GE Crops Essay

Length: 2987 words
Genetic engineering (GE) or genetic modification (GM) are both terms used to describe methods ” to cut up and join together genetic material and especially DNA from one or more species of organism and to introduce the result into an organism in order to change one or more of its characteristics”. Genetic technologies in crops involve the use of GE to change the make-up of certain plants in order to improve their quality or quantity. This essay will critique the following inference that:
For centuries human beings have used conventional techniques of selective breeding and cross-breeding of animals and plants to add desired characteristics and reduce or eliminate unwanted ones. New genetic technologies should be welcomed as providing more efficient, effective and controlled mechanisms for improving the quality and quantity of food which can be produced from limited resources of land.


The genetic integrity of crops has been altered by farmers in an effort to improve efficiency for over 10 000 years. They can be seen as pioneer genetic engineers, altering plants by crossbreeding them with others using the knowledge of inheritance of traits. Long before GE was thrust into the limelight,

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selective breeding assumed scientific status, allowing very direct control over crop evolution for the benefit of society. Plant breeding was confined to making crosses within and between crop species which occur naturally, and nature itself evolved. For example, the apple tree has evolved so that its seeds are enclosed within a core, and various animals in turn have evolved so that they can digest the fruit, and distribute the seeds as they do so. The dynamics of nature are changing in a way that can be seen as more natural than unnatural and GM food is simply an outcome of natural progression.

World population is projected to reach 7.7 billion by the year 2020. As a result there is constant pressure to produce enough food for all. The advancement of agriculture is a moral imperative for reducing poverty and hunger, and promoting equity in poorer countries. The United Nations mandate on food is as follows:

Food should be available to all in a quantity and quality sufficient to satisfy the dietary needs of individuals, be free from adverse substances and acceptable within the culture concerned. Such foods should be acceptable in ways that are sustainable and that do not interfere with the enjoyment of other human rights.

However, it is not so straightforward. The grain demand is expected to double in the next 20 years, and the global demand for cereals is expected to increase from 0.3% to 1.4%. Total arable land currently stands at only 300 million hectares. If the population grows by 2% per year, food production must increase by 3.2% per year. Traditional farming methods simply cannot keep up with this. As one scientist has put it, “The myth that agriculture is practised in a rural Garden of Eden needs to be dispelled and replaced with the reality of it being a struggle to produce food for an ever increasing population against natural forces.” GM crops can be seen as one of the rescue-robots’ of hunger, and a way of fighting against human suffering. Much higher yields of staple foods are produced through GM without enlarging the land space.

New technology will result in improvement in fruit and vegetable shelf-life, improved nutritional quality and health benefits in foods, improved protein and carbohydrate content of foods, improved fat quality and more. Allergens could be taken out of peanuts or wheat, and lower calorie sugar could be produced from GM sugar beets. GM is also vital in protecting some foods we already consume. For example, unless scientists can find a way to genetically enhance the banana’s ability to ward off parasites, we will be banana-less in 10 years. Benefits are endless. In a 1999 study, it was found that 96.2% of GM plants could survive freezing experiments, versus just 9.5% of traditional plants. There is simply no comparison.

Almost half a million children are affected by lack of Vitamin A, but with the sale of GM golden rice’ which contains high Vitamin A from a daffodil gene , this problem can be resolved. Conversely, the potential of developing transgenic crops enriched with iron could provide the solution to the problem of anaemia which claims nearly 20% of maternal deaths in Asia and Africa. A large proportion of medicines used today contain plant extracts, which aid in curing major diseases like Hodgkin’s lymphoma, AIDS, and carcinoma. GM technology can help to advance these cures and even create vaccines.

