Scientific and Political Aspects
of Genetically Modified Foods
While there is little controversy over many aspects of biotechnology and its application, genetically modified (GM) foods have become the target of intense controversy. This controversy in the marketplace has resulted in a firestorm of public debate, scientific discussion, and media coverage. The countries most affected by this debate are Middle Eastern and third world countries, who stand to reap the benefits of solving widespread starvation, and countries such as the United States, as strong suppliers of genetically modified foods. The world’s population is predicted to double in the next 50 years and ensuring an adequate food supply for this booming population is already a challenge. Scientists hope to meet that challenge through the production of genetically modified food plants that can help in warding off starvation as the world’s population grows.
Although “biotechnology” and “genetic modification” commonly are used interchangeably, GM is a special set of technologies that alter the genetic makeup of such living organisms as animals, plants, or bacteria. Biotechnology refers to using living organisms or their components, such as enzymes, to make products that include wine, cheese, beer, and yogurt. Combining genes from different organisms is known as recombinant DNA technology, and the resulting organism is said to be “genetically modified,” or “genetically engineered.” Genetically modified foods are crop plants created for human or animal consumption that use genetic engineering to alter their genetic content. These plants have been modified in the laboratory to enhance desired traits such as increased resistance to herbicides or improved nutritional content.
Drought is among the most damaging environmental factors in plant agriculture, mainly because plants either mature early to avoid growth in the dry season. To increase drought tolerance, plants can be genetically modified to improve one or more of these mechanisms. Many flowering time genes have been identified, and some of them may soon find applications in speeding up flowering and maturation of crops to avoid predictable droughts. Genetic improvement of the abscissa acid responsiveness of guard cells is expected to be beneficial for water conservation and drought tolerance. Additionally, plants may be genetically modified to have more hairs on the epidermis, to minimize transpiration by reducing airflow near the leaf surface. The water status of a plant is a function of water uptake by roots and loss via stomata and cuticle.
Therefore, in addition to conserving water by improving leaf characteristics, plant roots may be genetically modified to improve water uptake from the soil. Some plants such as mesquite trees prosper in extreme deserts because their roots grow to great depths to reach underground water supplies. Water channels — that is, proteins that transport water across cell membranes — are likely key players and thus good targets for genetic modification. Drought problems cause hardship to farmers worldwide. Genetic improvement of drought tolerance of crop plants through traditional breeding or gene engineering has shown encouraging signs that plants can be genetically modified to better cope with drought.
Of great importance to plant-based industries such as agriculture and horticulture’s the yield of grain or fruit. To be profitable, these businesses need high and steady yields year after year. Some of the GM food technologies offer great promise for large-scale analysis in the future. Genetically modified plants could be used when novel stress-tolerant properties are suitable for solving environmental problems. Such an example would represent a truly positive instance in which the use of genetically modified plants may not be so threatening in the eyes of the general public. Finally, a strategy worth considering is to make transgenic plants sterile so that they cannot easily spread their genetic material to plants that are closely related to the crop plant — for instance, to wild plants and weeds.
The basic science of biotechnology has existed since the early 1970s, but only in the middle 1990s did commercially viable genetically modified foods appear on store shelves in significant quantities. The new foods quickly became embroiled in controversy. The European public, due to the problems faced mad cow issues, stated these products as unsafe. Regulatory approval for new field trials of GM crops in Europe was stopped, and activists filed lawsuits against growers of GM crops in Europe for polluting the world’s genetic commons with products that God had neither created nor intended.
Similar events unfolded in Japan with the Japanese government and consumers demanding segregation and labeling of GM crops. In the United States, however, public discussion took a different direction. The new crops were hailed as allowing farmers to protect yields while using fewer harmful pesticides benefiting the environment, field workers and farmers. Within five years, U.S. farmers went from essentially zero GM planting to sowing the majority of the soybean crop and nearly half of the corn and cotton crop with GM seeds. Consumers, meanwhile, were largely quiet with the exception of large activist groups.
