Controversies of Agricultural Genetic Engineering

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Oct 23, 2013 (3 years and 5 months ago)

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Controversies of Agricultural Genetic Engineering

In the past

scientists and researchers have endeavored to and
,

in some
instances,
succeeded in bringing the realm of science fiction into our realm of reality. Many
once
unimaginable “impossibilities” have

already crossed this threshold into modern science and
medicine. One such example is the recent advancements in genetic engineering or, more
specifically, agricultural genetic engineering, a branch of biotechnology.
I intend to discuss the
arguments reg
arding agricultural genetic engineering.

In the 19
th

century, Gregor Mendel, an Austrian monk, studied how inheritable traits
within plants may be altered. His work led to an understanding of how cells pass along genetic
information.

Modern biotechnology

is the technique of enhancing this genetic information to
emphasize certain traits such as creating plants that are pest
-
resistant or plants that can produce
higher yields of crop (Gert). This technique is accomplished by artificially moving genes,
speci
al chemicals that are a blueprint of an organism’s traits, across species boundaries (
Union
11).
With

the use of genetic modification in agriculture, “new varieties of plants will be
introduced, and we shall see vaccines and other products to enhance beef

and milk production”
(Alexander 95). Genetic engineering gives microb
iologists the abilities to

transfer desirable
traits from one organism to another without

the

risk of
transferring undesirable traits;

create
plants that fight and/or resist pests, dise
ase, and weeds with

minimal or no use of chemicals;

creat
e tastier fruits and vegetables;

and enhance nutritional values of plants (
Monsanto 80).
Other processes of genetic engineering “may also yield plants that tolerate cold and drought”
(Industrial 116
). It is impossible to even imagine every
possible benefit
of
genetic engineering
,

but the endless possibilities are definitely promising and exciting.
Throughout the

history of
human endeavor, wonderful advancements in science and technology have improv
ed our way of
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life, but
have
also introduced unforeseen and substantial dangers. Such advancements include
radiation therapy, antibiotics, DDT (a synthetic organic compoun
d used as an insecticide), the
I
ndustria
l Revolution, and atomic energy


all of whi
ch have

had substantial consequences we
did

n
o
t anticipate (Alexander 96). We must exhaust all effort
s

in testing and certifying every

product involved in genetic engineering to

avoid this situation because “
a mistake in the
biological realm is something
that

could…keep on causing problems
” (
Doyle 124).
If the issues
of genetic engineering can be resolved, the abundant possibilities of improvement to agriculture
it offers will be undeniable.


Farmers are faced with numerous issues presented by nature tha
t could harm and even
destroy a full crop. Many of these issues, such as insects, weeds, disease, freezing temperatures,
drought, and even too much rain, are already targeted and remedied through genetically modified
plants (Industrial 118).
Biologists h
ave developed a way to remove a gene from bacteria that
produce a protein which serves as a nucleus for ice crystal formation in hope that, when spread
on crops, the resulting bacteria will prevent frost from forming on the plants
as

temperatures
drop belo
w freezing (Industrial 120).

Other research in genetic engineering is work
ing to develop crops that have

reduced
water consumption to increase survivability in case of drought, or even to
prosper

in more arid
environments where
such plants
would not have

been able to grow

before.
Bacillus thuringiensis
(B.t.), a naturally occurring bacterium that can be found in soil, produces a protein that is
poisonous to certain insects. The gene that produces this protein can be removed and inserted
into plant DNA t
o make the plant an insecticide which can target specific insects (Monsanto 80)
while presenting no significant risk to humans, animals, plants, or even other insects (Industrial
120). By using genes such as B.t. to target specific insects, farmers can de
crease the use of
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chemical pesticides
,

allowing
the survival of
beneficial insects
which
help
to
control harmful
insects
, and

prevents exposure of such insecticides to

the

farmers and
the
groundwater
(
Monsanto 82).

Weeds

are also very harmful to crops

du
e to the competition for moisture and nutrients
(Industrial 118). Through genetic engineering, researchers have found a solution to this problem

by producing herbicide
-
resistant crops (HRCs)
.
I
nserting a gene that makes a plant
resistant or
immune to the

effects of a specific herbicide allows farmers to spread the herbicide over their
field
s,

killing all other plants while the HRC flourishes (Monsanto 84).

