Genetically Modified Food
Biotechnology is defined as any technological application that uses biological systems, living organisms, or derivatives thereof to make or modify products for specific use. So basically, since the time humans have domesticated animals and bred them for specific traits, we’ve been using biotechnology. Only, since then, it’s become a bit more complex. In the 1980s scientists discovered they could transfer DNA between organisms. By 1994, the tomato was genetically modified to delay ripening. A year later, Monsanto (a biotech company you may know due to their development and marketing of the bovine growth hormone) introduced a herbicide immune soybean. And that was nearly 20 years ago. In the last two decades, genetically modified (GM) foods have taken off. Now in the United States, 93% of soybean crops are genetically modified, as well as 86% of cotton, 93% of tomatoes, and countless other products. Their genetics are modified by either deleting a specific gene or inserting a gene from something else into their DNA. Inside the nucleus, DNA is stored, which is donated by both the parents of the offspring. The short segments of DNA which code for specific traits are genes and once these genes are isolated on the DNA strand, they can be deleted or used to replace a gene in something else.
This advancement in technology has allowed scientists to splice genes of crops and insert ones that could be useful. Sweet peppers, for instance, were modified to resist specific viruses that are harmful. Now, some crops of peppers contain coat proteins of the viruses, sort of like a vaccine. With herbicide resistant soybeans, the herbicide restraint gene was taken from bacteria and inserted into the soybean’s genome. But just like everything, genetically modified foods have pros and cons. Many see GM food (genetically modified) as a way to help the environment, as chemical sprays that are used to protect crops from insects and viruses need to be treated less frequently. Such sprays are harmful to water supplies and detrimental to nearby wildlife. But animals aren’t the only thing that may benefit from genetically modified crops.
By 2050, the estimated population of the earth is said to be around 9 billion people. It’s hoped that biotechnological advancements can help produce more food. Farmers are able to produce more crops on the land that they already have. And with 9 billion people, the human population is going to need all the farm land they can get.
But while GM foods sound okay, people have developed allergies towards some of them. Though foods that don’t naturally contain a peanut gene are labeled to help navigate away from such problems, the FDA decided that as long as the genetic makeup of a plant isn’t significantly different from the traditional plant, it doesn’t require any special labeling. But some stores, such as Whole Foods, do require GM foods to be labeled. However, to many, labeling is the least of their worries.
Genetically modified foods aren’t just limited to crops. Traditionally, you could breed say a poodle with a golden retriever and voila, a golden-doodle is born – a new variety. Fabulous. No shedding, hypoallergenic, great. But now, scientists could take that same poodle and mix it with a salamander, or a cucumber, or a cherry tree. Scientists are able to breech barriers that were set by nature. And don’t think that wild combinations of species haven’t been crossed. Arctic fish genes have been inserted into tomatoes and strawberries to make them frost resistant. Last year in China, scientists released that they’d introduced human genes into dairy cows so that their milk was the same as human breast milk. Forget formula, ladies – your local Betsy’s got it. And let’s not forget to mention genetically modified chickens that are resistant to bird-flu, fish that grow at increased rates, and hens that lay heart-healthy eggs – you name it, and there’s a way to create it.
So while genetically modified foods pose as an easy solution to many food-related problems, they also lead us down the slippery slope of perhaps tampering with the natural circle of life more than we should.