In 2003, about 167 million acres grown by 7 million farmers in 18 countries were planted with GM crops, the principal ones being herbicide- and insecticide-resistant soybeans, corn, cotton, and canola. Other crops grown commercially or field-tested included a sweet potato resistant to a virus that could decimate most of the African harvest, rice with increased iron and vitamins that may alleviate chronic malnutrition in Asian countries, and a variety of plants able to survive weather extremes. On the horizon are bananas that produce human vaccines against infectious diseases such as hepatitis B; fish that mature more quickly; fruit and nut trees that yield years earlier, and plants that produce new plastics with unique properties.
Technologies for genetically modifying foods offer dramatic promise for meeting some areas of greatest challenge for the 21st century. Like all new technologies, they also poses some risks, both known and unknown. Controversies surrounding genetically modified foods and crops commonly focus on human and environmental safety, labeling and consumer choice, intellectual property rights, ethics, food security, poverty reduction, and environmental conservation.
Genetically modified foods offer a way to quickly improve crop characteristics such as yield, pest resistance, or herbicide tolerance, often to a degree not possible with traditional methods. Further, GM crops can be manipulated to produce completely artificial substances, from plastics to consumable vaccines. genetically modified foods offer enhanced taste and quality, reduced maturation time, and increased nutrients, yields, and stress tolerance. genetically modified foods also are more resistant to disease, pests, and herbicides that pave the way for the development of new products and growing techniques. Animals are bred with increased resistance, productivity, hardiness, and feed efficiency. This results in better yields of meat, eggs, and milk. Environmental benefits include the conservation of soil, water, and energy, and bioprocessing for forestry products.
GM foods retain a higher level of pest resistance, which can help farmers to reduce their use of chemical pesticides, which in turn reduce the cost of food production. Some plants have been engineered to be resistant to weed-killers, so that farmers can spray a field with the weed-killer, wiping out everything except the crop. This also reduces the cost to the farmers of growing food crops. More and greater benefits will come from the development of vaccines, antibodies and other pharmaceutical proteins in plants. Vaccines extracted from GM potatoes, against hepatitis B and against bacteria and viruses causing diarrhea diseases, are already under test. Eventually they will be produced in bananas or lettuces or in tomato juice that can be ingested raw. The benefit to society is the greatest challenge, the potential for increased food security for growing populations and poorer countries in the Middle East.
These benefits do not come without risks, however. A variety of ecological and human health concerns come with the new advances. For example, protests have been based on environmental, human health, and economic concerns. Environmental concerns involve whether the pest-resistant crop plants may be killing beneficial insects as well as pests. Some studies have shown that the pollen of transgenic corn plants is toxic to the larvae of monarch butterflies. Another concern is whether the introduced genes will spread from the crop plants into plants growing nearby, creating “super weeds” that could not be killed by weedkiller. The transfer of transgenes through cross-pollination can cause unknown effects on other organisms, soil microbes, and loss of flora and fauna biodiversity. Research studies in this area are largely inconclusive.
Safety concerns include the potential dangers to human health such as allergens, transfer of antibiotic resistance markers, and unknown effects. Research on GM plants will bring particular benefits to health. Some have already been achieved through the reduced use of pesticides. In South Africa, cases of burns and sickness from agricultural chemicals have fallen from 150 to a dozen a year because GM cotton is sprayed only twice a season instead of more than eight times. Economic concerns are the most important as they relate to middle eastern and third world countries.
The likelihood that these poorer countries will not be able to produce genetically modified foods themselves is very high, due to their lack of money, resources and technology to produce them. The companies that produce them, such as the United States, want to make a profit on them because they have put a lot of resources into making them. It is these poorer countries, who might benefit most from the technology, which most likely would not be able to afford to buy the seeds. In 2003, countries that grew 99% of the global GM crops were the United States (63%), Argentina (21%), Canada (6%), Brazil (4%), and China (4%), and South Africa (1%). Although growth is expected to plateau in industrialized countries, it is increasing in developing countries. Unfortunately, the new advances in genetically modified foods are most likely skewed to the interests of rich countries, instead of the poorer ones advocates of genetically modified foods had intended.
Many countries once open to the technological advances of genetically modified foods have now rejected its benefits for several reasons. For millions of people in Middle Eastern and third world countries, rice is the main item in the diet. Because rice does not contain many essential nutrients, malnutrition is very common in these countries. Researchers have been able to create a transgenic rice variety that is high in vitamin A The intention is that this rice, if grown and eaten in developing countries, would reduce the diseases associated with vitamin A deficiency. Currently, research on this rice has been halted, following protests in Europe against genetically modified foods.
