Genetically Modified Foods: Effects on Human Health

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Introduction

The increased global population is one of the main contributing factors to the insufficiency of food for consumption. For a long time now scientists have been altering different types of crops and animals through selective breeding in a bid to improve their production. Although selective breeding is one of the common methods of gene transfer, genetic engineering outdoes it because of its wider scope (Butcher 1). This has therefore led to the development of genetically modified organisms. The technology of genetic engineering has also been applied in crops. GM crops are now in high production globally as a way of increasing food production.

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GM crops are produced by changing the genetic composition of plants. The change in the genetic composition may be achieved by the introduction of a gene that is perceived to be advantageous to the plant. “The gene may be perceived to be advantageous to the plant to make it stronger, better, or even disease-resistant” (Butcher 1). Other genes may make the plant produce a certain type of protein that will make the plant resistant to destructive insects.

Though GM foods are normally in high demand, there have been controversies on policies governing their production in most countries (Butcher 1). This paper is an in-depth investigation of the effects that genetically modified foods have on human health, and the legislative issues surrounding genetically modified foods.

Effects of genetically modified foods

Positive

Among the main benefits of GM foods is that the food crops may only require the minimal application of herbicides. This implies that the environment will be substantially protected from the pollution that results from application of herbicides. “Thus a GM crop that only requires one herbicide as it grows will be more environmentally friendly that another crop that must be applied with a variety of herbicides as it grows” (Butcher 1). The growth of GM crops that are not affected by insect pests is also beneficial to farmers since growing other crops means that the farmers will lose a substantial part of their market since people do not like consuming crops on which a lot of pesticides has been used. As expected, GM food crops that are not affected by pests have environmental benefits since pesticide use will be reduced. The farmer will also be able to reduce the cost which he/she incurs to produce the crops, translating to more profits.

Biologists are researching how to genetically modify crops to produce crops that are resistant to bacteria, viruses and fungi. This will give high-quality foods that will not have negative effects on consumers. This is as contrasted to a case where consumers are provided with foods that are infected with bacteria, fungi and viruses that may impact negatively on their health. In addition to this, farmers are now able to grow crops in areas that were previously considered unsuitable for agricultural activities.

The fact that the crops will not be infected with diseases means that the production volume of crops will increase. This will, in turn lead to an increase in the profits that the farmers get. Production of GM foods that are not affected by diseases will also:

“In most countries, a substantial portion of the population suffers malnutrition due to overdependence on one staple” (Butcher 1). For instance, countries that depend on rice as the main staple in their diet may have malnutrition problems. Thus genetic modification of such staples to include the minerals and vitamins that they lack can be a huge step in ensuring that malnutrition problems are contained. Consider blindness due to the deficiency of vitamin A in diet. Most of the third world countries have this problem. “Researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, and Institute for Plant Sciences have created a strain of golden rice containing an unusually high content of beta-carotene (Vitamin A)” (Castle & Ruse 112). The rice has been slated for free distribution to the developing world on the condition that the developing nations need it. The institute is also hopeful that shortly they will be able to produce another strain of GM rice that has substantial amounts of iron. However, these projects have been greatly held back by the intense anti-GM foods campaigns that have been taking place in several European countries.

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As a result of conditions that must be availed for vaccines to be effective, some of them have not reached the developing world. Some efforts are being made at making vaccines that can be harbored by crops such as potatoes. This implies that the vaccines will be easily be transported and availed to these people, who badly need them. In essence, people in developing countries will be healthier after using these vaccines which they were unable to access previously.

Negative

Genetically modified foods have a number of negative effects, some of them being negative effects on human health. “One of the main effects that GM foods have on human health is the fact GM foods have led to an increase in the number of allergens that people react to” (Lim 1). To exemplify this, a number of children in Europe and the United States have developed fatal allergies to some foodstuffs like peanuts. It has been highly suspected that the introduction of genes in plants (genetic engineering) may be the course of these allergies. In addition to this, during the development of GM foods, there is always the need to perform extensive tests that are meant to ensure that the foods that are developed do not harm human beings. This may have negative effects on the animals and/or people who are used in the tests.

Another negative effect of GM foods on human health is the fact that genetic engineering has been proven to bring about unanticipated genetic mutations. “This can potentially lead to more toxins in foodstuffs and also bring about new toxins in foodstuffs” (Castle & Ruse 115). In addition to this, it is a common practice for genetic engineers to utilize the property of resistance to antibiotics in cells that have been genetically modified. The genes in GM crops may thus have substantial resistance to antibiotics. Bacteria that infect human beings may pick these genes, and become virtually incurable (Butz 39).

