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A Case for Genetically Modified Foods

Updated on December 8, 2011

Three times a day we plunge our forks and spoons into bowls and scrape the tops of our plates. We chew, we swallow, we digest, and we move on with our lives. Many of us do not give a second thought as to where this food is from and even fewer know what is inside; almost none know what it used to look like a hundred years ago. Food has changed over time in the hands of man, sometimes by chance, and other times deliberately. What began as farmers pairing preferable grains together has now blossomed into the modern day era where genetic modification has elevated what nature has given us. The use of genetic modification is man’s current highlight in the exploration of food. The use of genetic modification should continue as an industry practice because of its increased crop yields, economic bonuses, and potential world-wide higher standard of living.

The very first genetically modified food was a tomato called FlavrSavr, created by the Monsanto Corporation; it was designed to be able to ripen without softening (Martineau). From that first tomatoes release on May 17, 1994 the world would never be the same as genetic modification was decided, by the FDA, to be an effective and safe tool to enhance the agriculture industry.

As of 2011 just under ninety-five percent of all acres grown of soybeans grown within the United States are genetically modified. The other two main genetically modified crops with large percentages of acres grown are cotton and corn, each with two different varieties and both with acreages ranging from sixty-five to seventy five percent. Currently the other countries with a large percentage of genetically modified crops include Brazil, Argentina, India, Canada, China and Paraguay.

With the introduction of genetically modified foods in the early 1990’s crop yields have greatly increased. These genetically modified crops, especially soybeans, cotton, and maize have gained insect resistant qualities. This resistance to pests has allowed for an increased number of small farmers, who cannot afford pesticides, to keep insects away from their crops. The integration of a gene from Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt, bacterium found in soil, has made this possible. This gene can be modified for several different plants in order to target a specific nuisance causing insect. This also prevents the unnecessary deaths of non-target invertebrates including honey bees, earthworms and ladybird beetles (Avasthi). Each year it is estimated that world-wide nearly twenty-five percent of all food crops are lost to insects. The use of genetically modified foods has begun to slowly chip away at that number. This reduced use of pesticides and herbicides will also be safer on the environment as the genetic modifications are a biological agent counteracting the pests, reducing possible runoff which could poison and harm drinking water.

The number of pesticide and herbicide resistant crops is also beginning to steadily climb. This allows for those farmers, who choose to still use pesticides, to not have their crop affected by the adverse effects. Disease resistance from genetic modifications has avoided many shortages and potential disasters over the past few years for Americans as well. The largest contribution to net crop yield though is the increase in crop growth and size. Current weights of fruits such as tomatoes and avocados have nearly quadrupled, and strawberries can now be picked year round due to the new faster growth rate. These contributing attributes have led to an extraordinary rise in crop yields. This is seen not only in the United States, but across the globe as well.

The economic boost from an entirely new industry has greatly affected the economic standing of the United States. The export of our newly acquired crop yields has allowed the United States to continue bringing in revenue when many other areas of export such as fuel oil, natural gas, fertilizer, automobiles, and electronics have severally dwindled in recent years. In 2010 the United States set a record showing that “farmers’ exports reached an all-time high of $115.8 billion” (USDA). That figure shows just how large our export of food stuffs has grown since the introduction of the FlavrSavr. Although this would never solve economic troubles all together it does shoulder some of the burden; every little bit helps.

This industry also assists our economy with the creation of many science and technology fields’ related careers. The demand for genetic researchers has steeply climbed since the introduction of genetic modification. The rising need for these skills has enticed many young people to attend higher education in order to fill those openings. The increase in crop yields has also reduced the cost of many goods to American consumers. White rice, used in nearly every household, has reduced in price nearly ten percent since the early two-thousands. With fewer needs for pesticides and herbicides far less energy will be needed to spread them across the fields.

Biotech foods have grown in popularity not only among farmers with extensive multi-mile farms, but with small agriculturalists. “Of the 15.4 million farmers using the technology in 2010, 14.4 million were small-scale, resource-poor farmers” (James). This incredible number shows that genetically modified foods can be utilized by anyone. This accessibility would allow even backyard gardening enthusiasts to expand their vegetable gardens. A few more rows of carrots and potatoes may not seem like much, but if implemented by a vast number of Americans it would free up income for them and their families. The food industry, along with its genetically modified fruits, vegetables, and grain has given our economy a boost in the right direction in our current run of hard times.

With an increased crop yield and an economic boost genetically modified foods are in a position to potentially solve many world problems. With nearly three quarters of the population living in third world countries the planet is in a food shortage; genetically modified foods can change that. India has begun their road to the use of genetic modification with cotton. The government was skeptical about the results, but the country has increased their yield by sixty percent and plan on introducing genetically modified foods within the next decade. Brazil has begun to grow cotton as well as corn and is beginning to introduce several others including beets and soybeans.