Disease is another barrier to

efficient crop production. To offset loss due to plant disease
,

whi
ch can spread and devastate the yield and quality of crops, farmers often plant more acreage
than they expect to harvest. This increases the farmers’ expenses (Monsanto 82
-
83).
Researchers are seeking ways to protect many cash crops from viral and fungal

diseases through
biotechnology (Gert).

A solution to this issue would not only reduce the costs of farming, it
would also increase yield. “By introducing a small part of the DNA from a virus into the genetic
makeup of a plant, researchers have developed

crops that have built
-
in immunity to targeted
diseases” (Monsanto 83). Bioengineered plants that are resistant to natural pests and plant
viruses can reduce the need for chemicals and will reduce negative environmental impacts. By
limiting the need for
chemicals, farmers can save on the costs of the chemicals and the

equipment required to use them, and r
educing costs to farmers directly reduces costs to
consumers

(Gert)
.

Population is increasing, and arable lands are dwindling. This presents a tremend
ous
problem for agriculture and the fight against world hunger:
“Rampant population growth and its
effects on global food supplies and nutrition are among the most significant challenges for the
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next century” (Gert).
Higher yields of crops must come from
currently cultivated land. One
-
seventh of the world’s population (800 million people) is chronically
undernourished (Pretty
116). “T
he products of the biotechnological revolution and their application to the problems
confronting global agriculture can pr
ovide solutions to many of the most difficult issues facing
humanity” (Gert). High
-
yield farming, a
biotechnological practice that does no
t

always

involve
genetic engineering, has helped to increase crop efficiency over the past decades. Between 1960
and

1990, the
global

food supply

per person has increased even though the population has
doubled (Gert).

Even with this vast increase in production, world hunger is still a major issue. Genetic
engineering can help alleviate this deficiency by modifying gen
es in plant
s allowing for a higher
yield:
“Bioengineered crops can and are being designed to enhance yields” (Gert).
The
International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines has developed a
new strain of
rice
capable of increasing yields b
y 25 percent
,

enough to feed an additional 450 million people a
year (Gert). “Crops that provide greater yields per acre can help to offset land lost to
urbanization, pollution, and/or erosion” (Gert). High
-
yield farming is
also
protecting ten million
square miles o
f wildlife habitat (Avery 110).
Although Africa is one of the most devastated
areas in the world, its leaders are hesitant to embrace the tech
nology of genetic engineering, but
b
ecause of the benefits of high
-
yield farming, some African scientists are enc
ouraging the use of
genetic engineering to increase efficiency and yields of crop (Maharaj

and Mukwita
).

Another issue that farmers must deal with is the transport of crops

over

long distances
before they go bad. With genetic modification, another advan
tageous feature such as introducing
a genetic trait that controls the ripening of tomatoes, peppers and tropical fruits allowing more
time to ship crops longer distances may be possible (Monsanto 85).

Creating

plants that have a
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higher survivability rate
in harsh climate
s

can prevent attacks from pests and disease, and

can

produce higher yields
. We

can effectively battle world hunger while reducing costs to farmers
and consumers, protecti
ng the environment, and increasing

efficiency in agriculture.

It is
hard to ignore the benefits of agricultural genetic engineering, but, like most new
technology, there are some major concerns regarding its use. S
ome of these concerns include its

risks to the safety of human consumption, its unpredictable effects on the
environment, and
its
ethical implications. “Nature is an extremely complex inter
-
related chair consisting of many
species linked in the food chain. Some scientists believe that introducing genetically modified
genes may have an irreversible effect with c
onsequences yet unknown” (
Genetic). Many food
scares, such as mad cow disease and dioxin
-
tainted chicken, contribute to a “wariness of any
food that is not produced in a traditional manner notwithstanding what the science says”
(Glickman 97). A 1999 Corn
ell University lab experiment found that pollen from a corn plant
altered to eradicate corn borers inadvertently killed monarch butterfly larvae. What would
happen to humans who consume such crops over a lifespan? (Kay 103).
Drought, bad
governance
,

and
disease ha
ve

left thirteen million people in six southern African countries,
including Zambia, to rely on rations from the United Nations food agency to survive. The
Zambian government refused to distribute donated gene
-
altered corn because they ruled tha
t it
was not safe. Many Zambians resorted to eating leaves, twigs
,

and poisonous
nuts

and
berries

to
cope with the food crisis (Maharaj

and Mukwita
). “I would rather eat that maize than die
because the government has no alternative to the hunger problem,
” said Bweengwa Nzala, a 28
year old farmhand. “Please give us the food,” pleaded an elderly blind