There is also the issue of insufficient testing. The materials used in genetic engineering are obtained from organisms that do not constitute part of the food consumed by humans (Windley 7). These materials change the food that human beings consume. It, therefore, follows that without sufficient testing of the resultant foodstuffs, the food will not have guaranteed safety for human beings. Another issue of concern has been the fact that transgenic foods normally have an appealing look that may not reflect their nutritional value. Thus genetically engineered tomatoes may be brightly colored even after spending weeks in the store and losing their nutritional value. This implies that humans may not derive the right nutritional value from GM foods.

GM foods are also disadvantageous in that some of the problems they cause on the health of humans are difficult to be traced on them. Thus humans may suffer effects of taking GM foods without knowing what the real cause of the problem is. This is mainly because GM foods are not easily recognizable, and people may consume them without knowing that they are consuming GM foods. Even when people know that they are consuming GM foods, it may be difficult for them to link the health problems they experience later to the GM foods they consume. This is even though some of the side effects of GM foods are fatal. To evidence this, “37 people died, 1500 were partially paralyzed, and 5000 more were temporarily disabled by a syndrome that was finally linked to tryptophan made by genetically-engineered bacteria” (Butz 73). To counter this problem, scientists have been working on several ways to test GM foods. Although so far, it is impossible to determine if a crop is genetically modified, there are several tests that are used to determine the toxicity of GM foods. These include checking the chemical composition of the food, and using animal feeding trials.

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The Common Diseases associated with GM foods

There are a number of diseases that can be associated with GM foods. One such disease is the Morgellons Disease. “Some of the symptoms associated with the Morgelons Disease include stinging and biting sensations, black materials underneath the skin, rashes or sores, granules, fatigue and mental confusion, vision problems, joint pain and even short-term amnesia” (Butz 47). These symptoms often make the victim susceptible to social problems like divorce, suicidal ideation, home abandonment, or even loss of the custody of children due to unwelcome behavior.

As discussed above, the allergenicity associated with GM foods is a health concern that has attracted a lot of research. It is therefore a part and parcel of the health complications that are caused by consumption of GM foods. Due to the seriousness of this issue, the introduction of allergenic genes in GM foods is strictly discouraged. GM foods in the market are, therefore, reportedly non-allergenic because allergenic genes are rarely used in producing these foods.

Other Health risks associated with genetically modified foods

Genetically modified foods have been associated with toxicology as evidenced by several allergic reactions, especially towards corn and cotton. This mostly occurs through the production of a bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis that inhabits the soil. Though the use of the Bt genes is based on the fact that farmers use a Bt bacterial spray to control insects, the Bt toxin produced in genetically modified crops is much more concentrated than the natural one. It is thus, more toxic and contains allergenic substances as well. In addition, it cannot be washed off the plant unlike the natural one. The common allergic reaction associated with the Bt gene is flu-like symptoms. Other symptoms include nausea and skin rashes (Butcher 1).

Another major health risk associated with the consumption of genetically modified foods is the dysregulation functions of the immune system where the levels of cytokines may increase and result in conditions such as allergic inflammations and even asthma attacks. Most of these immune reactions result from the use of Bt corn and genetically modified soy. The two food crops contain high levels of trypsin inhibitor which is allergenic to many people. Genetically modified foods have further adverse health effects with their potential to cause cancer in humans. “It is caused by a protein, GH, which is usually introduced to cows to stimulate the pituitary glands’ ability to produce large volumes of food” (McHughen 67). This protein enhances the increase of a chemical hormone, IGF-1 which has high potential of causing breast and prostate cancer. It also has the potential to increase the mass of the spleen hence causing its dysfunction which may result in development of leukemia.

All these effects affect children more than they do adults because children are more vulnerable to toxins and allergens and hence they are easily affected by these as well as other nutrition-associated problems. This is because the little ones consume lots of milk most of which is gotten from cows which may be with genetically modified insecticides or maybe feeding on GM feeds. “Genetically modified foods have also been associated with the development of antibiotic-resistance diseases” (McHughen 71). Similarly, this affects children more especially those who suffer from recurring infections. In addition, consumption of genetically engineered foods by pregnant mothers can affect and disrupt the normal development of the embryo because they are so sensitive to new substances. Alteration of gene expression may as well occur. For instance, an unborn child may take the foreign genes in place of the natural parental ones and this may affect the child’s health especially if they replaced genes that were responsible for vital body functions such as immune response (Atherton 87). There are, however, some long-term effects of genetically engineered food although many people focus on the short-term effects alone (Smith 1). One of the major long-term effects is the possibility of outcrossing of the foreign genes where genes that had been initially introduced into a certain plant, are later transferred into another that was not meant to be modified. Due to this unintended transfer of genes to food crops, we are faced with the dangers of food safety and security more than we can imagine since assurance measures will not be taken in such cases.