The protests in Europe against genetically modified foods have led many researchers to study the topic. For example, six out of ten Britons now say they are concerned at use of genetic modification in food production and want to avoid genetically modified foods, although most already eat them without realizing. This attitude emerged in a survey by the Consumers’ Association, which finds more respondents say they are against GM crops than a similar representative sample of around 1,000 questioned two years ago. Only a quarter say they favor GM crops being grown in the UK, compared with almost a third in 2002. Foods may contain 0.9% of GM material without being labeled as GM. The leeway is granted because it is difficult to segregate GM and conventional crops, and GM soy and maize grown in America are likely to have contaminated non-GM crops. Soya and maize are found in the majority of processed foods.
Millions of people in the world eat genetically modified foods every day. But recently, seized by fears over possible economic repercussions and potential health risks, many countries have chosen not to accept genetically modified foods. For example, famine-ridden nations in southern Africa have chosen to reject offers of GM food aid from the United States. Southern Africa has been in the grip of a devastating famine. A recent report from the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that nearly 14 million people, including 2.3 million children under the age of 5, are at risk of starvation. Without effective action the WHO says at least 300,000 could die from hunger and disease in the next six months. Aid agencies estimate that the region needs roughly 1.1 million tons of grain to address the crisis. Yet when the U.S. offered 540,000 tons of genetically modified grain to countries in the region, many countries rejected the offer.
Southern African leaders have concerns beyond the safety of genetically modified foods. Roughly half the region’s agricultural exports are sold to the European Union, where there is loud opposition to genetically modified foods, and where they must be labeled as such. African farmers fear that if they are no longer able to certify that their foods are GM-free, they will lose their share in the European market, as these European markets are an important source of income for southern Africa’s cash-starved economies. From 1999 through 2000, for example, Zambia exported more than 8,400 tons of produce to Europe for U.S.$62.6 million. Between 1993 and 1997, Zimbabwe’s export of peas to the EU grew by 53%, so that Zimbabwean imports account for 12% of peas and beans consumed on European tables. African agricultural experts also fear that, in order to protect their markets, biotech companies could introduce a “terminator” gene in their seeds, which would prevent small farmers from replanting them after harvest. This would make farmers dependent on big companies that control the price of seeds.
Zimbabwe, the nation worst hit by the famine, decided in early September that it would accept GM maize from the United States, but that it would quarantine the maize and closely monitor its transport, milling, and distribution. For Middle Eastern countries and other countries like Zimbabwe, accepting the U.S. food aid means breaking a four-year-long, almost continent-wide ban on genetically modified foods and crops. Back in 1998, at a meeting of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, all African nations except South Africa rejected GM crop offers by U.S. biotech corporations.
Zambia’s leader also explained his initial rejection of the food aid. He stated that the rejection was not intended to demean those who had donated it, rather it was done to protect the long-term interest of the Zambian people and the environment. He also stated that just because people are hungry in Zambia, it does not mean we have to feed them with potentially dangerous food.
Several countries, such as Algeria, have placed a ban on the import, distribution, commercialization and utilization of genetically modified plant material, except for research purposes. Egypt has declared not to import GE wheat. The draft Organization of African Unity (OAU) model biosafety law requires that all genetically modified foods, whether classified as food, crops, pharmaceuticals, or commodities, and products thereof must be approved before import, transit, contained use, release, and market release can take place. Any genetically modified foods or products thereof must be labeled as such and there is a strict liability regime in place. This model law will serve as a model for national implementation in African countries, and third world countries may follow suit.
Furthermore, in Sri Lanka, a ban on the import of all genetically modified foods, raw and processed, went into effect on May 1, 2001. Thailand has also placed a ban on field trials of GM crops, and the termination of ongoing field trials of GM cotton and corn, as well as a ban on all commercial planting of GM crops. China has in place a ban on commercial planting of GM rice, wheat, corn and soybeans. Japan has also jumped on the bandwagon, declaring not to import GM wheat. Legislation in Japan has set zero tolerance for imports containing unapproved GM products. Imports found to contain unapproved GMs will be destroyed or shipped back to origin. Violators may incur penalties of up to one-year imprisonment and may be fined. The legislation also seeks mandatory labeling for GMs in food.
