Bioethical reflection on the use of GMOs

Nuša Zupan | September 19, 2019 | Leave a Comment Download as PDF

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According to some estimates, about 60 percent of the products in stores around the world contain parts of transgenic origin, and many consumers don’t realize what is in their products. Most people have a very negative attitude towards so-called Frankenstein foods, wondering whether GMOs are harmful to human health or not and if these new plant breeding techniques are controversial for the environment.

First, let me explain that genetically modified food is not a single concept – not all GMOs have the same characteristics. BT corn, golden rice, virus-resistant plants, apples that don’t go brown… Different GM organisms include different genes inserted in different ways. 

Unfortunately, we do not yet know how they may affect human health and the environment since this is a relatively unexplored field. So whether we like it or not, we are now unwillingly  part of a massive experiment. 

Genetic engineering and why GMOs are used

GMOs are used to change the individual characteristics of food in order to achieve  “better quality and greater quantity.” This process is completed in labs where desired genetic characteristics are shared between two different foods in order to produce a more desirable food product.  The goal is to improve food organisms to be more nutritional, larger, and last longer while at the same time not endangering human health and the ecosystem. 

The new modified material not only reflects the new features but also transfers them to its future offspring. Some people have raised concerns over this process, as it could not occur naturally.  New species of food are more resistant to certain insects, viruses, fungi and pesticides, which eases their production and increases yields. This process leads to changes in the natural ecological system and creates new beings which do not exist in nature and whose influence on the planetary balance is not yet known. 

What are the worries of GMOs?

Many concerns exist around the use of GMOs. Because the industry is not yet highly regulated, even if you are aware of GMOs in your food it can be difficult to know  what genetic material has been used to produce that food. This means consumers may be less familiar with the possible side effects, such as toxic effects and unexpected allergic reactions from consuming newly created substances. 

Unfortunately, the long-term effects of GMOs on human health are not yet known, but there have been some animal research studies. Austrians found mice that were fed with genetically modified maize had fewer offspring. Research results published by Dr Arpad Pusztai have provided evidence that genetically modified potatoes in experimental animals have caused damage to internal organs and weakened their immune system. 

Genetically modified food may contain a high level of toxic substances like formaldehyde and glyphosate. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has warned that glyphosate, a major ingredient of Roundup herbicide, is probably carcinogenic to humans.

Ecological concerns are another concern within the GMO field. Spreading of pollen from genetically modified plants to autochthonous species cannot be controlled. Some experts are reasonably concerned that this could lead to the destruction of the diversity of species and ecosystems.  

In 2008, genetically modified plants grew on 125 million hectares of agricultural land, and by 2017 this increased to almost 190 million hectares. In the United States alone, after six years of pollen spreading from GM crops to non-GM crops, as many as 67% of total agricultural areas have been contaminated. Although the amount of cross-pollination is controlled by physical distances between unaltered and genetically modified crops and the overlap in the flowering period, the release of GMOs into the environment depends on so many factors that it is impossible to control it completely. 

Scientists also warn of other possible grave impacts and long-term unpredictable effects such as: 

  • Risk of irreversible contamination of the ecosystem
  • Reduced biodiversity
  • New food allergens and toxins emerging in food production
  • The potential risk of infections and mutations in human cells
  • Evolution of new virus strains
  • Growing resistance to antibiotics that are used to enhance food

Advantages arising from the use of GMOs

GMOs could offer benefits to human life as well. Some genetically modified plant crops have become resistant to individual insects, parasites and harmful weeds, making the use of insecticides and pesticides unnecessary, reducing the use of these chemicals will decrease environmental pollution. In the future, GMOs could be used to produce higher nutritional foods, this would reduce industrial processes and lower the use of certain additives and polymers. And, research is  being done to create plant species that would be able to synthesize individual medical substances.

GMOS and food production due to population growth 

Some experts predict that by 2100 the world population will reach 10 or 11 billion. To meet the demands for global food consumption, it is suggested to use GMOs. The current capacity of farming can not sustain a growing population. 

Biotechnology is an important approach in this case, as it could enable the cultivation of individual plant species on untreated areas and create plant species resistant to different climatic conditions. These plant species would have a significantly better potency and yield and thus greatly reduce the losses caused by insects and parasites. 

But is changing the methods of cultivation really the right solution in this case? 

In April 2008, 59 countries in Johannesburg signed the IAASTD Global report, created at the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) under the auspices of the United Nations. The report found GMOs are not a solution to combating global hunger and population growth, instead it suggested we provide access to agricultural lands, better organize local markets and invest in research on traditional plants. Hunger is not a numbers problem it is  primarily a political and economic problem. Therefore, we should focus on developing more comprehensive political and economic policies to support the distribution of food rather than simply growing more.

We have crossed the line to the point of no return

Biotechnology food has the potential to address food shortages, lower the costs of food , reduce agriculture’s impact on habitat destruction, and conserve soil, water and energy. However, because  genetic manipulation can have harmful effects on people’s health or ecosystem, the process of getting food from the field to the plate should be monitored closely and limited to using under crisis situations.  This includes limiting the release of GMOs into nature and growing them only in protected areas such as hotbeds and laboratories.

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Solving global problems these days feels less achievable than it used to. We used to fight intruders with weapons. How will we fight the invisible genes that will sow in our gardens or otherwise find the way to our plates? Nevertheless, here are some actions you can take to avoid consuming and support genetically modified food. 

  1. Sign a petition to support GMO  labeling if these regulations in your county haven’t been accepted yet. 
  2. Produce food at home. 
  3. Purchase organic food when you can. 
  4. Avoid processed food and beverages as well as food additives. 
  5. Get acquainted with the intentions of GMO manufacturers. 
  6. Support the Center for Food Safety.
  7. Boycott! So those who are only interested in money and self-gain will have to ponder on people’s increasing demand for organic foods.

Nuša is a web developer, specialist in SEO and graphic design. She is passionate about inspiring people through her work on healthy lifestyles as the founder of the online platform Organicbodydetox.com and by promoting awareness, understanding and interest of the biophysical environment and global problems presented on the MAHB website.  

Resources:

  1. Wikipedia – Genetic engineering techniques
  2. GMOs? Not So Fast
  3. New certification mark links organics to non-G.M.O.
  4. The Possibility Inside a Seed
  5. Gensko spremenjena hrana
  6. 10 mitov o GSO
  7. Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops in 2017: Biotech Crop Adoption Surges as Economic Benefits Accumulate in 22 Years

The MAHB Blog is a venture of the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere. Questions should be directed to joan@mahbonline.org

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The views and opinions expressed through the MAHB Website are those of the contributing authors and do not necessarily reflect an official position of the MAHB. The MAHB aims to share a range of perspectives and welcomes the discussions that they prompt.
  • Max Kummerow

    Articles like this, and on many other topics should mention population growth and fertility transitions. Lower population (which several countries with low birth rates are headed towards) would make it less necessary to take steps like using GMO crops. Land could be fallowed or crops rotated to eliminate pests so GMO wouldn’t be needed. And the world could be fed without GMO yields.

    • Richard Garner

      It seems to me that the push for to create and make use of GMOs has not come about solely because of a perceived need to produce more food for a growing population. It is also an extension of the general characteristics of our civilization. The people in power think that the biosphere exists primarily for human benefit and it is perfectly okay to remake it to suit our convenience and to protect the established political and economic order. GMOs for agriculture are only one part of biotechnology. And we worship technology and money and think that they are the answer to everything. But you are right. If we didn’t have ongoing population growth, and a heartbreakingly huge population already, there would be no really good reason to make them.