In recent years, genetically modified (GM) food has elicited concerns over their potential effects on human health and biodiversity. GMOs, or genetically modified organisms in full, differ from natural crops and animals because they carry a foreign gene. They are plants with novel genes inserted through genetic engineering to improve certain traits desirable for human or animal use. Unlike crop improvement via traditional breeding, genetic engineering or recombinant DNA technology introduces new genes associated with superior traits, such as pest resistance and nutritional value, directly into the crop.
It allows geneticists to isolate a gene of interest from a plant or organism and express it in a particular crop. Therefore, the procedure is fast and more accurate than conventional breeding experiments. The genetic manipulation produces organisms that are genetically different from natural plants or animals. In the area of agriculture, GM crops engineered to produce pesticides or endure water stress can help overcome the challenge of pests or drought that causes massive financial losses. From this perspective, GMOs have significant potential benefits, including the possibility of alleviating the global food shortage problem and malnutrition.
The cultivation of GM crops could also eliminate the need for chemical pesticides that contaminate the environment. However, concerns exist over the impacts of GM crop cultivation and consumption on the plant, animal, and human health. The GM crops could cause unintended harm to non-target fauna and flora and destabilize the ecosystem. There are also concerns over the possibility that other plants may acquire novel genes, leading to a decline in biodiversity. The target pests could also evolve to resistant strains resulting in superbugs. However, with proper regulation GMOs can be the solution to the global food shortage problem. This paper analyzes the potential benefits and concerns over the safety of GMOs to clarify their place in Canadian agriculture.
Definition of GMO
GMOs are crops manipulated through genetic engineering to enhance particular traits useful for human or animal use (Whitman, 2012). The desirable characteristics may include pest resistance, better nutritional value, and drought resistance.
Advantages of GMOs in Agriculture
In Canadian agriculture, the damage caused by insect pests has an enormous impact on yield and profits. Chemical pesticides used to kill these destructive pests have been associated with adverse health and environmental effects. One way of doing away with chemical pesticides is through the cultivation of GM crops like B.t. maize or cotton that has a natural defense against pests. B.t. corn variety contains a gene isolated from Bacillus thuringiensis or Bt, a soil-borne bacterium that secretes a protein harmful to insect larvae (Roush, 2007). In GM maize, the genes enable maize to secrete pesticides lethal to maize stem borer. Similarly, B.t. cotton exhibits a natural defense against bollworms. Therefore, growing pest-resistant GM crops is necessary to improve yields and reduce financial loss due to pests.
Another potential benefit of GM crops in Canada relates to the removal of weeds crowding cultivated crops. Weeding often involves spraying with chemical herbicides or manual removal of weeds. However, these two methods are expensive and time-consuming, especially in plantation farming. GM crops engineered to carry a resistant gene against common herbicides can tolerate strong weed killer sprays (Roush, 2007).
In this way, only a small quantity of herbicides may be applied to eliminate weeds, which would help conserve the environment. Roush (2007) notes that Monsanto’s GM soybean variety is resistant to Roundup; hence, only a single application is needed to kill weeds. Thus, the effect of repeated herbicide applications to the environment would be minimal in the GM soybean farms.
Besides insect pests and weeds, an outbreak of viral, fungal, and bacterial diseases can reduce crop yields significantly. Plant pathologists have created transgenic varieties carrying a resistance gene against common crop diseases, such as Fusarium head blight in cereals (Roush, 2007). This approach could reduce agricultural loss and help Canadian farmers reap maximum yields per acreage.
Most crops are not well adapted to endure freezing conditions witnessed during winter in parts of Canada. Genetic engineering could solve this problem by producing cold-tolerant varieties. A cold tolerance gene isolated from fish has been inserted in potato and tobacco to produce transgenic plants with the capability of enduring low-temperature conditions (Roush, 2007). Unlike non-transgenic plants, these GM crops can be grown in all seasons.