One further advantage of GE technology is that it may actually be good for the environment and ecosystems. Plants can be bioengineered to absorb toxic metals from the soil, enabling land tainted by mercury or lead to be usable again. The amount of damaging herbicides used to kill off weeds will also be reduced. Herbicide- resistant crops can be created so that farmers spray less often and later in the season so weeds can provide cover for insects and an increased food supply for small mammals and birds. Many chemicals currently used in farming have unwelcome environmental effects, but GM can help alleviate these by allowing us to produce more efficient, renewable sources of biodegradable fuel, such as Bio-diesel. GM plants can even be used as bio-factories to yield raw materials for industrial uses, and in removal of toxic industrial wastes.

The advent of this new technology has been likened to the so-called Green Revolution’ involving the introduction of high yielding varieties of wheat and rice produced by conventional breeding after 1960. While this played a strong part in increasing food availability, GM has the ability to drastically exceed this, and to limitlessly benefit human endeavours.


While the idea of alleviating hunger and saving the world’ so to speak does sound increasingly tempting, it can also be seen as simplistic, limited, and overall idealistic. It has been suggested that the risks in implementing the technology will far outweigh the benefits, resulting in a relapse of technology and dragging us further still from an enlightened society. An argument is that there is a vast gap in the necessary knowledge and research into the outcomes of altering genetics in farming. Although some gene alterations are tested on animals, are these animal models sensitive enough?

Another issue relates to the mechanisms of producing GM food – just how controlled are they and what is the nature of this control? So far, GM research has been conducted mainly by chemical companies and is directed toward chemically dependent crop varieties rather than staple foods.

Terminator technology’ is also an area of concern. This is the practice of controlling seed germination so that it cannot be used again in the next season. It may well put farmers under the control of large companies and corporations which have no interest in benefiting the community at large. Scientists fear for the livelihood of some 400 million farmers in India, as the company takeover has already driven some to suicide.
Even without the implementation of terminator technology, there remains the need for patenting of genes. A patent gives a monopoly right to exploit an intervention for 17-20 years , and has been described as the instrument of pirating traditional knowledge from the poor of the third world, and making it the exclusive property’ of Western scientists and corporations. In a particular Canadian case, a farmer was found guilty of growing patented seeds even though he was unaware, and therefore was forced to pay Monsanto for licensing and profit from the seeds. This raises issues of justice and fairness.

Will GM actually alleviate hunger? This presupposes that food shortage is the principal cause of hunger, rather than other reasons including poverty, inequitable distribution of food, poor health, poor education and political instability. The famines in India in 1943 and in Africa, the Sahel and Bangladesh in 1974 were not due to market failures or lack of food but rather to poor peoples’ inability to buy food. Hunger can only be reduced in less developed societies either by increasing the wages of the poor, or by fundamentally improving the productivity of staple foods, which GM will play no part in.

The implementation of GE technologies may have a detrimental effect on the environment, organisms, and human health. It is possible that engineered virus resistance could result in the evolution of new, harmful viruses, or crops engineered to produce Bt toxins might poison non-target hosts. There is also a fear that antibiotic resistant genes will accumulate and present themselves in food, rendering antibiotics ineffective in humans. It is difficult to test food for toxicity as ordinary non-GM food has never itself been tested. Another potential hazard is allergenicity. If an apple, for example, is embedded with part of the genetic code of a peanut, people with severe peanut allergies might be adversely affected. How do scientists actually know how a gene will be expressed in a different organism?

There is a possibility herbicide resistant plants will have their genes placed into non-target, wild species, leading to invasive, herbicide-resistant weeds. This can be done simply by pollen dispersal, so the risks are high.

It is strongly feared that the introduction of GM technology will lead to a market dominated by GM food, and forcing non-GM farmers out of business. In this sense it can be argued that the mechanisms are not in fact controlled, as they undermine central values in society – automatism, justice, and consumer choice. This new technology, by its very nature, represents a challenge to existing values and systems, including traditional concepts of nature and human identity.

Finally there is the question of where will all this GM farming take place? Intensification of agriculture in areas already farmed will result in deterioration of environments, while expansion will result in a loss of ecosystems.