Legislative issues surrounding genetically modified foods

The issue of genetically modified foods has been of political and social concern since time immemorial. This can be evidenced by the fact that the very first food alteration was authorized by a Supreme Court ruling. Environmental organizations, governments and even public interest groups have been the major protestors of genetically modified foods. This has made the production of genetically modified foods vary greatly depending on whether the political and social systems of the place where it is produced support it (Lim 2). For instance, governments have continually tried to put in place a regulatory process for monitoring GM plants and establishing if they are fit for human consumption as well as approving their use.

However, regardless of whether people have knowledge about genetically modified foods or not, GM foods have most definitely found their way into their diets. Despite the hullaballoo about the negative effects of GM foods, genetically modified foods are continuously growing and it is apparent that not much has been done to limit its growth. In the United States, more than half of the processed foods that find their way into stores contain genetically modified ingredients. The growth of the GM foods has especially been huge in the last decade, with millions of acres of genetically modified crops being grown across the world. Some of the countries that are known for their active roles in GM foods include Germany, Argentina, Spain, Canada, and the U.S. (Cendrowicz 1). The U.S is actually the greatest producer of GM foods, producing more than half of all GM foods produced the world over. Other countries that grow genetically modified foods on a large scale include China and Brazil. Noteworthy levels of GM food production have also been reached in countries like South Africa, Australia, Paraguay and Uruguay.

Despite the fact that a large number of countries grow GM foods, there are countries in which GM foods are prohibited. This has been the case in countries like Austria and Hungary. The WTO had ruled in favor of the United States, after they made an application suggesting that prohibition of GM foods in Hungary and Austria was in contravention of trade rules. “However, the two countries proceeded with their bans in spite of the decision of the WTO. The European Union has also made attempts to lift the bans enforced by these two countries, but without much success” (McHughen 102). Although GM foods are still grown in Germany, and it is one of the leading producers of GM foods, it has numerous restrictions regarding the production of GM foods (Cummins & Lilliston 107). Another country that has numerous restrictions in connection with the production of GM foods in Ireland.

In Brazil, there are still restrictions to the growth of GM foods in some states. There was even a suit filed by the “Brazilian Institute for Defense of Consumers” (Castle & Ruse 81) about a decade ago that sought to prevent people from importing GM foods.

Conclusion

From the above discussion, it is apparent that the issue of GM foods is still controversial in many countries. This is primarily due to the effects that GM foods have on human health. Although several positive health effects have been argued out, it is clear that the negative effects of GM foods on human health are weightier, and thus they deserve more concern. Life expectancy all over the world has drastically reduced due to the consumption of GM foods among other things. It is thus of essence that countries put in place strict legislative measures that will ensure that GM foods are either banned or effectively monitored to ensure they have minimal effects on human health. Countries that allow the production of GM foods should especially ensure that the GM foods and their products are effectively tested before they are released to the market for consumption. Appropriate labeling should also accompany such foods to ensure that consumers are fully informed that they are consuming GM foods. In addition to this, scientists should strive to come up with more effective methods that can be used to identify GM foods, or better still identify GM foods that are harmful to the health of humans.

Works Cited

Atherton, Keith. Genetically Modified Crops: Assessing Safety. London. Taylor & Francis, 2002. Print.

Butcher, Mavis. “Information on genetically modified foods including a list of GM foods with DNA changes and the pros and cons of GM foods today”. 2009 – 2011, Web.

Butz, William. The Future of Genetically Modified Crops: Lessons from the Green Revolution. Santa Monica, California. Rand Publication, 2004. Print.

Castle David & Ruse Michael. Genetically Modified Foods (Contemporary Issues – Prometheus). California. Barnes & Noble, 2002. Print.

Cendrowicz, Leo. “Is Europe ready for Genetically Modified Foods”? 2010 – 2011, Web.

Cummins, Ronnie & Lilliston, Ben. Genetically Engineered Food: A Self-Defense Guide for Consumers. New York. Marlowe & Company, 2004. Print.

Lim, Naomi. “The Uncertainties of Genetically Modified Foods”. 2000- 2011, Web.

McHughen, Alan. The Potential and Hazards of Genetically Modified Foods. New York. Oxford University Press, 2000. Print.

Smith, Jeffery. Genetically modified foods unsafe? Evidence that links GM foods to allergic responses mount. 2007. Web.

Windley, Steve. “Genetically Modified Foods”. 2008 – 2011. Web.

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