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Humans have always been subtly modifying their surroundings to better suit themselves; these actions range from the construction of dams to the domestication of plants and animals. Although these changes are generally beneficial to the humans they affect, especially in the short-term, they may have negative consequences for other organisms or, as time goes on, for humans. In recent years, much controversy has arisen over the use of genetically-modified crops. While the process of artificially selecting plants for better growth is nothing new, and the benefits of using genetically-modified crops are many, detractors argue that genetically-modified crops could pose health risks, threaten small farms, and jeopardize the delicate ecological balance, and thus endanger many other organisms (5). However, the benefits of using genetically-modified crops for food far outweigh the risks, and many of the risks can be mitigated with proper and thorough regulation and further research.
The use of genetically-modified crops for food offers many benefits. First, plants can be transformed so as to allow for the reduced usage of pesticides and herbicides. Farms that use Monsanto’s herbicide-resistant soybean and corn plants can use cheaper and more effective herbicides to prevent the growth of weeds without killing the crop. As these herbicides are more effective, less can be used to help decrease potential danger to consumers of the plant (1). Furthermore, both of these attributes contribute to decreased costs for the farmer, which can lead to increased profit for the farmer, while possibly reducing the price of plant products, benefitting many lower-income families. A long-term study recently completed by Göttingen University of Germany suggests that farmers who adopt genetically-modified crops have both significantly increased crop yield and profit margins, resulting in profits approximately 68% higher than farmers that do not (3). Additionally, crops can be altered to provide both better growth and nutrition, possibly helping to reduce malnutrition in underdeveloped countries worldwide. For example, tomatoes were modified so as to result in a longer shelf-life and improved frost-resistance (5). From these early results, it is possible that some crops can be modified to provide better growth in unfavorable climates, reducing the need for specialized environments, which would allow for better and more diverse agricultural growth in underdeveloped countries, which tend to have unfavorable climates for diverse plant growth. This along with the introduction of biofortified crops, such as “Golden Rice,” which provides high levels of Vitamin A, can vastly improve the nutrition of individuals worldwide, leading to a reduced incidence of disorders which result from nutritional deficiencies (1). A significant third benefit, which has recently begun to emerge in the research community, is the possibility of “edible vaccines.” Vaccines can often be very difficult to produce and store, leading to prohibitively high prices for those who need the vaccine most. However, new genes, which code for the components of the vaccine, can be introduced to cheaper and easier-to-store plants, providing these essential vaccines at a low cost (5). All of the above are very significant benefits that can result from the use of genetically-modified crops, but they are not without their risks.
However, many of the risks can be significantly diminished with proper regulation and further research. First, many detractors argue that by introducing foreign genes into plants, possible new and existing allergens could result, which could be dangerous for consumers. The most famous example of this is the identification of a brazil-nut allergen in genetically-modified soybeans, which shows that this could be a legitimate problem without regulation (4). However, the study that found this allergen outlines the benefits of effective research and regulation, as the allergen was identified and then removed to reduce the health risk. With proper and thorough regulation, such as that mostly practiced by the European Union, this risk could effectively be eliminated (2). Next, some opposers argue that the introduction of genetically-modified crops could result in agricultural domination by larger farms and corporations as the price of modified seeds can be purposefully inflated. However, this does not differentiate genetically-modified crops from any other new technology designed to improve agriculture. At first, fertilizers and tractors were prohibitively expensive for small farms, but as time went on and more research was conducted to develop more effective fertilizers and tractors, the cost of these decreased, as will occur with genetically-modified crops if time is given to allow proper research (5). Furthermore, as mentioned earlier, the reduced overhead cost that would result from decreased use of herbicides and pesticides and more efficient plant growth could actually result in increased profit for small farmers (3,5). Finally, detractors assert that genetically-modified crops could result in decreased biodiversity, which leaves crops more susceptible to disease. Furthermore, they assert that the possible interbreeding of genetically-modified crops with wild crops could destroy ecosystems, as the existence of many ecosystem lies on a very delicate balance, and a sudden surge in the number of tomatoes, for example, in an ecosystem could have unforeseen environmental effects. Both of these issues do pose potential, significant risk, but they will both be mitigated by further research, which is currently stifled due to opposition. The first issue is a problem with or without transgenic crops, as selectively-bred plants present in large-scale farming already form a type of monoculture, leaving them susceptible to pathogens. However, it can become less significant as the cost of researching genetically-modified crops decreases, allowing for new seeds to be continually introduced to the market, which are specialized for very specific environments. This would thus increase the biodiversity more quickly than selective breeding and reduce the possibility of any one single disease wiping out the crop of entire nations (5). Furthermore, governmental regulation could help ensure that some degree of difference is maintained with the introduction of new seeds, so as to further reduce this risk. The second issue can also be mitigated with further research. For example, genes can be modified so as to only be expressed in the presence of a certain sugar, so if interbreeding does occur, the gene will not be expressed and dominate the ecosystem, but farmers can continue to benefit from the effects of the gene as long as their plants are exposed to the sugar (5). Overall, while genetically-modified crops may pose legitimate risks, these risks can be diminished and possibly eliminated with proper regulation and research.
The benefits of genetically-modified crops for humans are many, and may even hold potential benefits for livestock. The use of transgenic crops can possibly pose health, economic, and environmental risks, but all of these can be mitigated with regulation and research. However, this research cannot occur with the significant opposition from generally uninformed consumers. If the benefits and risks were to be better presented to the general public, more scientifically-informed solutions could take effect, improving the lives of many and helping progress human innovation.
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