Genetic engineering, are your foods eating you?

Genetic engineering (GE) of crops is a major topic with two diverging opinions. On one hand geneticists claim GE holds the key to alleviating world hunger and saves billions of lives. On the other hand, experts warn of major health problems arising from their consumption. Is it right for geneticists to play God with our foods? Are genetically modified organisms (GMO) the solution to major world problems, or will they eat us up in terms of our health, environment and ultimate freedom?

GMO FOODS PICTURES

FOR GM FOODS

With human population predicted to hit 9 billion by 2050, crop production needs to rise by 50% by 2030, however due to drought increase and rapidly declining environmental resources, current farming resources will be inadequate, thus malnutrition, starvation and deaths will increase.

Recently thousands of people backed up by activist organisations like Greenpeace, marched in an anti GMO protest, however GE of crops has been used for over 40 years with several benefits. One example is that of rice crops. When submerged in water for more than 3 days, they die and due to climate change, flooding of rice fields has become a major issue. At one point, 70 million rice farmers experienced flooding. Through GE, a flood resistant variety of rice capable of withstanding more than 18 days of flooding was developed, and by implementation strategies, 3 million farmers have started using this resistant variety.

Is it right for people who live in western countries with access to good farming technology to push the government to enforce anti GMO laws and stop geneticists? Knowing that for poor farmers in developing countries who don’t have good farming technology, a significant loss to their crops will mean starvation and death, and this would lead to a reduction in rice production, exports, and a fall in GDP, hence increasing the price for rice due to food scarcity.

Stopping GE will mean that governments, farmers and citizens of developing countries will be undermined, and only the wants of rallying activists would be met. This is anti utilitarian and is akin to selfishly impoverishing millions of people globally.

Geneticists are accused of inserting harmful substances into crops, thus geneticists face a moral dilemma; continue crop engineering with the possibility of major health and social problems occurring or stop crop engineering, however face starvation and death of millions.

Faced with such a dilemma:

  1. The government could ban GE and impose trade bans.
  2. Geneticists could use only traditional farming methods such as grafting.
  3. Continue crop GE and engineer more crops.
  4. Stop crop engineering completely.

Looking at this problem through the lens of utilitarianism, which states that the best decision is the one that guarantees the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people, option 3 is morally right. This option ensures that the key stakeholders (government, farmers and citizens) of developing countries, which have the largest populations globally, will be fed in a sustainable manner that is economically viable. If GM were to be stopped completely this would lead to impoverished farmers, starvation, malnutrition and death. However, the potential health risks associated with GM are minimal when compared to the benefits.

AGAINST GM FOODS

The necessity of GMOs to ensure food security in sustaining our growing population is an argument hugely emphasised in the GMO debate. The majority of GMOs are used in animal feed rather than directly feeding people. Does anyone have the right to release modified genes into our environment with little knowledge of what might happen? It is one of the greatest tests the human race has ever conducted.

The distribution of foods is a major issue in society.  As it stands we currently grow enough food to feed 10 billion people. However this food is poorly distributed worldwide, with at least 50% of grains fed to livestock. Some useful statistics to bear in mind are 1.5 acres can produce 37,000 pounds of plant-based food and 1.5 acres can produce 375 pounds of meat. This leads to the argument that modifying seeds in scientific laboratories is totally unnecessary as growing organic crops is far more efficient than growing GM crops to feed animals to then feed humans.

Beside this there are many other serious concerns about GMO crops. First of all it is almost impossible to foresee all impacts on consumer health and the ecosystem. Modifying genes of plants can dramatically change their properties with unknown effects to the human body and interaction within the ecosystem. Scientists have identified some of the health risks of GM products as follows: reduced fertility, mutations, reduced nutrient content of food and cancer. This is a concern to everyone as we are all interested in safe foods and a sustainable ecosystem.

There is further threat to farmers as GMO seeds and the herbicides are developed, patented, produced and sold by Multi National Corporations such as Monsanto and CropSciences. These companies forbid farmers to save seeds from previous harvest, causing dependence and violating their right to free choice.

Using a utilitarian approach for this moral issue promotes making ethical decisions by thinking what is right for the greater good. By using GMOs, many stakeholders in particular, consumers and farmers will be negatively affected. Freedom of choice for consumers is currently violated because there is no general regulation to label GMO food. People are therefore inadvertently supporting a growing uptake of GM usage in food.

A huge global issue is sustaining our planet for the future and the greater good of all humans and animals. GM threatens biodiversity, promotes monocultures and prevents the natural development of our ecosystem. By destroying the earth we all lose and therefore any benefits associated with GM are outweighed. Over all we all have a moral obligation to ensure the future sustainability of both our natural environment and our diets. GM is not a solution to food shortages around the world but it is an excellent moral issue for the companies to hide behind to justify their growth.

