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Gmos, human health and the environment
The term GM foods or GMOs (genetically-modified organisms) is most commonly used to refer to crop plants created for human or animal consumption using the latest molecular biology techniques. These plants have been modified in the laboratory to enhance desired traits such as increased resistance to herbicides or improved nutritional content. The enhancement of desired traits has traditionally been undertaken through breeding, but conventional plant breeding methods can be very time consuming and are often not very accurate. Genetic engineering, on the other hand, can create plants with the exact desired trait very rapidly and with great accuracy. For example, plant geneticists can isolate a gene responsible for drought tolerance and insert that gene into a different plant.
The new genetically-modified plant will gain drought tolerance as well. Not only can genes be transferred from one plant to another, but genes from non-plant organisms also can be used. The best known example of this is the use of B.t. genes in corn and other crops. B.t., or Bacillus thuringiensis, is a naturally occurring bacterium that produces crystal proteins that are lethal to insect larvae. B.t. crystal protein genes have been transferred into corn, enabling the corn to produce its own pesticides against insects such as the European corn borer.
Nature And Scope
This study is based on the development of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and its effects on human health and the environment as counterbalanced by the need for using genetically modified foods and other genetically engineered products. The scope of the study will extend to the pros and cons for the use of this technology in the modern world. In this regard special emphasis will be placed on the laws and policies that various countries have put in place with regard to the distribution of these products. The limitation of this study is that the concern will mainly be focused on the impact to the environment and will place less attention on the intellectual property and ownership issues associated with these products.
The following questions have been answered in this research:
What is the need for induction of GMO technology in the world?
What are the concerns arising with the use of GMO technology with respect to the environment and human health?
What has been the acceptance of GMO technology in the world and what are the legal safeguards that have been devised?
Importance Of Gmos
Resistance to the full-scale deployment of modern biotechnology in agriculture is twofold. The predominant objection is based upon environmental, human, and animal health and safety concerns. These concerns are widely documented and have resulted in the drafting of numerous policy documents and legal instruments at national, regional, and international levels. The second issue is that of control and ownership of plant genetic resources and private intellectual property rights in the products and processes of modern agricultural biotechnology. It is common knowledge that the global intellectual property rights prescribed by the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS Agreement) conflict with the principles of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), in particular as they relate to indigenous knowledge, and the control, access, and benefit sharing in plant genetic resources. Many countries have signed both TRIPS and the CBD and are now attempting to reconcile the provisions in domestic law. In doing so, the principles of the CBD and its associated instruments should not, and indeed need not, be compromised.
Crop losses from insect pests can be staggering, resulting in devastating financial loss for farmers and starvation in developing countries. Farmers typically use many tons of chemical pesticides annually. Consumers do not wish to eat food that has been treated with pesticides because of potential health hazards, and run-off of agricultural wastes from excessive use of pesticides and fertilizers can poison the water supply and cause harm to the environment. Growing GM foods such as B.t. corn can help eliminate the application of chemical pesticides and reduce the cost of bringing a crop to market.
For some crops, it is not cost-effective to remove weeds by physical means such as tilling, so farmers will often spray large quantities of different herbicides (weed-killer) to destroy weeds, a time-consuming and expensive process that requires care so that the herbicide doesn't harm the crop plant or the environment. Crop plants genetically-engineered to be resistant to one very powerful herbicide could help prevent environmental damage by reducing the amount of herbicides needed. For example, Monsanto has created a strain of soybeans genetically modified to be not affected by their herbicide product Roundup. A farmer grows these soybeans which then only require one application of weed-killer instead of multiple applications, reducing production cost and limiting the dangers of agricultural waste run-off.
There are many viruses, fungi and bacteria that cause plant diseases. Plant biologists are working to create plants with genetically-engineered resistance to these diseases. Without cold tolerance unexpected frost can destroy sensitive seedlings. An antifreeze gene from cold water fish has been introduced into plants such as tobacco and potato. With this antifreeze gene, these plants are able to tolerate cold temperatures that normally would kill unmodified seedlings.
Drought Tolerance/Salinity Tolerance
As the world population grows and more land is utilized for housing instead of food production, farmers will need to grow crops in locations previously unsuited for plant cultivation. Creating plants that can withstand long periods of drought or high salt content in soil and groundwater will help people to grow crops in formerly inhospitable places.
Malnutrition is common in third world countries where impoverished peoples rely on a single crop such as rice for the main staple of their diet. However, rice does not contain adequate amounts of all necessary nutrients to prevent malnutrition. If rice could be genetically engineered to contain additional vitamins and minerals, nutrient deficiencies could be alleviated. For example, blindness due to vitamin A deficiency is a common problem in third world countries. Researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Institute for Plant Sciences have created a strain of "golden" rice containing an unusually high content of beta-carotene (vitamin A). Since this rice was funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, a non-profit organization, the Institute hopes to offer the golden rice seed free to any third world country that requests it. Plans were underway to develop a golden rice that also has increased iron content.
