Genetically Modified Food

Genetically modified food refers to foodstuffs that have been produced from organisms where their genetic structure has been adjusted or altered from that which would occur naturally. Techniques to alter the genetic makeup of an animal or plant, or to transfer genetic sequence from one organism to another, have been developed and marketed since the last decade of the 20th century. Genetically-modified staple crops such as corn or soya have been available in much of the world since the early 21st century. Introducing the faming of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and putting them on the mass market is a subject of controversy in many countries, because of fears it may lead to detrimental and potentially uncontrollable health and environmental effects.

Genetic modification of food crops is not confined to genetic engineering alone and is a subset of a continuingly developing field of biotechnology. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations has a broad definition of agricultural biotechnology as "a range of tools that scientists employ to understand and manipulate the genetic make-up of organisms for use in the production or processing of agricultural products." This definition includes some traditional techniques such as the brewing and fermentation of beverages, as well as new laboratory applications such as genomic analysis, genetic marker-assisted selection, and the actual genetic engineering methods for direct manipulation of DNA. The FAO has a general positive attitude towards biotechnology as it notes a historic record and continued new opportunities for this study to aid agricultural practices and food security, especially in developing and poor regions.

With respect to direct gene modification, the FAO defines genetic engineering as transferring of a desired trait "found in an organism that is not sexually compatible with the host." This process typically involves transfer of genes through bacteria infecting the host plant, or the application of a mechanical device for inserting the desired gene called a "gene gun". The FAO differentiates three types of genetic transfers and the resultant genetically modified organisms. The first I called a "distant transfer," and involves gene transfer between organisms from two different kingdoms, such as animal, plant or bacteria. The second type is a "close transfer," where genes are transferred between two species within the same kingdom. The third type, known as "tweaking," is when the genes that are originally present in the organism are somehow rearranged to change the desired properties manifested through these genes' expression.

Genetically modified plants or animals that incorporate genes originally from other organisms are known as transgenic organisms. The FAO notes that most transgenic modifications occur for the purpose of "conferring insect resistance and/or herbicide tolerance." It is these properties as well as genetic modification-induced nutritional enhancement that have significant potential to raise yields and satisfy food needs in developing countries with growing populations. Criticism against the creation and production of genetically modified agricultural staples is centered on its potential to affect human health and the risk of uncontrolled genetic material dispersal and subsequent harm to naturally occurring species and ecosystems.

One concern expressed over health is the adverse allergic reaction or "allergenecity," of genetically modified crops. Researcher Dean Metcalfe writes on this subject in the compendium volume Genetically Modified Crops: Assessing Safety, edited by Keith Atherton. According to Metcalfe, adverse reactions such as gastroenteropathy and gastroenteritis have been associated with high protein foods, such as GMO soy protein. Other associated ailments include dermatitis and respiratory problems. While the cited research data on whether GMOs actually cause these problems is inconclusive, Metcalfe advises that the precautionary approach must be used, because of the potential adverse effects of developing allergic reactions.

Environmental effects are more difficult to discover and assess. In his book Genetically Modified Planet: Environmental Impacts of Genetically Engineered Plants author Neal Stewart outlines the main identified risks. One is that new pesticide-tolerant species may actually transfer their tolerance to neighboring weed species through various natural mechanisms. This would create what Stewart refers to as "superweeds," which are not susceptible to commonly used herbicides. Another risk involves similar contamination of valuable crop species including endangered local varieties by invasive GMO organisms through interbreeding. Stewart does not recommend the abandonment of genetically modified plant species altogether but advocates a cautious approach to experimentation. He is cautious about the "biosafety," of transgenic plant products as advertised by manufacturers because there may be adverse effects that take a longer time period to manifest.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

A Wealth Deferred: The Politics and Science of Golden Rice
Baggott, Erin.
Harvard International Review, Vol. 28, No. 3, Fall 2006
Uncertain Peril: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Seeds
Claire Hope Cummings.
Beacon Press, 2008
Food Fray: Inside the Controversy over Genetically Modified Food
Lisa H. Weasel.
AMACOM, 2009
Engineering the Future of Food: Tomorrow's Genetically Modified Food and Farmed Fish Will Be More Sustainable and Far Healthier Than Much of What We Eat Today-If We Can Overcome Our Fears and Embrace It. Here's How One Foodie Learned to Stop Worrying and Love "Frankenfood."
Schonwald, Josh.
The Futurist, Vol. 46, No. 3, May-June 2012
Labeling Genetically Modified Food: The Philosophical and Legal Debate
Paul Weirich.
Oxford University Press, 2007
The Rush to Condemn Genetically Modified Crops
Conko, Gregory; Miller, Henry I.
Policy Review, No. 165, February-March 2011
Genetically Modified Language: The Discourse of Arguments for GM Crops and Food
Guy Cook.
Routledge, 2004
The Politics of GM Food: A Comparative Study of the UK, USA, and EU
Dave Toke.
Routledge, 2004
Food Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know
Robert Paarlberg.
Oxford University Press, 2010
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 13 "Food Safety and Genetically Engineering Foods"
Controversies in Food and Nutrition
Myrna Chandler Goldstein; Mark A. Goldstein.
Greenwood Press, 2002
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 15 "Genetically Modified Foods"
Bountiful Harvest: Technology, Food Safety, and the Environment
Thomas R. Degregori.
Cato Institute, 2002
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 5 "Genetic Modification and Technophobia"
The Green Phoenix: A History of Genetically Modified Plants
Paul F. Lurquin.
Columbia University Press, 2001
Genetically Modified Crops: Assessing Safety
Keith T. Atherton.
Taylor & Francis, 2002
Biotechnology and Communication: The Meta-Technologies of Information
Sandra Braman.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2004
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 9 "Popular Representation and Postnormal Science: The Struggle over Genetically Modified Foods"
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