Adewale Adeyosoye, Kelachi Omehia, 

Rachel Morecroft, Soren Maack

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12 thoughts on “Genetic engineering, are your foods eating you?

  1. I favour your Option 3 above in the “For GM” paragraph. The United States already uses a lot of GM food with very little concern. GM farming is simply one of the many ways we must adopt in order to significantly increase our agricultural productivity. We will then be able to support the future population growth.
    Good luck with your project.

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  2. I favour option 3. GE crop follows similar recent human technological innovations, such as electronics, petrol engines, medicines, etc., which have positive and negative effects. Governments, companies and universities should work on understanding the negative effects and ameliorating them as it happened with other technological innovations, e.g. some medicines. Therefore, similar funding should be allocated to both create GE crops and assess their impact. Potentially, innovations can be discovered by also understanding the negative impact of GE crops. Consequently, GE crops as a technology can evolve in the future. For example, petrol engines have evolved in recent years reducing the consumption of petrol substantially and pollution generated.

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  3. I don’t find any of the four options acceptable. When a new medication is developed it has to be tested on a small discrete population, over time, before declared safe and effective. Even then, errors occur. I suggest that expansion of GE be halted or limited. We need to see some long-term results on the health of people who eat mainly GE foods before further experimentation is encouraged.
    Right now, the manipulative practices of mega-corporations such as Monsanto that require farmers to use only Monsanto seeds, and prohibit farmers from saving seeds from this year’s crop for next year’s planting must be stopped – by law. Monsanto and others are working to achieve trade agreements that would ban a nation state from enacting any laws that might limit the profitability of a corporation’s activities in selling products, pesticides, seeds, etc. I don’t want these corporations to be controlling our food supply which will happen if GE goes unchecked.
    So if I am required to pick one of the four options, I favour option 1. Ban GE, ban exports, but, do some careful long-term experimentation and testing to get more hard data on the effects of long-term ingestion of GE food products. Remember, thalidomide was considered a wonder drug – safe – until the results of using this drug were documented. Long-term monitored use and then expanded GE foods, one by one.

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  4. There is cause for concern on just about every front here. Here are a few thoughts:

    I know someone who worked for Syngenta, developing seeds for use in rural India. He was welcomed as a saviour when he visited and was truly humbled by the experience. However if the consequences for those people are either of the following then this has to be seen as wrong:
    – that the village is forced to depend upon Syngenta (or any other company) as sole distributors;
    – that there are serious future health consequences.

    I would say that people in rural poverty need political protection to ensure that they are not left to the mercy of multinational companies.

    In addition multinational companies need to sign up to agreement through the UN to conditions that include funding research and development projects into the future possible consequences of GM in universities throughout the world, but particularly in the developing countries that they target for sales contracts.

    I have no problem in principle with the development of GM foods, but it would make sense for the UN to create incentives for multinational companies to promote reduced consumption of meat based diets throughout the world – after all if they can persuade people to consume Coca Cola and McDonalds, then they could easily rise to this challenge. That way the problem of feeding the population would be helped by those who otherwise might be exploitative.

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  5. First of all, in terms of food shortages, I’ve read that famines are actually mainly caused by wars, not by adverse weather or shortage of land; surely there are political and other scientific ways to ensure we all have enough to eat: Malthus has not been proved right yet, although on paper his logic is convincing. More land could be brought into cultivation, and much could be done to improve transport links which would ensure quick and efficient transport of perishable food – look at the impact the railways had on nineteenth century Britain; the global barriers to this are largely political. So we don’t need GM crops to solve food shortages.

    Secondly, getting us all to eat less meat so there’s more land to grow grains, pulses and vegetables is an argument that’s been around ever since I can remember. Yes, less meat would be a good idea, though probably more for health reasons than for feeding starving people. But not all land is suitable for arable farming, so you can’t just add up acreage. Also, animal dung provides very useful fertiliser for our veg; you can make it in 24 hours if you feed grass into a cow and collect what comes out at the other end. Additionally, if you’re going to eat eggs, milk etc, what are you going to do with all the male animals born? Look how many vegetables people managed to grow just in parks and gardens in the UK in WW2 – there is plenty of land without us all becoming vegans.

    Patenting seeds is also not a new thing. There used to be a magazine in the 1970s called “The New Internationalist” where this issue (as well as most of the other issues in the blog) was discussed; apparently even then, oil companies such as Shell (keen to sell oil-based fertiliser) owned many seed patents; the argument then was that they tied people in to buying seeds with huge yields, but only if they had lots of artificial fertiliser added. I agree that it’s very wrong to take self-sufficiency away like this – but I’d guess it’s more a question of GM crops not having fertile seeds, rather than “not allowing” farmers to save seed – how on earth would that be policed?

