By Akshaiyaa V S
Termed as the “grains of hope” by the Time magazine genetically modified food claimed to be a ray of hope for poverty-stricken people throughout the world.
In 2006, the “golden rice” was introduced with genes from daffodils, giving it its yellow color and eventually its name. According to the Times, “consumption of this rice produces the beta-carotene which is converted into Vitamin A by the human body. Deficiency of Vitamin A is a global problem affecting children with blindness and other complications and instead of relying on vitamin tablets, merely eating this rice would prevent Vitamin A deficiency”.
However, after extensive research, such claims were proved false. It was found that the human body was not able to absorb Vitamin A in this form. Moreover, cultivation of the “golden rice” required heavy use of pesticides and a large amount of water – this proved to be a problem in poverty-stricken areas where water shortage in itself is a major issue.
Despite all that, in 2011, the world saw an 8% increase in food production roughly estimating up to 160 million hectares of biotech crops. Though most of these crops were used to feed the livestock, they also took up significant portions of all the processed food sold to humans.
What are GM crops and how are they produced?
Genetically modified (GM) crops are those whose genetic codes are altered by injection of genes from other plants to get rid of weak traits and instead inherit advantageous ones. A papaya plant, for instance, is susceptible to attacks from the ringspot virus which limits the fruit production and in extreme cases can even kill the plant. Genetically modified papayas save the day by resisting such viruses, preventing a shortage of crop production.
GM crops undergo extensive testing to make sure they are safe for human consumption. Currently, there is no legislation to label the GM crops separately, which tells us that there aren’t very serious consequences of consuming GM crops as of now. However, some have side effects which should be noted.
Effect of GM crops on the environment
It is found that the production of GM crops causes adverse effects on the environment. GM crops are generally herbicide resistant, making the crops safe for consumption. However, the residues are left on soil, indirectly affecting the ecosystem when pollinating insects pick them up. Similarly, when the residue gets mixed with the water sources it affects aquatic life. The chemicals used during crop production stop affecting weeds as they develop resistance over time.
Health risks caused by GM crops
Most GM crops are produced with the intention of making them last longer and resist pest attacks along making them taste better. This gives rise to various concerns regarding the health risks of consuming such foods.
Antibiotic-resistant genes, which are used as markers while adding a new gene to a plant, are a part of the GM process. Once the new gene is accepted by the plant, so is the antibiotic-resistant gene. The risk of eating such food is that the bacteria which lives in the gut of animals might react to this gene and may lead to complications. Also, an addition of such genes might increase the level of toxins produced by the plants to a level that could potentially harm humans, unlike the present case scenario where the quantity of toxins produced is negligible. There is a possibility that GM foods may carry genes which elicit allergic responses in humans.
While food production increases, it is to be noted that the nutritional value of the GM crops decreases. When new genes interact with the existing ones in the plant, it might also make some nutrients indigestible. Missing out on nutrition is a major issue yet to be solved. Given enough time, researchers may find ways to circumvent this issue.
We can not deny the fact that the major driving force behind the production of GM crops is money. Most people remain hungry not because of lack of food, but due to the fact that they can’t afford them. According to the British writer George Monbiot, the main purpose of the biotech industry is to get control over the food market. Capitalism driven innovation might initially help alleviate hunger, but in the end, by supporting the production of GM crops, we end up enabling capitalists to monopolize one of the world’s biggest industries – the food industry.
The biotech industries can issue patents over the seeds and the chemicals used for production. They can also produce seedless crops and provide farmers with seeds which would remain sterile for a longer period of time. However, with this technology, the farmers, who have been saving seeds from one year’s yield for the next year might have to end up depending on the capitalists for seeds for subsequent crop production. Though the biotech industries have claimed to create a hunger-free world, it depends on the motives of large corporations which have control over the industries.
Akshaiyaa V S is a writing analyst at Qrius.
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