Thursday, February 26, 2009

Biotechnology: Is it worth the risk?

Starting its history in the early 1960s, biotechnology has emerged over the years as a well developing industry. The biotechnology industry experienced it first major take off with the discovery of recombinant DNA in 1973. This technology allowed us, and still allows us today, to manipulate the fundamental building block of life, DNA. While we have manipulated the DNA sequences of several species organisms to today, among some of the most important yet least broadcasted organisms are crops. While crops are not seen as something that has a direct effect on the human population, such as a genetically engineered bacteria that helps in fighting off disease, the long term effects of genetic engineering have a great impact on our society. These impacts from the genetic engineering of crops are being witnessed today social speaking and speaking in terms of health and disease as well.

One of the first majorly marketed biotechnologies was Bt-corn in 2003. Bt-corn was developed from splicing a gene of a bacterium known as Bacillus thuringiensis and inserting recombinant DNA that coded for a gene to make a plant more herbicide resistant. As a result of the gene insertion, crop production of crown was greatly increased in the U.S. The significant increases in crop production of corn led to a huge demand for Bt-corn across the world. By the end of 2003, approximately 62 million hectares of Bt-corn were planted worldwide. While corn across the world began to flourish from the implementing of this gene, other genes contained within Bt bacteria were not being taken account for. The individual toxins within these bacteria were cloned with the implemented gene including toxins of the Cry family. These toxins, however, have not yet to be tested because the cost of isolating the toxins from the genetically modified corn, putting our health safety at risk. Cry toxins, however, do have known effects on other mammals including stigmentation of cellular growth within insects, mice, cows, pigs, and maize itself.

Among other genetically modified crops was the development of the Flavr Savr tomato. The company Zeneca developed its first genetically modified product by modifying a tomato to make it bulkier with reduced water content. As a result, tomato would have greater viscosity and would be more suitable for puree or soup. It grew the first of these crops in California in 1994. In 1996, the first genetically modified tomato was put in production for sale. These GMOs were the only GM foods for which the FDA has considered requiring pre-market approval. Both tomatoes contained marker genes that gave resistance to an antibiotic kanamycin used in medicine. People began to question whether or not gene could be passed from the tomato to the bacteria and could cause it to become resistant to the antibiotic. The company Calgene took up the question and was referred to the FDA who used Flavr Savr as a GMO test case. Flavr Savr was approved and Zeneca’s similar product in mid-1994. In doing so they decided that GM foods in general should not be regulated differently to non-GM foods and would not require pre-market approval. There was no scientific evidence, however, that the tomatoes were safe for human consumption. In fact, the FDA had ignored many of its own scientists who were concerned that research had shown that GM tomatoes had a potential to cause stomach lesions. In 1994, it was found by professors at the University of West Ontario that Flavr Savr tomatoes of a genetic sequence from the Cauliflower Mosaic Virus could create virulent new viruses. Before the release of the tomatoes and in the year 1991, Dr Edwin Mathews from the Department of Health and Human Services and of the FDA's Toxicology Group wrote to the FDA Biotechnology Working Group saying: “Genetically modified plants could also contain unexpected high concentrations of plant toxicants”. Despite all of these findings, however, GMO today still have less constraints placed on them for their release for sale than non-GMOs. Does this really make much sense at all?

This now brings us up to the same dispute we are having over genetically modified crops today. Approximately 1 million more farmers planted genetically modified crops last year than in 2007 with an additional 10.7 million hectares of GM crops planted in 2008. Biotechnology today is now reaching once undeveloped parts of the world like Burkina Faso and Egypt. One of the latest popular GM crops being widely used includes Roundup Ready sugar beets. “Golden Rice” is another uptaking GM crop awaiting approval in China. The rice is genetically modified so that nutrients like Vitamin A will be plentiful within the crop, thus preventing Vitamin A deficiencies for the country of investment.

While several new GM crops are expected to release by 2015 across the world, we still have not placed additional standards upon GM crops to even bring them up to the level of examination of non GM crops. This means that GM crops being sold are not guaranteed safe to the public. Are the benefits of these GM crops really worth the risk?

My opinion: We should encourage the use of biotechnology in the field of agriculture, however, at the same time, we need to act with great caution. One way to reinforce safety precautions in the field of agriculture is to approve additional constraints on GM crops by the FDA. If anything, we should take at least the same number of precautions with dealing with GM crops as we do currently with non GM crops. Essentially we are altering something that we already analyze to a great extent. Since we are now causing variability within a species from altering specific genes, we should have less knowledge about the species than we did before the alterations theoretically. Therefore, it would be wise and to the benefit of the health safety of the public to analyze GM crops to a greater extent than non GM crops since we know less about them. While several scientists working in this field might feel confident in their knowledge of certain GM crops, it would not be wise to under analyze GM crops since they have younger and less predictable than non GM crops that have existed for hundreds of years. We should still produce GM crops, however, for the purpose of variability and sustainability of a species as a result of natural selection. Also, there are several benefits of planting GM crops over non GM One benefit includes increased yields which can cause the farmer to make more of a profit and allow more flow of money into our suffering economy right now. Overall however, I think less money should be invested in increasing the number of GM crops available. Instead, I feel that money saved should be invested into the establishment of stricter laws upon GM crops, for the safety of crop variability and the safety of the public in regards to our overall health.


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  2. After reading this post and doing some of my own research, I believe that biotechnology is worth the risks in some ways. Like any new product or idea, there is always going to be something good about it and then something bad about it. Biotechnology is no exception to this.
    Yes, there is an risk that farmers will become dependent on these GM foods since seeds are only made to produce one crop, but the outcome has been that more of that crop can be produced and the quality is high. Farmers that have benefited from biotechnology include ones who are "resource poor, frequently have small plots of land, and limited technology to assist their farming". Crops have produced more per acre and farmers are able to sell them to markets at reasonable prices.
    There are also benefits to the land. Pesticides are able to reduce their usage on crops because the seeds been modified to where they are immune to certain insects, or pests. This can cause a problem when the insects become immune, but not all seeds have to be modified in the exact way as another. If different types of seeds were modified in different ways, then there is a better chance for more production. I believe alternating the types of seeds in areas be planted so that worry of "superbugs" mutating does not happen.With less pesticide use, there is a decrease in the amount of fuel needed to apply them which means less CO2 emissions into the atmosphere. Another benefit has already been stated; the usage of land has been reduced. This means that less land is needed to grow large amounts of food. There is a risk that the land could become useless, but with modern technology, a solution could be discovered.
    Another argument I do agree with is that there needs to be a diversity in crops, whether they're grown organically, GM, or in the traditional way. Long term effects have not been completely identified from certain crops modified by certain genes so the effects on the human population, even on some animals, (such as animals who eat the GM grains; cows, horses, ect) are not quiet clear. Some people believe that cancers have increased with the introduction of biotechnology, but also the amount of food has increases. If there are different types of food available, then if there is a scare in biotechnology the entire food supply will not be inedible. There will be options for what the population would like to consume.