GM Foods: Technology
From Women's Studies
GM Foods: Technology
By Ally Young
Many organizations, groups, and even individuals have spoken strongly against the increase in genetically-modified (GM) crops being sold and planted around the world. As with many recent scientific advancements involving gene manipulation, fierce debate has broken out regarding the use of GM foods. Some of the arguments against GM foods are outlined in the Pro/Con section of this Wiki page, including harm to humans, as well as other organisms, and expense. Furthermore, opponents of GM foods have other specific concerns regarding the technology used to create them. These concerns are briefly outlined below.
1. Regulation: Many argue that the three government groups, which oversee GM food-producing companies, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Department of Agriculture, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), don’t have enough control over the analysis, testing, and regulation of GM crops. 2. Playing God: The genetic manipulation of organisms is considered by some to be unnatural and unethical. 3. Profit-driven: The research and technology behind these foods is expensive. Anti-GM food activists argue that the expense is not worth any benefit of the crops since the poorest people will not have the ability to purchase the seed.
Though all these concerns are valid, opponents of GM foods rarely take the time to understand or explain the technology and methodology behind their arguments against biotech firms. It is important for consumers to understand all sides of the issues involving global food production, including the research and strategy that is at the core of these controversial crops.
To summarize GM food technology, I have chosen to look at the biotech company, Monsanto. Monsanto is currently the biggest producer of GM crops, producing approximately 90% of the world’s genetically engineered crops. The company currently employs 21,035 people at 404 facilities in 66 countries. In the year 2010 alone, Monsanto’s net sales totaled $10.5 billion dollars. As a leader in the field, much of the strong opposition to GM foods has targeted Monsanto (see photos below).
Monsanto has divided the technology behind its crops into three categories: breeding, biotechnology, and agronomic practices, as detailed below (7).
1. Breeding: Before genetic modification is even considered, Monsanto scientists work to “identify plants with the most favorable combination of desired characteristics to serve as a foundation for biotech traits”. They do this through breeding techniques, which are very similar to breeding techniques that have been used for thousands of years, such as crossing plants with desirable traits. To optimize this process, scientists are aided by computer programs (8). 2. Biotechnology: Biotechnology is the process of inserting genes into a crop to give it desirable trait/s. The process involves identifying favorable genes, inserting those genes into bacteria, and infecting plant cells with those bacteria. The bacteria then inserted the genes into the plant cell’s genome, and the plant cell is capable of producing the protein the gene encodes, whether it confers herbicide tolerance, insect resistance, etc. Seed is then produced and sold from these transgenic plants (9). An incredibly helpful interactive resource can be found at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/harvest/engineer/transgen.html. Monsanto purports that it encourages third-party research and its GM crops and provides links published studies on its website (10). Furthermore, Monsanto regulates the safety of the crops by studying whether or not the bacteria have been proven safe for human or animal consumption, whether or not the proteins are familiar (and therefore safe) to be consumed, and how much of that protein is produced by the plants (11). 3. Agronomic Practices: Finally, Monsanto works with farmers to encourage and teach practices, which improve land use. These practices of sustainable agriculture include reduces-tillage methods, fertilizer, water, and plant population management.
With a brief overview of GM food technology, Monsanto and other proponents of GM foods make counterpoints to many of the arguments raised against them, as listed below.
1. Regulation: Proponents argue that GM food companies follow all federal guidelines and are thoroughly tested by both the companies and third party groups. For example, the chemistry of proteins that are encoded by inserted genes are compared to over 500 known allergens before they are used to produce GM plants (1). 2. Playing God: Scientists affirm that they are simply doing what crop breeders have been doing for thousands of years – selecting beneficial traits – only faster (1). 3. Profit-driven: Monsanto and others agree that the benefits of GM foods will save farmers money. Helping crops be more resistant to pests, sudden frosts, and herbicides will increase farmers’ yields, and crops enriched with nutrients, vitamins, and even vaccines will increase the quality of the crops produced (1).
The specifics of the technology behind GM crops are difficult to understand, especially for those without a scientific background. The thought of “messing with nature”, “playing God”, or making “Frankenfoods” instinctually produces a negative reaction in most people. However, consumers must overcome these feelings and educate themselves so that they may form well informed, objective, and educated opinions for themselves on the controversy surrounding genetically modified foods. It is also helpful to look at examples of GM food policies made by other countries, as is discussed in the next section of the Wiki page.
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