man wearing a threadbare
shirt, “w
e don’t care if it is poisonous because we are dying anyway” (Maharaj

and Mukwita
).
People

living
in developed countries
will find it difficult to imagine such a situation, but it is
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happening all too often. If starving people can turn down free food just because of how it is
made,
can consumers actually be expected to

buy it? Contaminants

in genetically modified food
are

not only
based on an ignorant fear:

r
esearch has uncovered disturbing results

that support the
fear
. Studies have shown altered soybeans contain reduced levels of phytoestrogens, substances
that are credited with guarding against heart disease and cancer,

and rats fed genetically modified
potatoes
have
suffered damaged organs and stunted growth (Kay 107). John Fagan, a molecular
biologist, said, “When you insert a gene into DNA by using genetic modification, you have no
idea where the gene goes;…these ran
dom mutagenic events can cause plants or crops to produce
new toxins, new allergens or they can reduce the nutritional value of the food” (Kay 106
-
107).
Some genetically modified plants
have
also

been found to

contain genes that are resistant to
cer
tain a
ntibiotics and penicillin

which can be absorbed by pathogenic bacteria in human or
animal intestines causing these medications to possibly become ineffective (Kay 108).
These are
some of the
issues that must be resolved if genetic engineering is to advanc
e in the field of
agriculture.

Another concern of agricultural genetic engineering i
s the

cross
-
pollinati
on of newly
introduced plants with

local plants. When the United Nations food supply donated gene
-
altered
grain to the African nations, agricultural o
fficials were worried “that the grain would be planted
and, through cross
-
pollination, would contaminate their natural varieties…Zimbabwe and
Mozambique accepted the grain on the condition that it would be milled before distribution to
prevent people from
planting it” (Maharaj

and Mukwita
).
There are also concerns that herbicide
-
resistant crops, the plants designed to “tolerate fairly high levels of exposure to a broad
-
spectrum
herbicide,” may cross
-
pollinate with related weed species
,

producing weeds that

are tolerant to
the herbicide being used to kill them (Halweil 90).
The introduction of an exotic life form can
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also
upset the natural balance of the ecosystem

and may “
take many years for the detrimental
effects of its pr
esence to be known
” (Gliessman a
nd Hardy
106). How manipulated organisms
will react once released into the e
nvironment can be unpredictable: “n
atural selection or
adaptation once such organisms are released is frequently beyond human control” (Gliessman
and Hardy
106). There is no doubt

strenuous testing is involved regarding genetically modified
organisms and how they will react when introduced into an alien environment, but nature has a
history of exotic organisms evolving in a new environment. Adaptation could bring about any
number
of possible changes that could not have possibly been foreseen or tested (
Alexander 99
-
100). The balance of the ecosystem can be sensitive and fragile. Another concern is that
bioengineered plants introduced into the wild can gain a significant advantage

over other species
and overwhelm the local environment (Gert). The use of genetically modified microorganisms
can also spawn some unexpected mutations, and possibly greater rates of mutation, perhaps
making the introduced microorganism more apt to surviv
e in ways that could be damaging
(Doyle 125). The introduction of microorganisms to new environments has a
history of
disastrous epidemics:
the introduction of a single microbial species caus
ed

the Dutch elm disease
which eliminated an estimated fifty mil
lion acres of chestnuts in the United States within a few
years
, and, i
n the 1970s
,

a fungus spread rapidly
through the United States
reducing

its

corn yield
by ten percent (Alexander 100).
Such events could cause a catastrophic domino reaction that
may b
e difficult to recover from.

Another

drawback to the use of genetic engineering in agriculture is its ethical
implications. Does man have the right to manipulate the laws and c
ourse of nature? (Genetic).
“S
hould genes really be transferred across species

that do not naturally breed?” (Pretty 117).
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Many people believe a line needs to be drawn between science and “playing God”. In their eyes,
genetic engineering is definitely crossing that line.