Last year GM crops were cultivated over 70m hectares in 18 countries, covering more than twice the area of Britain. Nearly 5 million small farmers in China, India, South Africa, Brazil and Mexico now grow cotton genetically modified to protect it against the boll weevil. In China, this saves farmers as much as $500 per hectare, mainly through a 60-80% reduction in the use of pesticides. In KwaZulu, 92% of cotton farmers, mainly women, now grow GM cotton and some have seen their income nearly double, mainly because savings on pesticides greatly exceed the extra cost of the seeds. In India, when an infestation of pink bollworm devastated the cotton harvest, except where farmers had (illegally) planted GM cotton, farmers marched on Delhi demanding that GM cotton should be licensed, which it was in 2002.
The story of cotton shows actual financial benefit to small farmers in the developing world. But the greatest contribution of GM technology is to come. China spends over $100m a year on plant science and has developed 141 different types of GM crops, 65 of which are already in field trials. In India, too, biotechnology flourishes. Most research is on staple crops grown by ordinary farmers. A transgenic tomato has been modified to thrive on salty water and eventually salt-resistant crops can be cultivated in large tracts of land now infertile.
To date, the only case in which GE has been implicated in human death and disability was the famous Showa Denko debacle, in which 37 people died, 1535 were left permanently and severely disabled, and another 5000 were temporarily disabled. Serious human health problems have been implicated only rarely for genetically modified foods, which may be related to the absence of segregation and labeling of genetically modified foods, which precludes epidemiological studies. Nonetheless, GE methods have the potential to create unanticipated dangers for which it could be difficult to test. The insertion of transgenes can affect unintended traits of the target organism as well as the intended trait, although this is not reflected in the food safety testing protocols used in the United States and Canada.
Other countries have voiced concerns that the possible transfer of new and unidentified proteins from one food to another may trigger allergic reactions to the altered food. Also, there has been no research regarding whether genetic engineering changes the nutritional content of food, nor have there been studies on the human safety of consuming genetically engineered foods. As stated above, without labeling, there is no way to trace whether someone who gets sick has eaten a GM food. Direct health threats arise from the newly introduced proteins, especially DNA vaccines in the meat industry, which might cause allergy and illness to consumers. The indirect threat arises from the use of bacteria engineered with resistance to several common clinical antibiotics that are used in GMF technology. Another indirect effect could be larger amounts of herbicide residue present in food and fodder because of the use of herbicides in larger amounts on highly resistant herbicide-tolerant crops. Furthermore, long-term effects are also unknown.
Countries that are supporters of genetically modified foods acknowledge that some of the many health advantages of genetically modified foods include the edible vaccines, which can help curb various diseases in India and other developing countries. Nutritionally improved crops with a higher content of proteins and vitamins can supplement the nutritional requirements of the lower strata of the population, who cannot afford a nonvegetarian diet. Supporters take into consideration that most new technologies take root slowly and take time to prove their worth. They state that what is remarkable about the application of GM technology to plants is how quickly it has been adopted and how much benefit it has already shown in poorer parts of the world.
Those not in favor ignore these potential benefits. They even oppose the development of “golden rice” – which contains pro-vitamin A and, as part of a staple diet, could help redress the vitamin A deficiency associated with the deaths of more than a million children every year, according to the World Health Organization. This deficiency is also the single most important cause of blindness in about half a million children annually. Golden rice it is given free of charge and restriction to subsistence farmers since it does not create advantages for rich landowners. It does not reduce biodiversity and has no harmful effect on the environment and it will benefit the poor and disadvantaged.
Those in favor of genetically modified foods promise a revolution that will increase world food production, reduce the requirements for water and other natural resources, and promises an increased diet for malnourished populations. The controversy about GM includes scientific, technological, cultural, and philosophical facets. Issues related to science and technology seem to be more relevant to the Middle Eastern and third world countries, which stand to either benefit or suffer irreplaceable damage as a result of genetically modified foods.
