Essay on Genetic Engineering Of Crops

“Do you take insulin?  Have you been vaccinated against hepatitis?  Has anyone you know had a heart attack and been saved by a clot busting drug?”  (Jaffe, 1)  Genetic engineering has saved millions of lives worldwide and is nearly accepted by everyone in the medical community.   The genetic engineering of crops has been used for centuries, but not until recently has it gained media attention.  It gained their attention when DNA was manipulated or inserted into the crops.  Before genetic engineering was capable of manipulating or inserting genes, genetic engineering was only able to express desired genes by breeding.  Genetically engineered crops have provided benefits to US farmers such as herbicide resistant, disease resistant, and insect resistant crops.  Although there has been a debate over the use of genetically engineered crops, careful regulation, not boycotting, can continue to provide benefits to consumers and producers.

The genetic engineering of crops has created a large controversy in the United States as well as the rest of the world.  Critics of genetic engineering argue that it creates numerous risks and concerns.  These include environmental and ecological issues, ethical issues, animal and human health risks, and social, economic, and control issues.  Supporters of biotechnology point out the direct benefits to consumers and farmers especially in underdeveloped countries.

The genetic modification of crops in the United States began in the 1970s in California when scientists discovered recombinant DNA.  Without going into too much detail, the recombination of DNA proceeds as follows:  DNA responsible for a particular phenotype sought after is identified and isolated.  Once purified the gene or genes are fused with other pieces of DNA to form recombinant DNA molecules.  (Prescott, Harley, Klein, 320)  In layman’s terms, it is cutting and pasting DNA to and from plants, animals, and bacteria.  When crops are “given” recombinant DNA, they acquire traits and genes that they did not possess naturally.  This process is of great concern to anti-biotech groups.
The first era of genetically engineered crops’ goal was to make the crops herbicide resistant, in order to make weed management an easier process.  (McCullum 2)   The first request to deliberately release a genetically engineered crop came from the University of California at Berkley in 1982.  The genetically modified crop had a gene that reduced the amount of frost damage.  (Uchtmann 4-6)  The first generation of these plants failed to achieve pre-market approval and were not sold to the general public.

The second generation of genetically engineered crops began in 1995 when they became commercially used.  By 1999 over 70 million acres of genetically engineered crops were being planted annually.  Examples of improvements made by genetic engineering are insect resistant corn and potatoes and virus resistant squash.  (McCullum, 4)
Critics of genetically engineered crops have made numerous attempts to regulate or even boycott the biotech industry.  They have numerous concerns with the industry. The main issues are ecological and environmental.  They point out possible food shortage problems such as insects becoming resistant to genetically engineered toxins.  It would be problematic if insects that feed on crops become resistant to the toxin in the crops and generate a mass destruction of these plants creating a food shortage in that region.  (Hayden, 2)

Another issue that raises attention is that insect and pesticide resistant plants could naturally transfer their genes to nearby native plants.  This would create less plant diversity and not allow natural evolution of these plants to occur.  Plant breeders are concerned that cross-pollination could flood out genetic diversity, making it impossible to breed new strains of plants.  (Hayden, 1) One such case occurred in Maymont, Saskatchewan with an organic farmer.  Dale Beaudoin has an organic farm on the Canadian prairie.  He advertised that his crops were purely organic, which he thought they were.  He was unaware that his canola crops were genetically modified by cross-pollination with genetically engineered crops produced by Monsanto and Aventis.   When his crops tested positive for genetic modification, he and other farmers filed suit against Monsanto and Aventis.

Another concern of the anti-biotech community is that when genetic recombination occurs, genes are inserted into crops that are not naturally occurring.  This raises ethical and religious concerns about patenting genes and about using a technology to move genes among organisms that do not naturally mate.

There are also economic concerns because the biotech revolution could dramatically change the agricultural community.  Concerns include the number of “family” farms, corporate mergers, and the concentration of economic power.  Critics of the biotech revolution state that corporations could take over the farming industry, putting the “family” farms out of business.  They also claim that genetically engineering crops would only benefit core countries by enabling them produce food at less cost. This would make the peripheral countries, whose economies rely on food exports to core countries, collapse.  (Hayden, 3).

Supporters of the genetic modification of crops point out the several outstanding breakthroughs that have already been implemented and also that the future of biotechnology, specifically in the food industry, seems to be quite promising for agricultural producers worldwide.  They assure healthier foods such as cereal grains with increased amounts of soluble and insoluble fiber and vegetables with higher levels of antioxidants in developed regions.  In developing regions they assure improved yields for farmers, and more plentiful, affordable, and nutritious food for consumers.  Also, with the use of biologically modified crops, the use of pesticides is decreasing dramatically, alleviating the pollution problems in our lakes, rivers, and ground water.  (McCullum, 1)

