturally in the plant species. The characteristics of a living organism are determined by its genetic makeup. Genetically Modified crops have had sections of DNA coding for a specific trait, for example, resistance to certain diseases, inserted into their genomes. This means that the seeds produced by these genetically altered plants will inherit this new trait. This has proved to be extremely beneficial and many countries have been quick to adopt this new practice, however, some are still against the idea of the introduction of GM foods. This topic has been the subject of vandalism, protests, and many scientific disputes.

As of 2015[1], GM crops have been cultivated in 28 countries and on 179.7 million hectares, over 10% of the world’s arable land! This is a huge jump from the initial 1.7 million hectares planted in 1996[2] – when the first biotech crop was commercialized. The leading producers[3] of these transgenic crops are The United States Of America, Brazil, and Argentina. Genetically Modified crops hold many benefits. Clive James[4], of Cornell University, writes a compelling article on the impact of the adoption of the genetically modified lifestyle and also its future. Although he presents a strong argument replete with evidence and logical reasoning, he fails to mention the adverse effects that these crops can have on its consumers and the environment around it. It is also important to keep in mind that his article was published in 2010, almost 8 years ago, and there have been many new findings since then.

In his article, James talks about the environmental, economic, and welfare benefits that Genetically Modified crops continue to provide, even in countries like Africa ‘where the challenges are greatest’. Although implementation would be difficult here, it is the continent that needs it most[5]: one in four people in Sub-Saharan Africa are affected by malnutrition and starvation, and nutrient-rich biotech crops can go a long way in alleviating poverty and starvation. One example of this is how a drought-tolerant corn called “Bazooka” has done wonders for a Ugandan farmer Josephine Nansamba[6] who was offered the seedlings as part of a pilot test. Her yields have tripled and her income has increased to an added $180 per hectare. “It is maize that brings us money,” her husband says. “The coffee dried up.” This heartwarming example of how transgenic crops rescued a family of ten indisputably demonstrates how the adoption of these GM crops increases, the quality of life for these families is improving too.

James goes on to talk about how biotech crops can reduce agriculture’s environmental footprint. This, in turn, leads to the mitigation of climate change by drastically reducing the percentage of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Evidence of this is shown in the numbers- In 2009[7], biotech crops saved 17.7 billion kg of Carbon Dioxide. To put that into perspective, it is equivalent to 7.8 million fewer cars on the roads. This drastic change has a massive positive impact on our planet, securing a place that is fit to live in for plenty of future generations to come.

Environmental benefits are not the only thing that biotech crops promise. There are a lot of economic gains associated with the production of these crops, especially for the farmers who cultivate them. American farmers[8] have benefited most from these higher incomes, earning over $53.2 billion in extra income from 1996 to 2012. This is easily explained by the fact that American farmers were the first to make widespread use of this GM crop technology. What is surprising (yet reassuring) however, is that these economic gains have been divided roughly equally between farmers in developed and developing countries. This indicates that GM technology can be developing countries’ key to accelerating the rate at which they grow and develop, enabling them to keep up with the countries in better economic situations, rather than being left behind in an unfair race.

While all of these benefits seem compelling enough, much like most things in life, there is always another side to the story. Over 35 countries, including many European countries and Russia, have banned or have placed severe restrictions on the production and consumption of these genetically modified foods. The two main reasons for these restrictions are health-related and environmental concerns, while some countries just want to do more thorough research until they are sure that these genetically modified crops are completely safe to consume.

In 1998, Steven M. Druker, a public interest attorney and the Executive Director of the Alliance for Bio-Integrity, initiated a lawsuit which forced the FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) to publish all of its files on genetically engineered foods. In 2015, he went on to publish a book on the lawsuit and expose the flaws that exist in the FDA’s policies and the potential hazards of GM foods called “Altered Genes, Twisted Truth: How the Venture to Genetically Engineer Our Food Has Subverted Science, Corrupted Government, and Systematically Deceived the Public”. In his book, Druker claims that the FDA lied about facts, covered up the warnings of its scientists about the risks, and pushed these foods onto the market, violating federal law.

Furthermore, studies have been conducted by other countries which go against the findings of the FDA and WHO (World Health Organization). The results of a study[9] published in “Environmental Sciences Europe” has raised many questions about the negative effects of the long-term consumption of genetically modified foods. The study found a severe kidney and liver damage, hormonal disturbances, and also large cancerous tumors in rats who were fed GM maize. Another study[10] has associated GM foods with severe stomach inflammation and enlarged uteri in pigs. If the findings of these studies do not warrant the ban of GM foods until more research is done, they should at least urge countries to reassess their stance on the matter for their inhabitants’ and their own safety.

Irina Ermakova[11], Vice President of Russia’s National Association for Genetic Safety feels “It is necessary to ban GMOs, to impose a moratorium (on) it for 10 years. While GMOs will be prohibited, we can plan experiments, tests, or maybe even new methods of research could be developed.” She went on to say that “all GMOs are dangerous.” And “should be stopped.”

GM crops are sprayed with a variety of pesticides and toxic chemicals. The Pesticide Action Network North America[12] (PANNA) believes that childhood diseases like cancers, autism, birth defects and asthma are all on the rise because of this overuse of pesticides. The process of genetic engineering itself is dangerous, as tampering with the intricate genetic makeup of an organism could lead to a disruption in the functioning of neighboring genes which could potentially give rise to toxic or allergenic molecules. When these crops are released into the open, cross-pollination can occur between the GM plant and natural varieties of the same crop. This then leads to genetic contamination. According to a study[13] published in “Nature”, indigenous varieties of corn in Oaxaca, Mexico, were contaminated by Bt corn, highlighting how this could endanger natural varieties of the species. These GM crops can also have adverse effects on other living organisms. For example[14], Bt corn was found to have destroyed the larvae of the Monarch butterfly. This has led to people worrying that these biotech crops may cause a loss of biodiversity of those sharing an environment with it.

A combination of all these reasons has caused 35 countries to issue strict bans and restrictions on GM crops. The spread of these GM crops is taking place so fast that if the problem is not addressed soon, it might be too late to reverse the damage that these transgenic organisms have done. Therefore most countries have decided to err on the side of caution and not consume these crops until they are 100% sure there are no negative side effects associated with the production and consumption of these foods.¬¬

Being a lover of the sciences, especially Biology, I have always been in awe of the concept of Genetic engineering. The ability to control an organism’s behavior and change their fundamental, fragile sequences of DNA to achieve exactly what you desire from them without affecting the functioning of neighboring genes is something that I will always look up to, because it is without a doubt, a monumental leap for the human race as a whole. However, what this project has managed to achieve, is to show me that there are other sides to this matter. You cannot simply tamper with an organism’s DNA and expect that all will be well. There are many things that we may not be able to foresee currently which could have adverse effects on the consumers of these genetically modified crops in the future. In simpler words, you must take everything with a pinch of salt. While everyone is captivated by the allure of these genetically modified crops who seem to be more profitable, nutritious, tasty and eco-friendly than mundane crops, they are turning a blind eye to the possibility that they may come with some disadvantages too. This research has enabled me to see the other side of this issue and it is because of this that I can conclude by saying that while the hard work and passion of the scientists who made this feat possible must be admired, I believe that more scientific effort is needed to build confidence in the acceptance and evaluation of Genetically Modified foods.

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