Do you want to taste creamy Tomato paste with a fish gene in it? Eat mashed potatoes marinated with a chicken gene? How about frying that potato in canola oil that smacks of a Californian bay tree? Want to munch juicy blue strawberries that bloom in freezing winter? How about eating golden rice gilded with genes from dancing daffodils?
Gobbling genetically modified foods or garnishing foods with genes is a subject that has been around for sometime. Birth of these new breeds is now breeding scandals and suspicions in the minds of consumers and conscious environmentalists. My intention in this article is to inform you briefly about the pros and cons of this genetic revolution, the health impacts and global worries concerning the consumption of genetically modified foods (GM food) or what is more notoriously known to you as 'Frankenstein foods'.
If we trace the evolution of various species on this planet, genetic modification has been a natural process. We have been modifying genes may be for the last 5000 years and this has been proved by many theories on evolution starting from Charles Darwin. You can call a dog as genetically modified fox or a cat as a genetically modified tiger. We, ourselves, are said to be a version of the monkey Brand.
Genes are protein based organic, natural constituents that already exist. The dinner you ate last night consisting of meat, salad, apple and sweet must be a chain of 200 million miles of a variety of natural DNA. That must have certainly included some genetically modified ones. For centuries, humans have been mixing and matching genetic materials. But, they were within limits ' among closely related species. It was often a cross pollination of probably a Salem Mango with Alphonsa Mango or a marriage of our Punjab brown wheat with white American wheat. In effect, one variety with a distinct variety of the same species. The present genetic modification we are taking about is mixing of a different kind. Tomatoes fortified with a gene from flounder fish (an artic ocean fish), was found frost tolerant and can grow in extremely cold condition. Potatoes and strawberries armed with a chicken gene were seen to provide it with bacterial resistance. Canola oil seeds have now a gene from the Californian Bay tree to alter its oil fat composition.
The Round up Soya marketed by the company Monsanto are Soya beans spliced with a gene of petunias, a weed plant. The result is such Soya beans are immune to herbicides. That means when herbicides are sprayed, other weed plants around it will die but Soya will not absorb any herbicides. Interestingly, such herbicides are also marketed by the same companies. So the company benefits from selling both the seeds and the herbicide. Some companies even market Soya with a terminator gene in it so that it cannot be used as seeds. Since 1986, over 60 different crops including basic crops such as cotton, corn have been genetically engineered with US having about 75% of the global area under GM crops. A big chunk of all that genetically modified corn and soy go right into our processed foods and into feed for the animals we eat. So chances are, unless you are a raw or organic food consumer, you ate a GM food derivative this very day.
You may ask-- Why this sudden jump into the genetically modified food? What is the need? Genetic scientists and Promoters of this Bio Tech revolution forecast a global shortage in our food products as human population is expected to double by the end of this century. Environmental changes such as global warming and related meteorological changes could exacerbate food and water shortages. They believe that genetically modified foods can withstand drought or extreme cold condition and therefore more uncultivated areas could be brought under cultivation. Thus genetically modified organisms can feed the world's starving millions, convert the world's most degraded farmlands into granaries, reduce the need for toxic chemicals in pest control and they can lower the production cost also. More than that, genetic manipulation could increase crop yield, increase its shell life and provide unlimited new varieties in taste and flavor. Thus the market could be worth billions of dollars. A leading G M company like 'Monsanto' had 7 billion dollars sales last year.
Vitamin A is an essential vitamin necessary to prevent diarrhea and impaired vision. Every year, in South East Asia alone, two million people, majority of them children, die of lack of Vitamin A. Rice, the staple diet in these region contains no Vitamin A. What better idea then than to take genes from plants that produce beta-carotene, a precursor of Vitamin A, and insert them into rice so that everyone who consumes rice gets Vitamin A. This is exactly what genetic scientists have done, using daffodils as one of the sources of the genes to produce 'Golden rice', the color from the presence of beta-carotene. Being a fertilizer scientist, I am impressed with these achievements in green revolution.
But then, why this hue and cry over G M foods?
The main concern of environmentalists and consumers is health related. People are anxious about the impact of 'foreign' genes on them. It all started with the 'Mad Cow disease' where the fodder used contained animal genes to increase milk production. A startling revelation was made recently by an Aberdeen based scientist whose research showed that rats fed with a particular GM potato displayed shrunken and damaged internal organs. Protestors warn that those genetically modified organisms (GMOs), introduced into our food supply in the mid-1990s, are one of history's most dangerous and radical changes in our diet. Of greater severity is the environmental impact that genetic manipulation can result in nature. It was reported in May, 1999 that pollen from a corn, into which an insect repelling toxin from a weed plant (called Bt) had been genetically engineered, killed nearly half of the Monarch butterflies that fed on it, stunning the scientists in Cornell university. They feared that cross-pollination by wind and other insects, which are resistant to this toxin could transfer the same traits to other plants also. Production of insecticide oozing GM plants could eliminate a whole range of insect species subsisting on the plants. Thus the most serious concern now is that extensive use of GMOs can result in reduction and alteration of global genetic diversity and therefore, biodiversity. Our biodiversity is the foundation on which all our lives and economies themselves depend- for food, wood, fibers and other raw materials. Already, the world's 20 major food crops have become 70% less genetically diverse
The end result, many environmentalists fear, could be catastrophic. The whole process may run amok and will upset the symbiotic relationship that exists between various species, which only the creator knows. Once on the loose, it cannot be called back. WWF has already called a moratorium on the use or release of GMOs. Green peace has warned that GMOs could radically alter the biological structure of the entire planet. Producers allege that Greenpeace does it to attract sympathy, support and funds.
While genetic engineers promise safe agriculture that will help food cheaper, safer and cleaner, it is my opinion that they should not cross into unknown territories where only HE has better say than man. Remodeling nature with genetic foods is a serious business indeed, but how serious that business is yet to be seen.
Remember, the mother of mischief can sometimes be no bigger than a gene.