The consumption of food is essentially important for sustaining life as it contributes to the basic energy for living. Food plays a central role in society, culture, and the world ecosystem. However, with the expansion of the global population, there is a decrement in agricultural land and a drastic climatic change. The outlined challenges can be tackled through a biotechnological process called Genetic engineering. Genetic engineering is a technique that involves alteration of DNA of the desired organism termed as Genetic Modified Organism (GMO). World Health Organisation defines GMO as “organisms (i.e., plants, animals or microorganisms) in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination”. These GMO used for food production are called Genetically Modified Foods (GMF).
The concept of DNA modification has been in existence since the early 1940s however, the alteration of DNA within food emerged in the 1990s with the commercialization of the first genetically modified (GM) tobacco by China. Over the years, the boundaries between species were broken to introduce varieties of GMF for the consumers. Since then, genetic engineering has led to the development of some prestigious GMF such as corn, soybean, canola, and cotton.
Types of Genetically Modified Foods (GMF):
The approval from Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for GMF has undoubtedly seen an increase in production of GMF, with the USA leading the list. Currently, approximately 90% of GM corn, soybean, and cotton are widely available in the American Food Supply. While other commercialized GMF available in the markets include eggplants, carrots, papaya, potatoes, summer squash, alfalfa, canola, strawberries, tomatoes, and many more.
The soybean acreage in the USA accounts for most of the GM soy. This GM soy trait is herbicide-resistant. GM soy gained popularity in the market largely due removal of allergen proteins. GM soy is immensely used for producing soybean oil, soymilk, and other dairy products. It has also been utilized for livestock feed.
The corn known as maize is the largest genetically modified crop in the USA and worldwide. The most common GMO corn trait is Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) corn which is tolerant to herbicide and insect resistance. Although, this GM corn is an ingredient to many processed foods and drinks such as sweeteners, high-fructose corn syrup, corn starch, alcohol, and corn oil. However, most of the GM corn is harvested for livestock and poultry feed.
GM canola seeds are not only used to make cooking oil but also for making margarine. This herbicide-tolerant GM canola also finds its use as animal feed.
More than half of the granulated sugar in the USA is derived from GM sugar beets. Being resistant to herbicides allows farmers to reduce the usage of chemicals for weed control.
There has been a tremendous increase in the cultivation of GM cotton with approximately 93% in the USA. Much of the GM cotton is used for the manufacturing of cottonseed oil used in packaging food products and restaurant chains.
To withstand the adversity caused by the papaya ringspot virus, these Hawaiian papayas were genetically engineered in the late 1990s. Currently, 80% of the genetically modified Hawaiian Papayas named “Rainbow Papayas” enhances productivity and resists the virus.
The summer squash or Zucchini were genetically modified in the USA in 2005. However, this disease-resistant GM squash isn’t widely cultivated.
In the late 1990s, the GM potato named The NewLeaf potato was introduced by Monsanto. This potato was cultivated from a gene of Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) which produces a toxin resistant to the Colorado potato beetle. Despite this, in 2001, these GM potatoes wrapped up their sale due to a lack of consumer acceptance. However, in 2015 a new genetically modified “Innate Potato” proposed by Simplot Company was approved by the USA FDA. This GM potato is characterized by fewer blackspot bruising.
The newly introduced GM apples are advanced as it resists browning even after it’s sliced. Popularly known as Arctic apple, this Canadian Biotech company Okanagan designs FDA-approved GM apples.
This highly nutritious GM crop is primarily used as hay for cattle feed. The FDA-approved GM alfalfa is herbicide-resistant and the fourth-largest produced crop of the USA.
The Atlantic salmon is genetically modified to attain faster growth, and survives in harsh conditions. This suggests that GM salmon would be advantageous in reducing the environmental pressure due to exploitation of the salmon caused by the fishing industry. FDA claims this salmon is nutritious and safe to eat compared to non-GMO Atlantic salmon. However, there is raising fear regarding the idea of GM salmon and may lead to unprecedented events.
Do we need GMF in the food supply?
The deliberate transfer of genes to design GMF is to yield food with desirable traits, making it nutritious and enhanced with flavors. Many manufacturers of GMF suggest a need due to its potential in feeding the large population with minimal impacts on the environment.
GMF is proven to benefit farmers with higher yields and a pest-resistant crop. This is because the GM crops designed to be herbicide-tolerant reduces the need for chemical treatment compared to non-GM crops saving more on pesticides. Furthermore, with a longer shelf-life, there are fewer chances of crops getting spoiled. GMF is a boon to developing countries and in the places with frequent droughts they are employed to survive the harsh climatic conditions. Thus, the technique of genetic engineering help farmers practices environment-friendly farming ensuring economic growth.
Nevertheless, GMF has improved the quality of food processing. Today, approximately 70% of processed food ingredients in Canada are genetically modified examples, GM corn, and GM soybean. While 80% of cotton, soya, and maize on sale in the USA are of genetic varieties.
Although GMF can be proven to provide certain benefits little, is known about the long-term effects and safety of human beings. Those opponents to the idea of genetic engineering have repudiated the use of GMF. There have been rising concerns regarding the safety, environment, religion, and ethics.
Another determinant for the level of risk is associated with toxicity, nutritional change, and genetic menaces. Some people believe that GMF may trigger allergenic reactions due to the synthesis of new proteins containing allergens. For instance, GM bean plants designed with the increased level of cysteine and methionine were scraped off after discovery due to their higher allergenicity. Although the evidence varies, GMF is debated for the faults in genetic engineering leading to unprecedented events.
Despite this, it is worth noting that approximately 300 million Americans, 280 million Brazilians and 1350 million Chinese, and many other millions across the world consume GMF knowingly and unknowingly. Regarding the acceptance of GMF in India, there are alarming concerns of ethics and security. Many farmers and panelists find no socio-economic benefits in growing GM crops.
The evolution of Genetically-modified Foods is a complex and controversial topic. Some have applauded GMF to resolve food scarcity and environmental concerns while others opined that GMF is certain to cause distress. The question of whether we need GMF is plausibly related to the diverse array of scientific expertise. It is not wise to set fears based on unknown tangible consequences. There is a need for developing novel methods to probe allergenicity, nutritional, and toxicity differences between GMF and conventional crops. The decisions should be built on research frameworks and detailed investigation to substantiate the benefits and risks. The above-mentioned list of GMF has eventually found its place in the markets however, a comprehensive study will contribute to a safer and better understanding of the GMF future. Hence a simple ‘”yes” or “no” is not a suggested answer to the question “Do we need GMF?”
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