Friday, June 4, 2010

GMOs Part 1: An Overview


Since its introduction, the use of biotechnology in food production and agriculture has generated much controversy. While touted as the environmentally-friendly second Green Revolution by its proponents, critics point to safety, health, and environmental risks, and ethical issues associated with this new technology.
Consumers have consistently voiced unease with genetic engineering of their food, but have unwittingly been consuming genetically modified organisms (GMOs) for two decades; Canada currently does not require GMOs to be labelled but, rather, has implemented a voluntary labelling policy.

Here’s a bit of an overview.

Biotechnology, also known as genetic engineering or genetic modification is the science of transferring genes (DNA) from one organism to another to pass on desired traits.

While surveys have indicated that individuals are largely in favour of its use in the fields of medicine and industry, its use in food production and agriculture have generated polarized viewpoints, and controversy .

Foods containing the new genes are referred to as transgenic, bioengineered, genetically engineered, genetically modified (GM), genetically modified organisms (GMO) and, due to the fear they invoke, the pejorative ‘Frankenfoods’ .

The commercial use of GM crops started in the mid 1990s. Since then, the technology has spread rapidly. Between 1996 and 2009, the worldwide land area occupied by GM crops - mainly soybean, cotton, corn, and canola - increased 80-fold, from 1.7 million to 134 million hectares, with an average yearly increase of 9 million hectares.

In 2008, GM crops were being grown by over 13 million farmers in 25 countries. The countries with the biggest share of the GM crop area are the United States (50%), Argentina (17%), Brazil (13%), India (6%), and Canada (6%).

It is estimated that at least 70% of food products on North American supermarket shelves contain GM ingredients.

Benefits of Genetic Engineering of Food

In theory, food biotechnology’s potential is manifold, touted by industry leaders as “the most important scientific tool to affect the food economy in the history of mankind,” and “the single most promising approach to feeding a growing population while reducing damage to the environment”.

The world population is projected to increase to 8.9 billion by mid-century, with global demand for rice, wheat, and maize expected to increase by 40% as early as 2020. Given the backdrop of dwindling natural resources and environmental degradation, GM crops offer the possibility of increasing yields sustainably, even in poor conditions (e.g., drought, poor soil quality), while also reducing the need for damaging and costly chemical fertilizers. In turn, this technology could offer the promise of food security in developing countries.

Nutritionally and medicinally- enhanced crops can also help improve the health status of populations suffering from malnutrition with poor access to food and medicine.

Risks of Genetic Engineering of Food

Despite the benefits of GM crops, consumer opinion surveys have consistently indicated that the public has a very negative attitude toward GM foods, expressing a concern for their safety. Industry boycotts, ecoterrorism, legal bans, and trade disputes by non-governmental organizations (NGO), governmental agencies, and concerned citizens reveal public misgiving about the risks associated with food biotechnology.

Critics, including environmentalists, scientists, farmers, consumer and health advocacy groups, public interest groups, trade protectionists, grain importers, politicians, religious rights groups, ethicists, and consumers, object to the production and marketing of GM foods primarily on the basis of food and health safety, the environment, and the ethics surrounding biotechnology.

I'll cover these in my next post!

2 comments:

Fresh Local and Best said...

This is a very sensitive food subject. Many people are vehemently opposed to GMOs. I'm looking forward to reading your next post.

"Guppy" Honaker said...

GMOs will prove to be an ecological disaster. I harvest my own seeds and grow only heirloom "open pollentated" plants.

- David

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