The term Genetically Modified Organisms refers to crops invented for the consumption of both humans and animals by using the modern molecular biology techniques (Whitman 2000). Current Scientific advancement has enabled modification of plants in the laboratory by altering their genetic makeup to produce the desired traits which vary from better nutritional value to a resistance to herbicides (Whitman, 2000).
For many years now, man has succeeded in revising a variety of organisms for his use, from animals to plants. Genetically Modified foods are only an example of the display of this scientific ability. Traditionally however, adaptation was done through selective breeding which was not very accurate and took a lot of time to produce results. The process of selective breeding would be repeated over years until the desired crop variety had been created. On the other hand, genetic modification, also referred to as genetic engineering, saves time on the same process and produces the same desired results with more accuracy. The scientific innovation allows for the insertion of genes into the targeted plant or animal and saves scientists the rigors of trial and error that were the only alternative before. A gene responsible for fungi resistance can for instance be injected into a different plant and the new plant will automatically develop a resistance to fungi (Whitman, 2000).
According to Whitman, genes from other organisms besides plants can also be used. For example, B.t genes (Bacillus thuringiensis), a natural bacterium which is known to produce proteins lethal to insect larvae is used on corn. The corn then produces pesticides that repel insects (Genetically Modified foods: Harmful or Helpful?).
There have arisen controversies over genetically-modified foods not only on the effect they have on the health of humans but also on the impact to the environment. With all the advantages afforded GM plants, there are thought to be environmental hazards which include harm to other organisms, transfer of genes to other species that are not initially targeted and an effect on the effectiveness of pesticides and herbicides (Transgenic pollen harms monarch larvae, 1999). Above all these is the taking over of the production of food crops by select biotech corporations. The weapons have especially been drawn against the Monsato biotech company.
During a biotech industry conference in January 1999, a representative from Arthur Anderson Consulting Group confirmed that there was plan that had been crafted to take control over the word food supply. The representative went so far as to explain how the company had assisted Monsato to develop the plan. They inquired on Monsato’s presumption of an ideal future in the next 15 to 20 years and the response suggested a world where 100% of the entire supply of commercial seeds was genetically modified and patented. The company then presented the former with procedures and steps that were required to gain industrial dominance in a world faced with the extinction of natural seeds (Smith, 2004).
Health risks from Genetically Modified foods
The issue of health risks posed by genetically-modified foods has been one of controversies across governments. Monsanto, a giant corporation that leads in genetic engineering has faced battles from individuals, groups and organizations alike over the use of genetically-modified foods. In defense however, Monsanto claims that these genetically modified foods are the ultimate solution to food crisis the world over (Pusztai, 2001).
Allergenicity is one of the risks that the foods are believed to cause. In America and Europe, children have been reported to develop fatal allergies to foods like peanuts. This has posed the possibility of creation of allergy by introducing a new gene in a plant. Besides this, fear has been voiced over the uncertainty of the impact of these genes on human health which might be negative for all anyone knows. An article on the safety of genetically modified food questioned, by Mitchell (2000) on the effect of genetically modified potatoes claimed that there were notable disparities in the digestive tracts of rats fed on the GM potatoes and normal potatoes. According to critics though, the article was ill placed and the claim inappropriate. They assert that the gene used is toxic to mammals and the potato was never meant for human consumption (Safety of genetically modified food questioned, 1999).
The giant corporation that is Monsanto has changed corn to have greater amounts of amino acid lysine. This is referred to as the High-Lysine CornLY038. Though it is not a health risk, the variety is said to produce some chemical compounds called AGE’s when cooked with some sugars. The compounds are said to be responsible for such diseases as Alzheimer’s and diabetes. The corporation nevertheless claims that the corn is intended for animal consumption but is safe for humans as well (FDA, 1999).
Scientists strongly believe that genetically modified foods are safe to human health and do not pose any risk.
Biotech companies’ obligations to consumers
According to an article appearing in the Times Argus Newspaper on November 1, 2004, companies dealing with genetically-modified seeds were required to put a label on the seeds indicating that the seeds were genetically modified. This is a requirement put forward by Vermont’s Secretary of Agriculture who also demands that the companies specify the traits that have been altered through the genetic modification. A law is necessary that stipulates the labeling of foods that have gone through genetic modification which should be complied with by all biotech companies. It is only fair that consumers have an idea of what they are purchasing so that the choices they make will be based on the information they have.