New research into genetic modification has found the potential to remove the allergens found in many common foods such as peanuts. The removal of peanut allergens in the actual peanuts would allow many children to enjoy something they never thought possible and give worried parents piece of mind. This is not restricted to just peanuts but has the possibility to eliminate food allergies completely. In 2006 a pig was modified to produce omega-3 fatty acids using a gene from the roundworm. Increased vitamin and mineral contents in foods would allow for people all over the world a more nutrient rich diet.

Another area in which genetically modified fruits can be used to assist in third world countries is in the delivery of vaccines. In many areas of the world hypodermic needles are unable to be used due to a lack of proper equipment and/or storage facilities. Currently at the “Boyce-Thompson Institute, associated with Cornell University in upstate New York, [they] are developing a vaccine delivery system based on GM banana[s] instead of hypodermic syringes” (McHughen 174). The use of food as a vaccine delivery system makes complete sense often it is easier to ship and store food stuffs and it will be far simpler to administer to children than with a syringe. The implementation of a system that uses full advantage of the ability to transfer a vaccine through a food product could put an end to countless debilitating diseases that plague the third world. The most common vaccine preventable diseases are Pneumococcal diseases, Measles, Rotavirus, and Influenza and in 2002 there were roughly 2,550,000 deaths of children under the age of five from these and other VPD’s (CDC) . With the use of those vaccine carrying fruits it would have been possible to prevent those and millions of other deaths every year. The potential for genetic modification looks to be very promising not only for those of us here in the United States, but for every other person on Earth, and certainly for those who live in the developing countries.

With every new industry come skeptics of the technology. Many who oppose the use of genetic modifications of foods suggest that because the industry is so new that we cannot predict the long term side effects. Unfortunately we cannot foresee the events of the future, but through intense research that is increasingly thorough we are able to prevent any possible negative results. Genetic modification has been put through the ringer of both public and private research facilities and little has been found to suggest otherwise. A whole scientific field should never be thrown away because its future is unknown.

One glaring concern of skeptics is that with these genetic changes the food stuffs may fall under intellectual property and therefore the farmers would be unable to keep seeds year after year. In the past it was, and still is, extremely common for farmers to use the same seeds from year to year to produce their crops. With corn, however, many producers have not saved seeds for decades because of a phenomena concerning corn hybridization. It is because as the generations of crops move forward the benefits of the parent corn plant is lost. It is because of this that many producers have stopped saving seeds, which is a practice that was in place far before genetic modification.

For other genetically modified foods that do not have the same hybridization seed tradition, such as soybeans, intellectual property does come into play. Due to the large cost of creating these genetic modifications it is clear that the patents held by the companies are legitimate. Monsanto has stated that it would never sue any farm found to have its gene on the field if it was by accident, say, by gene flow, but it would seek compensation if it was acquired illegally. Usage of these genetic modifications thus requires compensation to the creative companies. It would be illegal and unethical to refuse. Farmers are not by any means required to use a genetically modified crop, there is an entire market in organic produce. This gives farmers more options which could only diversify the industry.

Genetic modification has increased in use since its introduction and is likely to continue and “[w]ith an unprecedented 87-fold increase between 1996 and 2010, biotech crops are the fastest-adopted crop technology in the history of modern agriculture” (James). The increase in crop yields has given American’s more opportunities to get the foods they need, the economic boost has given American’s new jobs in a growing field, and new research potentials could put new nutrients into everyday foods as well as stem the tide of global starvation. Genetic modifications of foods have given us some insight into what we ate yesterday and what we may be eating tomorrow, but more importantly it may change forever the way humans interact with food; 7 billion people are depending on it.

Works Sited

Avasthi, Amitabh. “Pest-Resistant Crops Better Than Insecticide Use, Analysis Says”. National Geographic News. National Geographic Society. 7 June 2007. Web. 2 Dec. 2011.

James, Clive. “Biotech Crops Surge Over 1 Billion Hectacres.” International Service for the Acquisition of Agro-Biotech Applications Web Page. International Service for the Acquisition of Agro-Biotech Applications, 22 Feb. 2011. Web. 24 Nov. 2011.

Martineau, Belinda. First Fruit: The Creation of the Flavr Savr Tomato and the Birth of Biotech Foods. Ohio: McGraw-Hill, 2001. Print.

McHughen, Alan. Pandora’s Picnic Basket. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Print.

Vaccine Preventable Deaths and the Global Immunization Vision and Strategy, 2006--2015.

CDC. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 12 May 2006. Web. 2 Dec. 2011.

USDA. “Farm exports set record in 2010” Delta Farm Press Web Page. Delta Farm Press. 11 Feb. 2011. Web. 2 Dec. 2011.

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