Concerns Of Human Health And Gmos
According to the FDA and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), there are over 40 plant varieties that have completed all of the federal requirements for commercialization. Some examples of these plants include tomatoes and cantalopes that have modified ripening characteristics, soybeans and sugarbeets that are resistant to herbicides, and corn and cotton plants with increased resistance to insect pests. Not all these products are available in supermarkets yet; however, the prevalence of GM foods in U.S. grocery stores is more widespread than is commonly thought. Also, the ubiquity of soybean derivatives as food additives in the modern American diet virtually ensures that all U.S. consumers have been exposed to GM food products.
Thirteen countries grew genetically-engineered crops commercially in 2000, and of these, the U.S. produced the majority. In 2000, 68% of all GM crops were grown by U.S. farmers. In comparison, Argentina, Canada and China produced only 23%, 7% and 1%, respectively. Other countries that grew commercial GM crops in 2000 are Australia, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Mexico, Romania, South Africa, Spain, and Uruguay. Soyabeans and corn are the top two most widely grown crops (82% of all GM crops harvested in 2000), with cotton, rapeseed (or canola) and potatoes trailing behind. Globally, acreage of GM crops has increased 25-fold in just 5 years, from approximately 4.3 million acres in 1996 to 109 million acres in 2000 - almost twice the area of the United Kingdom. Approximately 99 million acres were devoted to GM crops in the U.S. and Argentina alone.
Environmental activists, religious organizations, public interest groups, professional associations and other scientists and government officials have all raised concerns about GM foods, and criticized agribusiness for pursuing profit without concern for potential hazards, and the government for failing to exercise adequate regulatory oversight. It seems that everyone has a strong opinion about GM foods. Even the Vatican and the Prince of Wales have expressed their opinions. Most concerns about GM foods fall into three categories: environmental hazards, human health risks, and economic concerns.
Unintended harm to other organisms had been exhibited in a laboratory study published in Nature showing that pollen from B.t. corn caused high mortality rates in monarch butterfly caterpillars. Monarch caterpillars consume milkweed plants, not corn, but the fear is that if pollen from B.t. corn is blown by the wind onto milkweed plants in neighboring fields, the caterpillars could eat the pollen and perish. Although the Nature study was not conducted under natural field conditions, the results seemed to support this viewpoint. Unfortunately, B.t. toxins kill many species of insect larvae indiscriminately; it is not possible to design a B.t. toxin that would only kill crop-damaging pests and remain harmless to all other insects. Reduced effectiveness of pesticides is also another major concern. Just as some populations of mosquitoes developed resistance to the pesticide DDT, many people feel that insects will become resistant to B.t. or other crops that have been genetically-modified to produce their own pesticides.
Another concern is that crop plants engineered for herbicide tolerance and weeds will cross-breed, resulting in the transfer of the herbicide resistance genes from the crops into the weeds. These “superweeds” would then be herbicide tolerant as well. Other introduced genes may cross over into non-modified crops planted next to GM crops. The possibility of interbreeding is shown by the defense of farmers against lawsuits filed by Monsanto. The company has filed patent infringement lawsuits against farmers who may have harvested GM crops. Monsanto claims that the farmers obtained Monsanto-licensed GM seeds from an unknown source and did not pay royalties to Monsanto. The farmers claim that their unmodified crops were cross-pollinated from someone else's GM crops planted a field or two away.
Human Health Hazards
Many children in the US and Europe have developed life-threatening allergies to peanuts and other foods. There is a possibility that introducing a gene into a plant may create a new or cause an allergic reaction in susceptible individuals. A proposal to incorporate a gene from Brazil nuts into soyabeans was abandoned because of the fear of causing unexpected allergic reactions. Extensive testing of GM foods may be required to avoid the possibility of harm to consumers with food allergies.
Unknown Effects On Human Health
There is a growing concern that introducing foreign genes into food plants may have an unexpected and negative impact on human health. A recent article published in Lancet examined the effects of GM potatoes on the digestive tract in rats. This study claimed that there were appreciable differences in the intestines of rats fed GM potatoes and rats fed unmodified potatoes. The gene introduced into the potatoes was a snowdrop flower lectin, a substance known to be toxic to mammals. The scientists who created this variety of potato chose to use the lectin gene simply to test the methodology, and these potatoes were never intended for human or animal consumption. On the whole, with the exception of possible allergenicity, scientists believe that GM foods do not present a risk to human health.
Bringing a GM food to market is a lengthy and costly process, and agri-biotech companies wish to ensure a profitable return on their investment. Many new plant genetic engineering technologies and GM plants have been patented, and patent infringement is a big concern of agribusiness. Yet consumer advocates are worried that patenting these new plant varieties will raise the price of seeds so high that small farmers and third world countries will not be able to afford seeds for GM crops, thus widening the gap between the wealthy and the poor.
