Since the advent of domestic agriculture about 10,000 years ago, we humans have been deliberately changing the genetic makeup of the crops and animals to meet our needs. Most of the food that we consume today comes from the crops and animals improved through traditional methods like selective and cross-breeding. But with the advent of genetic engineering in the 1970s, GMO crop has presented another way to achieve the same result as traditional methods but in a more effective, specific, and quicker way.
WHAT IS GMO FOOD?
GM foods are foods derived from an organism whose genetic material has been modified through gene insertion from another organism, carrying information about the desired trait not naturally present in the organism. This type of genetic modification does not occur spontaneously by natural methods of crossbreeding. The gene transfer is usually accomplished by a biolistic or Agrobacterium tumefaciens mediated approach.
Presently, GMO crops account for most of the GMO food available but in the future, GM organisms and animals are expected to contribute as well.
Currently, two types of GMO crops dominate the GMO cropping system.
- Herbicide-tolerant Roundup-ready crops resistant to Glyphosate
- Insect-resistant Bt crops.
They increase the yield through increased resistance to insect pests and tolerance to herbicides. Similarly, improvement in nutrient quality through bio-fortification is underway with “Golden rice” leading the way, and the nutrient deficiencies that significantly impact human health, such as vitamin A, iron, and zinc deficiencies, are all in the GM pipeline.
Global Scenario of GMO
The GMO crop can be considered the fastest adopted agricultural technology as evidenced by its ever-increasing acreages and economic value. From the initial planting of 1.6 million ha in 1996, they were planted on a record 190.4 million ha by 17 million farmers in 29 countries with the USA leading the way followed by Brazil, Argentina, and Canada. They have contributed a total of $225 billion since their commercialization.
According to USDA, there are 13 bioengineered crops although the majority of the global GM area is dominated by soybean, maize, cotton, and canola.
Source: GM crop: Global socio-economic and Environmental Impact 1996-2018
WHERE DO GMO FOOD END UP?
About 70-90% of the harvested GMO crops (soybean + maize) are fed to animals which then provides food for human consumption such as milk, egg, meat. The main GM foods eaten in a fresh state are alfalfa, squash, and papaya in the USA; tomato, papaya, and sweet pepper in China, and aubergine in Bangladesh. Most GMO plants are used to make ingredients that are then used to make processed foodstuff such as cornstarch, corn syrup, sugar, cooking oil, specialist starch, sauces, biscuits, and so on.
Controversy regarding GMO food
The scientific community strongly believe that GMO crop/food will play a major role to meet the future food need and security sustainably and responsibly amidst the growing population, changing climate, and the harsh environment it brings with it. But the same sentiment is not shared by the general public as they have their reservation about GMO food.
Aforementioned above, 70-90% of the harvested GMO crops are used as feed for livestock, so a question arises about the safety of GM-derived animal products such as meat, milk, egg. Also, people are reluctant to consume fresh GMO food and the products derived from them.
Their main fear revolves around the possible negative impact on human and animal health from consuming GMO food and their derivatives which encompasses:
- The ability of edited gene or food product to cause allergic reaction in the consumer ( human or livestock)
- Eg: GM soy produced in the mid-1990 in Brazil
- Gene transfer
- Antibiotic resistance genes are used as markers while producing GMO crops.
- So, a concern for horizontal gene transfer of these genes presents in the food to human and animal gut microbes and environmental microbes arise.
- This would cause the gut microbes and the environmental microbes to develop antibiotic resistance which would mean that the usual antibiotic treatment would not work on them.
- Side effect such as toxicity, organ damage
- Herbicide-resistant crops especially Roundup Ready crops may allow more chemical residue on the food exposing GM consumers to increased levels of glyphosate.
- International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) declared “Glyphosate”, the most used herbicide along with HT crops, as “probably carcinogenic” although the claim is challenged by many food scientists.
Moreover, leading voices against GMO cropfood argue that GMO crop is just another attempt by big corporations to have monopoly over the agricultural market.
“They even label GMO food to be nutritionally empty arguing that Golden rice has less efficacy in supplying Vitamin A than its local and indigenous counterparts and “ iron-rich “ GMO banana provides less iron than turmeric and mango powder.”
Despite such concerns and opinions, the majority of the scientific studies carried advocates for the safety of GMO food and their derivate. More than two decades have passed since their commercialization but negative effects on consumer health are yet to be registered. It does not fully imply that the negative effect does not exist but that they may have yet to be discovered.
“With more than 300 million spent on GMO safety, European Union 2017 stated that GMOs themselves do not pose a risk compared to plants obtained with conventional cultivation technologies.”
American Medical Association, the National Academy of Sciences, and the World Health Organization reported that 90% of the scientific community believed that GMOs were safe to use. A multitude of scientific studies on allergenicity ad gene transfer concludes that consuming GM food or feed isn’t more allergenic than its conventional counterpart and horizontal gene transfer is very unlikely and there is little risk to humans. Moreover, all GMO food currently available on international market has been rigorously tested for more safety than its conventional bred counterpart and no ill effect on human and animal health has yet to be registered.
In these modern times, people have become more health-conscious than ever before. Global acreage under GMO crops will only continue to increase as more and more GMO food will make its way to our dinner plates. There is no doubt that GMO food is one of the viable answers to solve the problem of global food security but concerns about its safety for humans and environment always sparks controversy. As is with any new technology, there are both benefits and risks, known and unknown. So, we should proceed with caution by enacting more stringent rules regarding GMO regulation and safety assessment.