The Advantages and Disadvantages of Genetically Modified Food


Kenyans examining insect-resistant transgenic Bt corn (Wikimedia Commons)

There is no love more sincere than the love for food. Food is  a uniting factor among different cultures since everybody likes to taste and enjoy exotic cuisines from around the world. This is also one of the reasons why the issue of genetically modified (GM) food is generating intense debate because we are what we eat. GM food includes crops, fruits and vegetables which are created by combining quality genes of various species and hence have better nutritional and productive value. The difference between this technique and traditional breeding is that latter occurs only between related species and hence is safe whereas there is no final word on safety of mixing genes of unrelated species.

Both sides of GM food debate are equally vociferous in expressing their opinions. While the pro lobby talks about how the GM crop can give a larger and better yield even in inhabitable conditions, the critics talk about risk to health and environment due to genetic alterations and exploitation of the poor by food corporates. Here we have a deeper look at the issue.

Advantages of Genetically Modified Food

Supporters of GM food crops are mostly relying on scientific data claiming that these crops yield much larger quantity and hence can be the solution to the problem of world hunger. The ability of GM crops to be cultivated even in areas with poor soil and harsh weather conditions is one of the advantages of genetically modified food. Another plus point is that the food produced is higher in nutritional value and can also taste better than the traditional variety. GM crops have inbuilt resistance against pests, insects and diseases allowing them to produce higher yield. The proponents are also claiming that genetic modification can even make certain food free of common allergies. This can be done by removing the genes that express the allergens or substances that trigger allergic reactions.

The GM foods are also capable of staying ripe for long hence there is lesser problem of spoilage. This can be done by adding a gene in the crop that expresses an organic compound that will extend the shelf life of the food.

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Disadvantages of Genetically Modified Food

While the pros of GM food may seem rewarding, the critics claim that they don’t hold water. First of all, they counter the technique itself by putting forth the argument that scientists still don’t know much about the genetics GM crops. They may identify quality genes but where to introduce them so as not to disturb the natural expression is still unclear. In fact, this lack of knowledge can lead to faulty interventions and irrepressible side effects. Traditional breeding has natural checks and balances due to breeding between related species but these are missing in GM food crops.

The hope that GM food can be an answer to the world hunger is another faux pause because they claim that millions of people sleep with empty stomach not because of lack of food but because of improper distribution. Millions of tons of food are wasted every month around the world because they do not reach the needy. Financial, infrastructural and political reasons rather than less production are responsible for the large number of hungry people across the globe.

The GM food may be having inbuilt resistance to common pests and insects but these organisms are known to mutate according to changes in their environment for survival. Thus, disease-resistant crops will only give rise to superbugs which will be more difficult to destroy.

Another big issue with GM crops is that they cross-pollinate with nearby normal crops and lead to ecological issues. Furthermore, if GM crops contain vaccines and antibiotics, human health is in peril as it would contribute to the development of resistance genes to human viruses and bacteria that we normally kill using vaccines and antibiotics.

Opponents assert that GM crops are patented by big biotechnology corporations that make sure that the harvested grains/fruits are not viable source of seeds to force farmers to buy costly seeds every time they want to cultivate the land.

Tests to validate the risks of GM crops are very expensive that most corporations avoid testing each and every food item. This increases the chances of unsafe food getting served to people.