The media has constantly been on the backs of biotech companies over the risk of their food produce to consumers. With a lot of research still going on in the same field, clear and substantial scientific evidence that GM foods pose a health risk to consumers is still absent. The corporations however have obligations not only to the shareholders but also to all interested parties that include consumers of their goods. It is important to render company principles clear regarding their operations if the same affect other people. For a company to market itself by creating confidence and trust in the customers is at the interest of all.
Such obligations include honesty and the desire to clear controversies. With several groups debating over the safety of GM foods, companies would be wise to tell the consumers exactly what they are selling them and this could be done through including important facts on product labels as well as educating the public on the foods, the process of genetic engineering and the label on such foods (Smith, 2004).
Biotech companies should in addition inform consumers when there are changes in the nutritional value of foods, when safety needs to be observed or the general usage of GM foods has been altered. The Food and Drug Administration of America focuses more on the characteristics of a food and not the methods that have been used to produce it. If a genetically-modified food is similar to the unmodified foods in the market, then no special labeling is demanded by FDA (Food and Drug Administration, 1999).
There should also be in provision alternatives for consumers in the market. Consumers may wish to avoid GM foods and this ought to be provided for.
Labeling Genetically-modified foods
Whether companies should include on their labels that a food is genetically modified remains a debatable topic. An article carried in the Food navigator in the US showed a case against the US government for failing to put measures over the marketing of genetically-modified foods. It demanded the labeling of such foods before release into the market. The Centre for Food Safety urged the government to ensure that food is tested and marked to avoid food risks like allergies, food toxins or spread of diseases resistant to antibiotics. The US in opposition claims that the measure is a violation on free trade agreements (Genetically Modified food, 2005).
People ought to know the details of what they buy though, or so I assume. Knowledge is power as they say, and if the consumer is not contented with the amount of information provided, they have every right to ask for more. On the other hand, if the response is not satisfactory, then there is the open choice of going for another product (Whitman, 2000). While consumers should be free to choose what they want from the market, should companies have equal freedom to decide what to label or what details to include in that label?
Industries that deal with agricultural products believe that putting labels on products should be purely out of choice and should only be influenced by what the free market demands. The choice of consumers would demand regulating the policies laid down by the company or appearing to leave the consumer out (Whitman, 2000).
It is however notable that this is not what the consumer wants to take. For them, the products they purchase must be labeled and this campaign has been taken up by consumer interest groups. The general outcry is that everyone has a right to know what they are consuming.
Putting labels on food comes with additional expenses. It is there questionable whether the consumer is willing to take up the extra cost if labeling becomes a compulsory course. Needless to say, the food processing factories will possibly require additional personnel and machinery and ensure that the process of labeling is closely monitored. The genetically modified foods will have to be separated with those that are not modified at all levels of processing. In addition, it would be obligatory for farmers to watch over the two categories of crops from planting through harvesting and transporting. Consequently, the final products have to compensate for all the costs of production and this inevitably comes with higher prices for the products. Consumers will definitely be on the receiving end. The burden will be shifted to their shoulders.
There also emerges the question of contamination. Considering the fact that GM foods are supposed to be labeled as is demanded by consumer groups, Non-Governmental Organizations and activist groups, just what would be termed the acceptable limit of contamination of non-modified foods? Would it be logical to label the contaminated food as genetically-modified too regardless of the limit? It would be difficult to follow up on the companies that do not comply with the regulations against contamination. In any case, research has showed that it would be difficult to detect slight contamination quantities. This is especially so for foods that have been processed from a number of sources like vegetable fats.
The public would also require being educated on the labels put on GM foods. This involves additional expenses. The information on food labels needs to be accurate and clear to the layman. The greatest challenge therefore involves maintaining the trust of consumers by educating and enlightening them on the labels.
The FDA encourages labeling of GM foods but does not demand that biotech companies do so. It also encourages companies to screen GM foods for toxins and allergy-causing substances. It is the responsibility of FDA to calibrate for the requirements of testing to the potential of a food for causing harm to the consumer.
Genetically-modified foods would be vouched for any time for their ability to solve problems of hunger and malnutrition in the world but the problem remains in the spheres of testing the safety of the same, international policy and labeling (Reagan, 2004). Technology is with us to stay and we cannot refute the fact that genetic modification is the ultimate transition into the future. It would however be unreasonable to ignore the impact this technology has on the health of man and the general environment. Moreover, consumers are the partakers of the foods and their interests and needs have to be put at the forefront.
Smith J. (1999) Seeds of Deception; exposing industry and government lies about the safety of the genetically engineered foods you’re eating. Saskatchewan: COBI publishers.
Whitman D. (2000) Genetic Modified Foods: Harmful or Helpful? Washington: Washington Publishers.
Biotech company policies on GM foods (1999). Web.