    What I think would be interesting is to know more about the percentage of crops currently grown which are GM, and evidence of their effects.

    I appreciate that this is a few off-the-cuff ideas rather than a clear argument, but perhaps they will spark some ideas.

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  6. I feel that the use of GM crops should be regulated and there should be the option to consume crops that have been genetically modified or not. And this information should be clearly labelled on the packaging giving as much info as possible of where your food is coming from. To ban them outright would raise more questions. What is the difference between GM crops and processed sugar? Once more this a case of suppliers making changes to the food we consume. Transparency is the key issue in my opinion and the confirmed and suggested long term effects. Just like the label on a smoking packet.

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  7. It would seem that there is often a resort to a false dichotomy when discussing this issue, and the right approach is likely to lie somewhere outside of this. A utilitarian view is probably the most appropriate here, but I would suggest that in selecting a responsible utilitarian solution in a given circumstance, thorough risk analysis and mitigation is always required. Others commenting here have made comparisons with advances in other areas e.g. technology, energy, medicine etc. In each of these areas, it is important to maintain a comprehensive portfolio of differing solutions and standards in order to mitigate against future risks, while also allowing societies to benefit sufficiently from advanced research and development, and the same is probably true in this case.

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  8. If you look at the website Hunger explained http://www.hungerexplained.org/Hungerexplained/Myths_on_hunger_debunked.html
    you will see 13 myths about hunger which are worth considering before you get to the GMO debate, although the GMO debate is one of the issues to consider as we move forward, it can not be taken in isolation of the other 12 myths that are outlined. I would argue for an holistic approach to the challenges of hunger in the world and within this holistic approach it would seem to me that GMO’s could reduce food intake or the poorest while continuing to increase the inequality in the world

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  9. Simon says: Anti-GM protestors are small-minded, Luddite biggots. Man has been manipulating genes for ever. Without this, we would not have the chicken, the domesticated dog and most types of productive farm animal. GM simply gives us a greater level of control. Do you want to solve world hunger? Shut up and eat up your GM crops, they’ll be good for you.

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  10. I approach this quite simply.
    Should advancements in science and understanding be applied in the production of food? I think the answer must be a resounding yes. It would be strange if one field of human endeavour did not benefit from focused research.
    Should this activity be regulated carefully? Again, I think the answer is yes. There are analogies to the regulation of medicine. The answer to the issues with drugs that have had significant side effects e.g. thalidomide is not to abandon development of future medicines. It is better science and more effective regulation.
    Personally I think the tricky matter with GM food is how to regulate effectively but maintain incentives for investment in good science.

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  11. I approach this largely through ignorance, as I do not have an understanding of the scientific background, and how radically GE differs from the traditional practices of selective breeding undertaken over the centuries.. Perhaps someone can enlighten me.
    I am most convinced by David’s arguments for caution and long term testing before widespread adoption of practices with unknown consequences.
    GE needs to be evaluated in the context of world population growth, the shrinkage of natural environments and lack of biodiversity, pollution and climate change. These were ‘hot’ topics in the 1960s and 70s. I remember being sceptical then that technology had the answer, and sadly I remain sceptical.
    My natural inclination is to meddle with foods as little as possible. I appreciate this might be a privileged perspective from a relatively ‘rich’ nation and won’t solve the problems of world hunger. But as people have commented above, famine can be as much the result of wars, unequal distribution of resources, and the machinations of governments and multinational companies, as from farming practices, weather disasters and absolute shortage. I guess though it’s easier to turn to technology and science for solutions than to engineer a peaceful world and benevolent governments and industries. For this reason, I suspect GE has a future.

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  12. I agree with those who are against using GE in our food. The idea that I don’t know how the food I eat has been altered is disturbing to me. I am aware that I take risks whenever I choose processed foods, and so I find it worth the extra cost to choose organic foods, and worth the extra time to cook from fresh ingredients where possible. I also find the large multinational corporations like Monsanto to be immoral in their behaviour, and deliberately undermining traditional farming. In Canada, they have been known to initiate legal proceedings against neighbouring farmers for growing their “proprietary, copy-righted” seeds which have actually blown onto neighbouring land, essentially “infecting” the natural crops and making organic farming in the vicinity an impossibility. Sooner or later we have to accept that leaving huge moral decisions that affect everyone up to multi-national corporations, for whom money is the bottom line and reason for being, above all else, is going to impoverish our planet in the process.

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