The likely advantages and problems arising from the introduction of genetically modified agricultural crops

This purpose of this essay is to discuss the most likely advantages and problems that arise from the introduction of genetically modified (GM) agricultural crops. This will be done by comparing the main arguments and issues for and against. “Biotechnology is defined as the application of scientific and engineering principles to the processing of materials by biological agents to provide goods and services”, (Engel et al, 1995, p. ix).

Genetic modification is carried out by altering certain genes in the DNA of an organism, an example of this would be in varieties of corn or rice; certain genes could be altered in order for them to resist damaging viruses or insects, the application of such modification would eliminate the use of harmful pesticides, which harm the environment and ozone layer, and would increase crop yield, which is clearly beneficial. Finally the essay will summarise the outlook of the issue of GM crops.

The principal argument in support of the use of GM crops is that yields can be protected from disease and pests meaning the use of pesticides, which are very harmful to the environment, can be significantly reduced. Yields can be expanded by altering the size a crop grows to; this has the evident benefit of increasing the world’s food supply and could be of great assistance to situations of poverty in many third world countries.

Another advantage would be that shapes of crops could be adjusted, for example, the amount of ears on a corn plant could be increased thereby reducing the coverage of farmland needed by half, but still acquiring the same yield or modifications could be made, for example to produce square water melons so they are easier to store and transport. In contrast there are a variety of problematic issues that come with the introduction of GM crops, the most prominent of which being the ethical issues, posing the question hether it is right to disturb the DNA of living things that could in turn disrupt a natural order. Hypothetically, if a certain crop resisted a pest very well and that pest died out in a certain area it could have a detrimental effect on the balance of nature, causing extinction of that pest, with a ‘knock-on’ effect on other insects and crops dependent on it. Safety is another concern with GM crops. Are they safe for animals to consume? Are they safe for human consumption?

Will any crops altered mutate dangerously in the future? Leading on from this point is the issue of danger and threat to the environment that cross pollination implies, GM crops could accidentally cross breed and seriously affect the world’s food supply. It has been widely voiced that GM crops are a controversial subject; it is difficult to find a common ground between those who believe GM crops to be a scientific advance of the future and those who see GM crops to be ‘upsetting nature’.

In 1992 the food advisory committee (FAC) had to consider the ethical issues upon GM food labelling guidelines. A committee chaired by Rev. John Polkinghome investigated, this lead to the FAC recommending that food should be labelled if it contains genes from: Human, animals of religious significance e. g. cow or pig or if any plant products have any genes taken from animals (Institute of grocery distribution policy issues council, p. 3, March, 1997).

There are other ethical concerns to be taken into account such as; can people really deny the potential benefits to the areas of the world where inhabitants cannot grow enough crops to feed themselves and have to constantly rely on aid from other countries, a continuing undeterred issue. Other ethical issues emerge when experimental GM crops are destroyed. In 2001 an American rice farmer, Jacko Garrett, who runs a charity that donates rice to the poor, had to bury 5 million pounds of GM rice because of possible contamination of nearby non GM rice (Gunther, Fortune, p. 4, 2007).

This incident is not uncommon when companies experiment with GM crops and raises the question of whether society can afford to starve the poor without solid evidence of danger. When discussing GM crops it cannot be denied that there is a benefit to both the environment and many poverty stricken areas of the world. With regards to the environment, benefits would be diverse such as the reduction of the amount of space needed to grow crops; therefore less farmland would be necessary, which would encourage preservation of many more natural environments.

Crops would then be enabled to grow in areas which were previously either too harsh or not fertile enough, meaning dead land could be enriched with the crops and new eco systems could be created, or crops could produce their own insecticide, then no wide spraying of harmful chemicals would to take place, ceasing harm of local wildlife. One experiment conducted by scientists at the National Centre for Ecological Analysis & Synthesis at the University of California showed that wildlife living around GM crops with a certain gene inserted, i. e. he plant produced its own insecticide faired far better than wildlife living around non GM crops that were sprayed with standard insecticide (feedstuffs, p. 2 June 2007). The benefits GM crops could have for areas that rely on one particular type of crop are important as well, for instance the ancient capital of the Incan empire and birthplace of the potato, Cuzco in Peru, locals have been growing various strains of potatoes for thousands of years and have developed 4,000 distinct varieties with out directly changing the genes of crops that are the regions staple food source.

In 2007 the regional government banned the cultivation, sale, transport and use of GM potatoes in order to protect all the years of work to develop different potatoes. The law has been perceived as a victory although the crops still greatly suffer from weevils, a major pest, pest management and conventional improvement of strains of resistant potato have not proved very effective, and harmful chemicals are still the major prevention for weevils (earth island journal, p. 14, 2007).

Perhaps if GM weevil resistant crops were introduced the region would not be threatened by a food shortage, after all the current structure of cultivation that has been taking place for all those years is basically a primitive form of biotechnology. Possibly the primary issue with GM crop introduction are the health hazards, more specifically for the health of people consuming the crops. The problem is that the original food has been altered and historically it has always been the trial and error method used to decide which foods are safe to eat and which are hazardous (Institute of grocery distribution policy issues council, p. 4, March, 1997). Along with the issue of health concerns is the issue of GM crops pollinating non GM crops, if altered genes are not safe in the first place then there is a danger that the genetically altered crops could pollinate other non GM crops, which could be extremely dangerous and either harm a large amount of people directly or result in vast amounts of crops being destroyed, causing food shortages.

In 2001 Aventis Crop Science, the same company who commissioned rice farmer Jacko Garrett to grow a specific type of GM rice, developed a strain of GM corn called Starlink which was the only approved strain for animal consumption, this was later found in Taco shells, following this the company ended all GM crop experimentation.

In January 2006 the GM rice that had been destroyed in 2001 started appearing in other non GM rice crops and by August the rice has spread all over America and had also started appearing in Europe (Gunther, Fortune, p. 74, 2007). This case shows it is highly possible for potentially dangerous crops to cross pollinate with, and damage the rest of the world’s food supply. There is some protection from the dangers of GM crops, whether it be a complete ban such as in the case of GMO potatoes in Cuzco Peru (earth island journal, p. 4, 2007), or the farm scale evaluations, a type of field experiment, carried out by DEFRA in the UK (Department for environmental food ; rural affairs, p. 1-3, 2001). Biotechnology has been used for thousands of years, although it is perhaps the fact it was carried out over a longer period of time, such as in fern trees used at Christmas that keep their needles for longer. This causes us to question: is it any different to change a gene in one generation than over many?

The evidence for all viewpoints of the GM crops debate coupled with the grey areas in ethics and the fact that people are not knowledgeable enough to say either way whether they are dangerous or not makes this a very difficult and controversial topic. In conclusion I have to agree that in dealing with something as profound as altering the genetic-makeup of living things it is essential to monitor very closely, experiment and test as much as possible to ensure the safety of the world’s crops and its consumers.

It is essential tight controls should be implemented, over the cultivation, sale, transport and use of genetically modified crops to keep the crops as low risk as possible until greater clarity on their implications is given. However I believe that all the benefits that GM crops carry have too greater potential for society to be ignorant of them and ban experimentation altogether, a reasonable compromise must be found, a good balance between control and progress is the future.