Middle Eastern countries can be fed without the use of biotechnology, but there is a price attached to this approach. According to the United Nations Population Division Report, the world population reached 6.1 billion in mid-2000 and is currently growing at an annual rate of 1.2%. Six of the poorest countries such as India, China, Pakistan, Nigeria, Bangladesh, and Indonesia, are responsible for half the observed growth. In 2050 the total world population is expected to be around 13 billion people, of which 11 billion will be in underdeveloped regions. The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization estimates that world agricultural exports increased at an average annual rate of 3.2% in value terms from 1990 to 1999, with food exports growing at a rate of 3.7%. However, the agricultural trade of developing countries during this period represents only 50% of total world exports and it is concentrated in a minority of developing countries, particularly those that trade in fresh fruits and vegetables. This situation creates an uneven trade balance in food from developed to developing countries.
Based upon data on external assistance to agriculture for all developing countries, emergency food aid to developing countries is increasing. Food security is a balance between production and distribution. Many policy experts argue that the low price of commodities is evidence of fairly good food production policies. Cheap food, though, depends on continued good harvest in the five major food-producing areas of the world, all of which have been reliable in recent decades. The cost of food in the United States has decreased over the past century. The price of maize and soybeans, for example, has fallen by a factor of 3 or 4 in real terms. Lowering the cost of food with technology makes food relatively more affordable for the poor, who spend a larger fraction of their income on food.
The controversy surrounding genetically modified foods also brings ethical concerns when debating genetically modified foods and Middle Eastern countries. In a worldwide context, the precautionary response of those facing food abundance in developed countries may lead us to be insensitive to the conditions of those in less fortunate situations. Some genetically modified foods, such as rice enhanced with iron or vitamin A, or virus-resistant cassava, or aluminum-tolerant sweet potato, may be of great potential benefit to millions of poor children. Under these assumptions, consider the possibility that, by tainting genetically modified foods in the countries best suited to conduct GM research safely, anti-GM activists could bring to a halt the range of money-making genetically modified foods marketed by multinational corporations. They state that genetically modified foods are not peasant crops, they are designed to make the companies that own the patents for particular genes super-rich, and they will not solve the hunger problem, which has always been about access, and not availability.
Supporters of GM crops say that it is a significant step towards alleviating famine brought on by natural disaster and poor agricultural methods. Opponents of altering crops argue it is a racist attempt to force poverty-stricken Third World farmers into a dependent relationship with Western multinationals, and that the altered crops are unhealthy and laden with chemicals. They state that food shortages result not from a lack of food but from the inability of poor countries to buy it. However, most Middle Eastern countries have accepted that genetically modified foods can drive away hunger even if its arrival is greeted with suspicion by their governments. Producers of the crops insist that the alterations will not harm humans or animals, and that modification improves the nutritional value of the crop being altered.
The fight over GM crops is focused mainly between government and corporations at the moment, and in many areas of the world, private citizens oppose its use. Greenpeace is one such organization that speaks out in favor of the Middle Eastern and third world countries, stating that genetic engineering is a new technology that has been developed to overcome the limitations of traditional breeding. Traditional breeders have never been capable of crossing fish genes with strawberries. But genetically engineered “fishberries” are already in the field. With genetic engineering, these types of new organisms can be created and released into the environment Food and Drug Administration scientists stated that genetic engineering is different from traditional breeding, and so are the risks. Despite this warning, the FDA continues to assert that genetically modified foods are not different and don’t require special regulations.
Another aspect of GM food production Greenpeace disputes is the notion that genetic engineering can make foods better, more nutritious, longer-lasting and better tasting. Greenpeace states this because there is little benefit aside from the financial gains reaped by the firms producing the crops, and the main reason for engineering is to withstand more pesticides. This is counter argued with the rationale that even if it is true that the only benefit of genetically modified foods are their ability to withstand harsh pesticides, the money saved benefits production costs, which are passed down to the consumer in the form of lower prices. Additionally, the ability to hold up against pesticides is advantageous to farmers in the Middle Eastern and third world countries, where poor farming conditions and inadequate means of controlling insects leads to bad harvests and a short food supply.