In the Madison area, reducing the amounts of pesticides and nutrients would reduce or even stop the problem algal blooms in Lake Mendota.   Other positive effects of the genetic engineering of crops are lower food costs, new foods of higher quality and greater utility for the consumer, reduced food production cost for the farmer.  Furthermore, genetic engineering creates jobs in countries at the leading edge of biotechnology research and commercialization, higher profits for companies that successfully bear the risks of product development, and putting an end to the world food crisis brought on by massive population increases.  (Charman, 1)

Supporters agree that the biotech revolution has done and will provide producers and consumers alike with benefits.  At the same time, they agree that the industry needs to be regulated.   Perry Adkisson, PhD, professor emeritus at Texas A&M University and a supporter of the biotech revolution states, “The federal agencies responsible for regulating transgenic plants have generally done a good job, but given the current level of public concern and following our review of the data, it is the committee’s belief that the agencies must bolster the mechanism they use to protect human health and the environment.”  (Shelton 5-7)  In short, he argues that the FDA is doing their job, however they need to continue making improvements to their regulations.

Since biotechnology is a rapidly growing phenomenon and a very controversial issue, it is agreed upon by both supporters and protesters alike, that it should be regulated.  The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) began to regulate genetic engineering techniques and their products in 1992.  Regulations required products intended to express certain genes to undergo pre-market approval before they were sold to the public.   Products similar in structure to products already in the food supply were recognized as safe and do not need pre-market approval.  These guidelines were then modified in 1997 in response to media attention.  (McCullum, 2)

However, recently these guidelines were again modified because new research illustrated the negative impacts genetic engineering can produce.  One study demonstrated how genetic engineering produced positive effects on production, and at the same time increased an allergenic protein in the plant.  It was documented in the New England Journal of Medicine that it is possible for proteins that are allergenic to be inadvertently added to genetically engineered crops intended for foods. (Shelton, 3)  Crops containing increased amounts of this protein are now restricted to animal feed.  Anther example includes an unexpected production of toxins in second-generation plants.  It is clear that more regulation is needed.  In response to these findings and several others, the FDA announced plans to require genetically engineered foods intended to be publicly marketed, to be submitted to the FDA at least 120 days prior to marketing for inspection and testing.  (McCullum, 3)
It is generally agreed by scientists that the FDA needs to more carefully regulate genetically engineered foods.  It is also generally agreed that current testing cannot predict the negative or positive effects of genetically engineered foods and new techniques need to be developed.  Several public interest groups have been putting a great deal of pressure on the FDA to develop these techniques.  (Jaffe, 3)

These public interest groups also want labels on these genetically engineered products.  They have proposed the “right to know” Bill HR 3377 to Congress for approval.  This would require producers to label their products as genetically modified.  The bill has received some support but also heavy opposition from groups such as Grocery Manufacturers of America and the National Food Processors Association.  They believe these labels would only confuse consumers since the general public is unaware of what genetic engineering entails.  This bill has yet to be passed.  (Pennybacker, 2)

Genetically engineered crops have provided benefits to US farmers such as herbicide resistant, disease resistant, and insect resistant crops.  There has been a debate over the use of genetically engineered crops all over the world.  Supporters of genetic modification of crops see the benefits the biotech industry has already had for producers and consumers.  The supporters of genetic engineering also see the enormous potential, not just for the United States, but for all nations.  Protesters to the biotech revolution have good arguments regarding the negative impacts of genetic engineering of crops, but the answer is not to boycott the industry.  Both sides agree that as genetic modification of crops continues, careful regulation must be implemented.  Hopefully with proper regulation in place, the benefits and promise of genetically engineered crops will continue to grow and make the world a better place for all.


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Hayden, Thomas, “Bad Seeds in Court:  When Genetically Modified Plants Contaminate Their Crops, Organic Farmers Fight Big Biotech,” U.S. News & Report Vol. 132 Issue 3 Pg. 1-3(January, 2002).

Jaffe, Gregory, “Genetically Engineered Foods:  Are They Safe?” Nutritional Action Health Letter Vol. 28 Issue 9 Pg. 1-14 (November 2001).

McCullum, Christine, “Food Biotechnology in the New Millennium:  Promises, Realities, and Challenges,”
American Diabetic Association.  Journal of the American Dietetic Association Vol. 100 Issue 11 Pg. 1-4 (November 2000).

Pennybacker, Mindy, “Genetically Engineered Food:  A Self-Defense Guide for Consumers/Hormone Deception,”The Amicus Journal Vol. 23 Issue 1 Pg 1-3 (Spring 2001).

Prescott, Lansing M., Harley, John P., Klein, Donald A., Microbiology, Fifth Edition, New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 2002.

Seaman, Donna, “Eating Science:  Genetically Modified Foods,” The Booklist Vol. 98 Issue 7 Pg. 1-4 (December 2001).

Shelton, Deborah, “Panel:  Biotech Crops Need Tighter Watch,” American Medical News Vol. 43 Issue 18 Pg. 1-4 (May 2000).

Uchtmann, Donald L., “U.S. Regulatory Oversight of Agricultural and Food-Related Biotechnology,” The American Behavioral Scientist Vol. 44 Issue 3 Pg. 1-22 (November 2000).