Drought conditions constitute a major challenge to improving agricultural productivity. The scarcity of arable land has pushed farmers to cultivate in drylands using irrigation. Developing transgenic crops able to withstand prolonged drought can help the farmers grow food in the dry and barren land.
Concerns about GMOs
One concern raised by conservationists is that GMOs might have unintended harm on fauna and flora. Pollen from B.t. maize has been found to kill caterpillars feeding on nearby milkweed plants (Yang & Chen, 2015). In this case, the insects consumed the transgenic maize pollen landing on milkweed plants (Yang & Chen, 2015). The indiscriminate wiping out of insect larvae, including non-target species, by the B.t. the toxin is a concern because it may kill insects indigenous to Canada. However, creating a buffer zone between modified and unmodified crops can prevent the unintended killing of harmless insects.
A common argument advanced against GMOs is that transgenic crops may introduce a ‘foreign’ gene to natural plants, including weeds. In particular, the herbicide resistance gene could be passed to unwanted plants producing ‘super-weeds’ that are immune to even the most potent weed killers. There are also fears that the ‘transgene’ could crossover into non-GM crops through cross-pollination (Whitman, 2012). The proposed solution to this problem includes engineering male-sterile crops that do not produce viable pollen (Whitman, 2012). Thus, growing these crop varieties can prevent the transfer of the novel gene to nearby plants.
Another concern relates to the evolution of parasite strains resistant to the toxins produced by GM crops. It is feared that common pests may develop resistance to B.t. maize and conventional pesticides, posing a new challenge to corn production (Gassmann, Petzold-Maxwell, Keweshan & Dunbar, 2010). However, Canadian farmers could still use chemical pesticides to clear resistant pests.
There is also a concern that GMOs may introduce toxins to plants and animals that make up the human diet. One potential health risk is allergenicity. Inserting a gene obtained from nuts, such as peanuts, into crops like soybean has raised fears that it may induce allergies in some consumers (James, 2009). In this respect, further research is needed to screen transgenic plants for potential allergens. One study found that transgenic potatoes carrying a lectin gene affect the gastrointestinal system of rats (James, 2009). Thus, GM food may have unexpected effects on humans and animals.
The cultivation of GM crops raises some economic concerns. Currently, Agri-biotech companies own patents on recombinant DNA technologies. Various interest groups are concerned that the multinationals, such as Monsanto, that sell transgenic seed varieties may exploit poor farmers if there is no proper regulatory framework (Dizon et al., 2016). In addition, since the crops are engineered to produce non-viable seeds, farmers could remain perpetually dependent on the multinationals for planting material.
Perspectives on GMOs
With the rising global population, the effects of climate change, and the risk of starvation, the search for innovative agricultural technologies is necessary. Ant-GM food groups advocate for stringent measures to prevent harm to human, animal, and environmental health. Labeling of products obtained from transgenic crops has been proposed as one way of regulating GMOs (Dizon et al., 2016). However, agribusiness firms oppose this move because it may create a strong liking for labeled products over non-labeled ones. They hold that labeling costs could be passed on to consumers making food expensive.
On the other hand, consumer advocates propose that all food imports and exports be labeled to enable users to know what they are consuming. They further note that cross-contamination of GM food is a possibility in firms that manufacture GM and non-GM products. In addition, the likelihood that GM produce would mix with non-transgenic crops during harvesting and transportation is high. Thus, labeling alone cannot address the safety concerns. Establishing a global regulatory framework to manage the unintended consequences of GM crops and make them safe for use is necessary.
GM crops could alleviate the food shortage problem if regulated well. In agriculture, transgenic plants can be engineered to produce lethal toxins to pests, endure dry or cold conditions, and tolerate strong herbicides. These traits can help farmers overcome constraints to improved agricultural productivity and conserve the environment. In this view, genetic engineering is a superior technology to traditional breeding. However, there are safety concerns that must be addressed first before the technology can be adopted in Canada. Through stringent regulation, testing, and food labeling GM crops can be made safe for human and animal use.
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