Another interesting argument is that genetic engineering could actually lead to an increase in hunger and starvation. Biotech companies eagerly pursue a genetic-engineering technique named ‘terminator’ technology that would render a crop’s seed sterile, making it impossible for farmers to save seed for replanting. Half the world’s farmers rely on saved seed to produce food that 1.4 billion people rely on for daily nutrition. This sounds like an unjust attempt to manipulate poor farmers into paying more to grow their crops. Farmers can increase their yields while making more money, and reducing costs when they use GM seeds. In the case of United States cotton farmers, genetically engineered crops helped them to avoid spraying 2.7 million pounds of insecticides and made fewer pesticide applications per year by switching to biotech varieties. Their net revenues increased by $99 million. Clearly, cotton does not feed people, but the point remains that the crop was harvested at a significantly cheaper cost to farmers. In the case of modified corn, farmers increased yields by 66 million bushels. If this technique was applied to middle eastern or third world countries, it could have a dramatic impact.
Opponents, as well as supporters of genetically modified foods each have an agenda, but based on the arguments presented by both sides, it is clear that genetically modified foods can have an extremely beneficial impact in third world countries. Large multinational corporations may earn profits if farmers use their techniques and purchase their products, but the potential stop the famines in poor nations without doing long-term harm to humans or the environment is too tempting not to try. Obviously, the implementation and usage of genetically modified foods will not be perfect, but given that subsidies and other forms of food aid have failed, it is worth trying crop production in these poorer areas.
The scientific breakthrough of genetically modified foods has generated enormous political controversy while delivering few benefits to consumers. The next generation of genetically modified foods could offer much larger benefits, but debate has stalled investment. A more strategic policy on genetically modified foods in the U.S. needs to be implemented. If the controversy continues, the world may never know of the other potentials that genetically modified foods could possibly have, such as fruits and vegetables that deliver vaccines and commodity crops. Many of these types of products are already in the research process, if marketed, could offer enormous benefits to consumers and farmers. Yet the benefits of genetic modification techniques may be especially large in the developing world-by raising yields and improving nutrition. In this way, genetically modified foods can play a role in alleviating starvation in third world countries.
An additional problem to be faced is that regulatory system is quite different for final products such as processed foods. There are drastic differences between U.S. And European regulatory approaches, which have caused trade frictions and raised questions over which regulatory approach is more effective. The European Union (EU) has adopted comprehensive new regulatory approval systems especially designed for genetically modified foods. However, for several years the EU has not approved any new genetically modified foods and several EU member states are refusing to accept them even if Brussels eventually gives regulatory approval. The U.S., instead, regulates genetically modified foods through relatively minor modifications to its existing food and pesticide regulatory systems. The result of this has been the approval of many new products but also growing concern that the U.S. regulatory system will soon find itself at a dead end. As GM food products and risks become more complex, it may eventually become difficult to evaluate safety within a system designed for regulation of traditional agricultural products.
Another issues concerns trade. Differences in planting of GM crops and regulatory systems are already causing trade problems. A trade dispute over regulation of genetically modified foods between Egypt and Thailand is currently taking place at the World Trade Organization (WTO). Another dispute between the U.S. And EU is coming up. In principle, the WTO’s agreement on sanitary regulations will govern these disputes. In reality, the WTO system is not well equipped to settle these problems because it requires passing judgment on the legitimacy of a nation’s food safety laws. The WTO also affects this issue through its treatment of intellectual property. WTO’s agreement on Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs) requires countries to adopt greater protection of intellectual property, including protection of private property rights in agriculture. The problem with this is that it will affect diffusion of GM food technology since most of the key innovations are privately owned.
Policy strategy development in this area will also be challenging. The debate over the first genetically modified foods makes future efforts even more difficult. These policies will be technically and politically complicated. For example, policies to regulate risks in the laboratory and during field-testing must be applied at the level of individual laboratories and firms, which is hard for the international community to achieve when countries have to follow international law. Added to this problem is the fact that there is already an international treaty on this regulatory problem. It is also big challenge how to accelerate the development of GM products relevant to middle eastern and third world countries. Meeting this challenge requires attention to the funding patterns and research agendas at the main public agricultural international research institutions.