Thanks to the practice of high
-
yield farming
, twice as many
people are being fed from the
same amount of land that was being cultivated in 1960
(Avery 110). But, we have advanced into
a new technological era where genetic modification in agriculture can increase crop yield even
more to help fight the battle agains
t global hunger. “In agriculture, biotechnology and its
applications are becoming not only the tools of necessity, but the tools of choice…the number of
acres globally planted with crops developed via biotechnology rose by 600% in 1997 alone…”
(Gert). In

1999, genetically modified corn accounted for forty percent of the total crop planted in
the United States
, a country that

represents three
-
fourths of the world’s agricultural
acreage (Kay
103). Although genetic engineering has enormous potential

and pro
mise
, it also raises sensitive
questions
,

many of which are completely legitimate (Glickman 96). “Few, if any, major
technologies have been introduced without some untoward effect” (Alexander 97). A few
specific federal agencies have an important role in

sanctioning

the use and safety of
biotechnology prod
ucts in the United States:

The United States Department of Agriculture
(USDA)
is tasked with studying the potential risks to other plants and animals; the Food and
Drug Administration (FDA) must researc
h the effects on food safety involving altered products;
and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has to examine products that can be classified
as pesticides, including B.t. crops (Glickman 97). Even if genetically modified products are
deemed safe
by
any of these agencies, it does not mean consumers

will relinquish their fears so
easily. In 2008, the FDA approved meat and milk products from cloned cattle, pigs, goats, and
their offspring
, but twenty manufacturers announced they would not use produc
ts from cloned
animals (Webb).
The fear of unforeseen consequences is the main factor fueling opposition to
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genetically modified products, but
I’m sure consumers will eventually come around and realize
the huge potential genetic engineering has in improvi
ng global agriculture. Eventually, after
the

products
of biotechnology
have been fully tested and improved, the benefits can become highly
effective and widely accepted. I understand that genetic engineering, like most technological
advancements, has pot
ential for unforeseen dangers, but I believe the improvements it promises
are worth the risk. Sometimes we must extinguish the fear of the unknown
and take risks
in
order to move
forward

to

opportunities for better circumstances.

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Works Cited

Alexander, M
artin. “Environmental Risks of Genetic Engineering.” McCuen, G. 95
-
100.

Avery, Dennis T. “Biotechnology to Feed the World.” McCuen, M. 109
-
123.

Doyle, Jack. “Genetic Engineering Harms Agriculture.” Dudley 123
-
130.

Dudley, William, ed.
Genetic Engi
neering: Opposing Viewpoints
. San Diego: Greenhaven,
1990. Print.

“Genetic Engineering Advantages & Disadvantages.” Biology Online. n.p., n.d. Web. 12 Oct.
2009. <http://www.biology
-
online.org/2/13_genetic_engineering.htm>

Gert, Bernard. “Genetic En
gineering: Is It Morally Acceptable?”
USA Today Magazine

1 Jan.
1999: 28
-
30.
Academic Search Complete
. Web. 16 Oct. 2009.

Glickman, Dan. “Food for the Future: Genetically Modified Food and Regulatory Reassurance.”
McCuen, M. 94
-
101.

Gliessman, Steph
en R. and Ralph W. Hardy. “The Dangers of Biotechnology: Points and
Counterpoints.” McCuen, G. 105
-
110.

Halweil, Brian. “Plant Biotechnology: Environmental Quesitons [sic].” McCuen, M. 86
-
93.

Industrial Biotechnology Association. “Genetic Engineerin
g Benefits Agriculture.” Dudley
115
-
122.

Kay, Jane. “Frankenfood: Genetically Modified Food and Health Concerns.” McCuen, M. 102
-
108.

Maharaj, Davan, and Anthony Mukwita. “Zambia Rejects Gene
-
Altered U.S. Corn.”
Los
Angeles Times

28 Aug. 2002. Cropc
hoice.com. Web. 12 Oct. 2009.
<http://www.cropchoice.com/leadstry83c6.html?recid=891>

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McCuen, Gary E., ed.
Manipulating Life: Debating the Genetic Revolution
. Hudson: McCuen,
1985. Print.

McCuen, Marnie J., ed.
Redesigning Creation: Debating the Bio
tech Revolution
. Hudson:
McCuen, 2000. Print.

Monsanto. “Plant Biotechnology: Farming of the Future.” McCuen, M. 79
-
85.

Pretty, Jules. “Sustainable Agriculture to Feed to World.” McCuen, M. 115
-
123.

Union of Concerned Scientists. “The New and Old
Biotechnology.” McCuen, M. 8
-
13.

Webb, Sarah. “46: FDA Approves Food from Cloned Animals.”
Discover

Jan. 2009: 48.
Academic Search Complete
. Web. 16 Oct. 2009.