Patent enforcement may also be difficult, as the contention of the farmers that they involuntarily grew Monsanto-engineered strains when their crops were cross-pollinated shows. One way to combat possible patent infringement is to introduce a “suicide gene” into GM plants. These plants would be viable for only one growing season and would produce sterile seeds that do not germinate. Farmers would need to buy a fresh supply of seeds each year. However, this would be financially disastrous for farmers in third world countries who cannot afford to buy seed each year and traditionally set aside a portion of their harvest to plant in the next growing season.
Acceptance Of Gmos
Governments around the world are hard at work to establish a regulatory process to monitor the effects of and approve new varieties of GM plants. Yet depending on the political, social and economic climate within a region or country, different governments are responding in different ways. In Japan, the Ministry of Health and Welfare has announced that health testing of GM foods will be mandatory as of April 2001. Currently, testing of GM foods is voluntary. Japanese supermarkets are offering both GM foods and unmodified foods and buyers have a tendency to show a preference for unmodified fruits and vegetables. Some states in Brazil have banned GM crops entirely, and the Brazilian Institute for the Defense of Consumers, in collaboration with Greenpeace, has filed suit to prevent the importation of GM crops.
In Europe, anti-GM food protestors have been especially active. In the last few years Europe has experienced two major foods scares: bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease) in Great Britain and dioxin-tainted foods originating from Belgium. These incidents have shattered consumer confidence about European food supply, and citizens are prone to disbelieve government information about GM foods. In the United States, the regulatory process is confused because there are three different government agencies that have jurisdiction over GM foods. To put it very simply, the EPA evaluates GM plants for environmental safety, the USDA evaluates whether the plant is safe to grow, and the FDA evaluates whether the plant is safe to eat. The EPA is responsible for regulating substances such as pesticides or toxins that may cause harm to the environment.
GM crops such as B.t. pesticide-laced corn or herbicide-tolerant crops but not foods modified for their nutritional value fall under the purview of the EPA. The USDA is responsible for GM crops that do not fall under the umbrella of the EPA such as drought-tolerant or disease-tolerant crops, crops grown for animal feeds, or whole fruits, vegetables and grains for human consumption. The FDA historically has been concerned with pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and food products and additives, not whole foods. The FDA's stance is that GM foods are substantially equivalent to unmodified, "natural" foods, and therefore not subject to FDA regulation. Consumer interest groups wish this process to be mandatory, so that all GM food products, whole foods or otherwise, must be approved by the FDA before being released for commercialization. The FDA counters that the agency currently does not have the time, money, or resources to carry out exhaustive health and safety studies of every proposed GM food product. Moreover, the FDA policy as it exists today does not allow for this type of intervention.
The OAU Model Law on Safety in Biotechnology, influenced by the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, seeks to harmonize existing legislation in the area of biosafety. To that end, it provides a framework of biosafety regulations designed to protect Africa's rich biodiversity, along with animal and human health, from the risks inherent in modern biotechnology. Decisions in this regard must be based on the precautionary principle contained in the CBD. The OAU Model Law also views “public participation and access to information as important and indispensable components of environmental governance.” The regional arrangements, the two model laws drafted by the former OAU, align with the provisions of the CBD and associated law instruments rather than with the provisions of the TRIPS Agreement.
In India while some NGOs such as the Greenpeace have taken a strong stand against the introduction of GM foods, others have raised concerns about the absence of labelling laws in India. Groups like the Centre for Science and Environment have warned that without a regulatory regime in place it would be impossible to monitor the impacts of such new food products.
Clearance of such a crop requires the authorities to practice extreme caution. Currently in India, there is no labelling regime for genetically modified foods which will give consumers a choice to make a decision whether they want to consume genetically modified food or not.
Placing an indefinite moratorium on the commercial release of Bt Brinjal, which would otherwise have been the first genetically modified food crop in India, Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh said he took the “precautionary approach” as there was no clear consensus on the subject among Indian scientists. “Impose a moratorium on the release of Bt Brinjal till such time that independent scientific studies establish satisfaction of both public and professionals, the safety of the product from the point of view of long-term impact on human health and environment,” Ramesh said at a press conference.
Genetically-modified foods have the potential to solve many of the world's hunger and malnutrition problems, and to help protect and preserve the environment by increasing yield and reducing reliance upon chemical pesticides and herbicides. There are many challenges ahead for governments, especially in the areas of regulation, international policy and food labeling. Particularly worrisome is the inclination of poor countries to accept this technology without caution owing to encouragement and coercion from rich and powerful corporations. This is where there is a dire need for a balancing act. But the requisite laws must be in place before there is any use of this technology.
There is a growing argument that genetic engineering is the inevitable wave of the future and that it would not be wise to ignore a technology that has such enormous potential benefits. That this is the case has been exhibited by the acceptance of this technology in various countries of the world for certain technical advantages. But the controversy in India reflects the scientific and moral debate surrounding the hurried adoption of this technology. It is important to educate all about this new breakthrough before any major step is taken. It would be wise to proceed with caution to avoid causing unintended harm to human health and the environment as a result of overzealousness for this new innovation.
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