A huge amount of research has been done into GE and it is simply time to move forward, and stop asking what if?’ The British Royal Society has concluded that there seems to be no evidence that current GM crops are more likely to be harmful to human health or cause allergic reactions than conventional crops. It describes the possible health risks as “negligible”. Insulin, synthesized from a human-like gene inserted into bacteria and yeast for diabetics and vegetarian cheese have both been engineered and used for years with no adverse consequences. It is unlikely that GM foods will trigger allergies in unsuspecting consumers. This is because the new technology allows more precise manipulation of genes that does conventional plant breeding, and so can be used to turn previously allergenic crops non-allergenic.


“It is obviously too late to keep the genie in its bottle.” – GM crops have been produced in abundance already, and research into it will continue despite any policy regulations put in place on the issue. Previous research demonstrates 70% of the processed foods that US citizens consume have been bioengineered in some way, so far with no negative impact on health. A key factor influencing my opinion is that GE is not being put in place to replace natural plant breeding, but instead to act as a tool for farmers to help produce improved crops – something that has happened naturally for years. I believe that it is the manner in which GE is implemented and integrated into society that will impact on its success. The “precautionary principle” has been modelled as a way of evaluating GM food.

It advises that we should not go ahead with a new technology, or persist with an old one unless we are convinced it is safe. It is expressed by the following: “When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment; precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.” A so-called ethical matrix has also been considered as a check-list of concerns, comprising wellbeing, justices and autonomy with respect to the biota, producers, and consumers in assessing a GE technology. But are these ideas too tentative? Testing itself can be problematic, and there will always be risks when introducing something new. While I agree with the use of the precautionary principle, I think there no benefits in being overly precautious.
If too strict a policy is put in place then there is a likely danger of people not abiding by the rules and causing potential hazards. Policy analyst Indur M. Goklany said in his CSAB report that the environmental gains flowing from a “reasonable” precaution should more than offset the gains to the environment that would otherwise be obtained. He says, “A reasonable precaution is one that does not kill the goose that lays the golden egg, as a ban on GM crops would do.” A case-by-case assessment should be done, to weigh up risks and benefits of each individual gene modification so that there is no unlimited scope to interfere with nature. The following parameters have been suggested as guidelines which seem more appropriate:

(1) Who are the consumers and what is the purpose of this product?
(2) Do the plants contain detrimental selectable markers for the environment or for health?
(3) What is the capacity of the engineered plants to cross pollinate with wild relatives and become detrimental to the environment?

Food production will need to be increased in the future, and regardless of whether GE is used or not, an increased number of chemicals and pollutants will be used, and an increased amount of space will be required, contributing to environmental degradation and a loss of ecosystems. In this respect, any positive steps GE can make in limiting that pollution and limiting the amount of rainforests required to be cut down, without causing additional problems, should be seen as technologically and ethically advantageous. Public involvement should be welcomed, and knowledge of GE should be available and accessible to all to instil trust in the regulatory system. An undesirable outcome is for GE to be controlled by purely commercial interests as the ideas of beneficence, autonomy and justice must remain at the forefront of GE’s integration.

Human beings have been selective breeding plants in order to improve them for hundreds of years, a factor which is very relevant in the debate about using GM to alter food quality and quantity. Science has had an enormous impact on human existence, providing numerous innovations to improve our lives, and therefore the use of GE technologies, if carefully tested and properly implemented, can change the nature of food as we know it. But, as Dr George Wald of Harvard University puts it, Recombinant DNA technology [genetic engineering] faces our society with problems unprecedented not only in the history of science, but of life on the Earth. It places in human hands the capacity to redesign living organismsUp to now, living organisms have evolved very slowly, and new forms have had plenty of time to settle in. Now whole proteins will be transposed overnight into wholly new associations, with consequences no one can foretell Once created, they cannot be recalled.

We must proceed cautiously into the issue, setting up safeguards and adhering to a liberal version of the precautionary principle. The development of GM technology holds out such valuable, indispensable, prospects for the future of humanity that any other approach would be indefensible.


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