Another problem is that private firms own many of the patents of genetically modified foods, and will most likely not be willing to share this information, even if it is for the benefit of these third world countries. Hopefully the next generations of GM food products are different. Development of genetically modified foods that contain vital vaccines and nutrients is already far advanced. An example is “golden rice”-a strain of genetically modified rice enriched through biotechnology with beta-carotene containing vitamin A An estimated one billion people consume insufficient amounts of the A vitamins, especially those third world countries whose people survive on rice-dominant diets. This yellow rice could help solve the problem of Vitamin-A deficiency, and the associated problems of childhood disease and blindness, if it could be widely adopted by poor families. Other products are being researched as well. Sweet potatoes are a staple in East African diets because they store easily and can provide food in times of drought. Field trials are beginning in Kenya for a GM food variety that resists the sweet potato virus, which kills up to 80% of the crop. The potential for other innovations for middle eastern and third world countries are unimaginable.
A topic that middle eastern and third world countries are interested in is the achievement of successful genetic modification of foods with low risks. Unfortunately this is difficult because many attributes of GM food technologies make this question difficult to answer. Delivering genetically modified foods technologies to market is very costly and substantial investments are required. Hostility to the previous genetically modified foods has made the leading firms unsure whether to proceed in putting greater resources into more GM food research when the greater potential benefits to society seem to be matched by large commercial risks.
Another problem is that these technological companies only exist in industrialized countries. Those countries have long had regulations in place relating to potential hazards during the development and testing of new products. The same technologies, with many of the same risks, are involved in development and testing of genetically modified foods. As the biotech industry spreads worldwide, the differences in regulatory approach will become bigger problems. An example is a new virus bioengineered in an Australian lab for research in mice, which destroys immune response in the mice. This virus, produced by accident, could create similar viruses with impacts on humans’ immune responses.
Another risk, especially for middle eastern and third world countries, is that inadequately contained GM crops could escape from field trials and breed with nearby plants to create unknown and possibly dangerous species. International legal rules are a possibility to ensure that all countries implement similarly strict controls on product development. Another important problem is that most investment has focused on products for the advanced industrialized countries where the markets are promising. This is ironic because the reason most often used in support for genetically modified foods is ending the starvation in third world countries. Golden rice and Kenyan sweet potatoes are partially built on genes developed and owned by industrial firms, not in third world countries.
Only a small fraction of resources are being used to research and utilize the benefits of genetic modification engineering in these middle eastern and third world countries. The controversy over genetically modified foods in advanced industrialized nations has also led some donor countries to threaten cutbacks if the institutes that they fund promote genetic engineering.
There are also political forces that will affect the future of this technology. These political forces are global, making it hard for any single nation, even the U.S., to control the policy levers. The concentration of biotech talent and a favorable regulatory environment is the reason why so much of the research has taken place in the U.S. But the potential markets for genetically modified foods are global, and U.S. firms are vulnerable to regulatory decisions made in many other capitals and markets. All the major European and American consumer organizations participate in alliances that share information and strategies. Many of the leading environmental groups that have been against this, such as Greenpeace, are multinational operations that act with a global purpose.
The Internet, media, and generally greater awareness of food are increasing the public’s awareness for information about food quality and safety. The technology of genetically modified foods has arrived at an important crossroads. It holds huge potential for consumers and producers; but the enormous controversy over the first GM products makes it difficult for next generations of GM products. There is a significant potential to use this technology for solving the problem of middle eastern and worldwide starvation, but national acceptance, risks, and financial investment all pose major hurdles.
These are important issues for United States foreign policy. United States firms are the leading innovators of the technology. United States consumers stand to benefit from safer and cheaper products, and to be harmed by any risks as well. The quality of the environment in the where GM crops are already grown stands to gain or lose depending how the technology goes. And the quality of the world’s environment and biodiversity, both of which have long been concerns of U.S. foreign policy will be affected. The handling of GM food issues will also affect the integrity and conduct of the world trading system-in particular, the WTO’s rules on intellectual property and on food safety, which were designed in considerable part by U.S. negotiators and fashioned mainly to reflect the policy preferences of the United States.
Science and technology are factors that affect relations between countries. The strength of the United States in the international economic arena, for example, is a reflection of its scientific and technological capabilities. The debate around genetically modified foods has triggered a global process, reshaping views on the role of science and technology in solving the global concern about hunger.
