Currently, the most controversial food related issue being debated by members of the general public, farmers, farming corporations, and scientists is the use of genetically modified food plants (generally referred to as GMOs) to improve the characteristics of seeds, fruits, etc. such that they are improved in one or more of the following characteristics: contain more protein and vitamins, grow faster, withstand pests better, withstand drought conditions or grow in poor soil; require less fertilizers, fungicides, and or herbicides.
These new food plants are also called genetically engineered. Humans have been messing with the genetic makeup of plants for at least 12,000 years to make the edible parts more palatable, more nutritious, larger – dramatically larger in most cases – more resistant to drought, etc. This was done simply by breeding those plants that had the features we desired and not breeding those that didn’t. (That is exactly how we used wolves to create a few hundred breeds of dogs from Chihuahuas to Great Danes.) Over those 10,000 years of evolving agriculture, lots of mutations occurred in plants and when they favored what we were trying to achieve, we kept the plants with those mutations and progressively modified the genetics of our food plants to meet our needs and desires. One could say that we dramatically domesticated our desired food plants and, in fact, you would not recognize the wild versions of the plants that we eat today. Most of those undomesticated progenitors are still around so we can see exactly how much we’ve changed those species, just as we can stand a Chihuahua next to a wolf to see what we have wrought there as well. But in the same sense that a Chihuahua isn’t a wolf in terms of being able to take care of itself out there in the wilds of Yosemite, the plants we’ve created over the millennia aren’t very self-reliant either.
The plants that produce our big, yummy, pretty seeds, vegetables, and fruits survive and produce only when we protect them from insect and fungal predators with insecticides and fungicides and only produce abundantly when we help them by plowing, furnishing them with just the right amount of water and feeding them with fertilizers. All of that assistance is expensive in our resource dwindling world and genetic technology thinks it has the answer.
The idea is to have our cake and eat it too by inserting genes from other plants that still have the genetic ability to resist predators, produce seeds and fruit without so much protection from predators, thrive without so much water, etc. In fact, the genes from very different organisms such as insects, fish, fungi, and even mammals can be inserted into plants to give them unique, and human-desirable qualities.
This is what genetic engineering is and that is how GMO’s are created. That process and its products are very different from what was achieved over thousands of years by selective breeding. The process itself and its products are so technology based, so new, so unusual, and so untested that the whole idea makes many people uncomfortable even if they can’t explain exactly why. In fact, the word, “Frankenstein”, pops up occasionally in related conversations. On the other hand, the potential to solve many heretofore unsolved, food related problems in our increasingly food, water, fuel stressed, and over-chemicaled world is very, very tempting and probably necessary and without option.
In addition, there is a ton of money to be made by some huge US corporations such as Monsanto. There are some genuine concerns about possible harm that might be done by GMOs to ecological systems, possibly human health issues, and there are some very thorny legal issues related to who owns these technologically created organisms.
What I want you to do for this discussion is to see what you can find on the web to answer the following questions.
- What specific concerns do people have about the effect of GMOs given that almost all foods, both plant and animal, have been significantly, genetically modified by humans for about 12,000 years?
- Is there any hard data in peer reviewed science literature that indicates that GMOs are harmful to human health?
- What are the ecological concerns about GMO crops?
- Explain why you think the concerns about GMO crops are/are not justified.
Obviously, you are going to have to do some digging into the web to get answers to these questions and there are hundreds of “opinions” on the subject that claim to be backed by science or science-informed. If they do not cite a study in the primary literature to back their claims, you should not accept what is said as being supported by quality scientific research.