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The Uncertainties of Genetically Modified Foods

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The Uncertainties of Genetically Modified Foods

Naomi Lim

Food is not what it used to be. With progress in various types of technology, especially in genetic engineering, farmers and scientists have changed the way in which food is grown and made, raising questions about these methods and their possible risks and effects. What is clear is that there is not enough information on the consequences of genetically modified foods on human health as of yet. Furthermore no agreement among the scientific community has been reached on the risks or safety of this technology, although it seems to possess wide, uncertain and, potentially dangerous implications for human health, which are inextricably linked to moral/ethical concerns.

"Genetically modified foods" is most commonly used to refer to crop plants created for human or animal consumption, which have been modified in the laboratory to enhance desired traits or improved nutritional content (12). Genetic engineering is the process of artificially modifying genes by cutting and splicing DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid). Genes, the blueprints of life, are made up of sequences of DNA, and they determine an organism's growth and size, as well as other characteristics (8). Genetic engineering is usually done in an effort to replicate characteristics in the organism receiving the gene transfer (8) and enables genetic engineers to transfer genes between species(6). According to the Monsanto Company, the DNA from different organisms is essentially the same - that is, it is made from the same materials(3). However, when considered in the context of food, many ethical and moral issues are raised in regards to the origin of the genes, especially when labeling has not yet been required. Furthermore, there are many health concerns associated with the genetic modification of foods.

Although farmers have used crossbreeding to improve crops and animals for thousands of years, the type of genetic engineering being used today is more complex than the interbreeding of the past, which occurred between two varieties of the same or similar species (8). One particularly salient issue seems to be the genetic engineering between two different species, specifically between animals and plants, which some perceive as breaking down "natural barriers...with...unpredictable results" (8). For example, genetic engineers have added genes from the flounder to tomatoes in an attempt to give tomatoes a longer shelf life(4). Such a transfer seems to be viewed by some as undesirable and unnatural, although it may have economical benefits. This kind of genetic engineering may cause the spread of diseases across species barriers(4), thereby creating problems that could never "naturally" exist. This particular type of genetic engineering is also a moral/ethical issue for vegetarians, vegans, and some religious groups, as the transfer of animal genes into plants goes against what they practice and believe. The lack of labeling also contributes to the controversy of this transfer between species, as many are unaware of what it is that they are consuming.

Today, an estimated two-thirds of all products in supermarkets contain genetically engineered ingredients, including tortilla chips, drink mixes, taco shells, veggie burgers, muffin mix, and baby formulas (9). However, only one-third of Americans are aware that their food contain genetically engineered ingredients (10), despite the findings of surveys that 85 to 90% of consumers want clear labeling of all genetically engineered foods (4). Because labeling is not yet required by government regulations, nor practiced by biotech companies, there is no way for consumers to know what it is that they are eating. The public has not been adequately educated of the presence of genetically modified ingredients in their diets and the possible risks that these foods may entail, and hence, they have been disempowered in their rights to make informed choices.

Furthermore, the inadequate efforts to educate the public on genetic engineering have been sketchy at best, as some genetic scientists have been presenting the complex process of genetic modification to the public as a simple operation. They have been erroneously giving the impression that "...one gene controls one character trait, and transferring the gene results in the transfer of the corresponding trait to the genetically modified organism, which can then pass it on indefinitely to future generations" (6). However, the process of genetic modification is random and can cause damage in normal genes when imperfections in the genetic code of one organism are unknowingly passed to the receiving organism (4). Such publications promoting "public understanding" also do not include relevant findings that show that genes function in an "...extremely complex, interconnected network, so that ultimately, the expression of each gene depends on that of every other" (6). The introduced gene may act differently when working within its new environment. For example, there are "position effects", which can lead to unpredictable changes in the pattern of gene expression and genetic function, such as production of potentially toxic products (4).

The credibility of these geneticists is also questionable because almost all established molecular geneticists have "...some industrial ties, thus limiting what they can research on, particularly with regard to safety"

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