There is a need for creative solutions to emerging trends of hunger and not restrictions on the types of solutions that can be pursued. This kind of approach would make the development of new strategic capabilities in all nations a reality. The globalization of knowledge will provide new opportunities for scientific cooperation between rich and poor countries as well as between institutions. Industry, government, and academia must be encouraged to have more interactions, especially in applied research, product development, and establishing frameworks for collaboration. To achieve that, they must have a common goal that goes beyond having scientific results publicly available.
Finally, In 2000, approximately 109 million acres of farmland have genetically modified foods, as opposed to 4.3 million acres in 1996. This shows that genetically modified foods are becoming more and more popular each day. With almost anything that becomes popular so quickly brings up much controversy. Not every one wants to be eating genetically modified foods regardless, of how good scientists say they are. The concerns that this will not actually help the Middle Eastern or third world hunger problem, by actually cause more problems are valid.
It is up to United States major corporations stop world hunger by going into the third world nations and making food accessible. With all these developments in genetically altered foods, the third world nations will still not have enough money to pay for the technology or the food. The only real people benefiting from genetically altered foods right now are the major corporations that are producing them, and politicians. Anti-supporters of genetically modified foods argue that they can be a very terrifying solution to world hunger. Their reasoning is that it might solve the problem to world hunger but might begin an entirely new problem. The long-term effects of genetically altered food are still unknown. Many large companies that produce genetically modified foods are testing to make sure the crops are growing properly instead of concentrating if their crops are creating something dangerous to the world.
Proponents grandly claim the necessity of genetic engineering to “feed the world.” This is not so far borne out by the evidence. Presently, the vast majority of the products and the research and development is aimed at profitable western supermarket shelves, not the truly hungry of the world, who cannot afford to pay. Moreover the benefits of these products seem primarily to be convenience for multi-national companies, rather than meeting a widespread human need. If claims to feed the world are to be taken seriously, one may legitimately ask how much effort and skill could be better used addressing real hunger problems in the developing world. possibilities may still be a long way off. Only applications directed to the consumer markets of the world’s rich nations are likely to offer the prospect of large paybacks. There are likely to be greater financial returns in pursuing western consumer preferences, than from meeting the needs of the Middle Eastern countries.
The claim that the benefits will trickle down is largely unsustainable. The present context is of a gross imbalance in food distribution between rich and poor. Far from exhibiting the characteristics one would expect of the technological solution to feeding the world, genetic engineering research and development currently reflects exactly the same unjust distribution. The emerging transgenic food industry thus has a question of morality and honesty to face. If it is to have credibility, it will need to show substantial investment in the less profitable business of feeding the poor, and some rather concrete manifestations of how genetic engineering is going to meet the nutritional needs of two thirds of the world.
The controversy over many aspects of biotechnology and its application to genetically modified foods have become the target of intense controversy, resulting in a never-ending spectacle of public debate, scientific discussion, and media coverage. Unfortunately, the countries most affected by this debate are Middle Eastern and third world countries. Perhaps the future of genetically modified foods will be a player in the game of widespread starvation, and countries such as the United States, will become noble suppliers of the causes. The United States must begin to prepare for the predicted world’s population and ensure an adequate food supply is available, especially for those countries that already pose a challenge, such as the Middle Eastern and third world countries.
“A Rice Dilemma.” Social Issues Research Center. 2002. Social Issues Research. 13 Dec. 2004
Bredahl, Lone. “Attitudes and Decision Making With Regard to Genetically Engineered Food
Products — A Review of Literature and a Prescription of Models for Future Research.” Journal
of Consumer Policy 21 (1999): 251-277.
Bren, Linda. “Genetic Engineering:The Future of Foods?” U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
2000. FDA. 13 Dec. 2004
“Genetically Modified Food: Pros and Cons.” Society, Religion and Technology Project. 2000. 13
“Genetic Modification Q & A.” BBC News. 1999. BBC News. 13 Dec. 2004
Howell, Sony. Plant Sciences Institute Colloquium. Iowa: State University, 2001.
Leeder, Stephen. “Genetic Modification — Food for Thought.” Genetic Modification. 2000.
Public Issues. 13 Dec. 2004
Thompson, Larry. “Are BioEngineered Foods Safe?” FDA Consumer. 2000 FDA. 13 Dec. 2004
“What is genetic modification?” Genetically Modified Foods. 2004. Genetically Modified Foods. 13 Dec. 2004
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Genetically Modified Foods
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