Mike Ko Personal Portfolio


Home-School Education
Hong Kong

University of Durham
Bachelor of Science
United Kingdom

2017 - 2018
United Kingdom

Writing - Original

The Case for Genetically Modified Food




                        All of the food that human society depends on comes from nature, ranging from plants, animals, and fungi. They are our most vital resource, but none of them perfectly made for human consumption. All life on Earth evolves to suit their own needs, to adapt to their ecological conditions. However, we may want food to evolve to suit our needs, for example to produce specific nutrients, or to adapt to other climates.

                        Traditionally, humans use artificial selection to breed for desired traits in other species. In artificial selection, we selectively breed for a species variant with the desired traits. For example, if we want crops with large grains, we select a crop variant with the largest grains from our crop population. We grow the second generation from that crop variant, select again the one with the largest grains of the generation, and then repeat the process. After many generations of selecting and breeding large-grain variants only, all crops will have larger grains than before.

                        Although artificial selection is a simple process for breeding wanted traits in other species, it is also a passive method. We can only modify existing traits like grain size only. We cannot breed for useful traits like stronger drought resistance if the crop did not have it in the first place. However, as our knowledge of genetics increased, scientists took a direct approach. Through genetic engineering, they created Genetically Modified foods (or GM foods). By changing a species’ DNA, that species can be made to express a specific trait, regardless of whether or not it has that trait originally. This method grants us greater control over trait modifications, and it can also introduce completely new traits into our food. Modified to suit society’s exact needs, GM foods can bring great benefits, from agricultural conveniences, to solutions for any food-related problems, like malnutrition.

                        Yet despite its potential, GM foods are a controversial subject. Many people are uncertain about whether eating such food is safe, while environmental groups question their ecological effects. These concerns, and many others, have caused general public uncertainty or even rejection of GM foods. This resulted in a decades-long stalemate between proponents and opponents of GM foods, as to whether we should genetically modify our food. We shall examine some of the arguments for and against GM foods shortly, as well as its potential significance to human society. However, before we go into the details or make any judgments, we must understand the nature of GM foods first. More specifically, we must know how GM foods are made.

Making GM Food

                        Typically, GM foods are made using recombinant DNA, artificially recombined segments of DNA. Recombinant DNA was first created in the 1970s, and since then it has become an important tool for biologists and in biotechnology. But to understand how recombinant DNA can be used to create GM foods (or in general Genetically Modified Organisms), we must first understand some of the basics about DNA.

                        DNA is the molecule that carries the genetic instructions of all life on Earth. These instructions govern the development and activities of an organism. Specific sequences of the genetic code, called genes, can instruct a variety of things, but most notably protein production in cells. And it is the proteins that carry out most of the operations of an organism, from breaking down food molecules to forming organic structures. As such, many characteristics of various organisms are related to the proteins produced by its DNA instructions. So if we want to modify the traits of an organism, it probably shall involve modifying its proteins, which in turn involves changing the organism’s DNA. And it is here that recombinant DNA can help us in modifying our food organisms.

                        In principle, recombinant DNA involves gluing multiple genes of interest together to create a customized gene sequence, one which typically does not occur naturally. This recombinant DNA sequence can then be inserted into an organism, which will carry out the instructions encoded by the genes in the recombinant DNA. Now we apply this procedure to make a GM food in a simplified hypothetical example.

                        Suppose we want a carrot to produce particular proteins, which can, say, make the carrots crunchier. To do that, scientists might do the following. They must find and then isolate genes that codes for proteins that can make the carrot crunchy. If such genes can be found, scientists can then use these genes to create recombinant DNA by gluing them together into a custom, artificial sequence. This custom sequence, with the genes that codes for the wanted proteins, is then inserted into carrot cells. The cells will then start to produce the desired proteins as instructed by the recombinant DNA. As time goes on, the cell will pass on the recombinant DNA to the next cell generation, in addition to its own DNA set (called a genome). Eventually, many carrot cells will have the recombinant DNA sequence and produce the desired proteins, which will make the carrot crunchy.

                        Note however that the genes used to make the recombinant DNA do not have to come from carrot–like species for them to operate in carrot cells. Indeed, they do not have to come from plants at all. It turns out that the mechanisms for interpreting DNA instructions – as well as the instructions themselves – are fairly conserved across species. This allows certain genes of one species to function properly in another.

                        So by changing the genetic composition of our food, we can alter its protein production, which in turn will change certain macroscopic traits of the food, creating what we call GM foods. This method is very versatile, as it allows us to directly change the traits that a species will have. In theory, this can be done on any species (or food for GM foods) for any particular trait. In practice, however, certain traits require the insertion of a complex set of genes, or the trait is encoded by different genes in different species. Yet as our knowledge of genetics and biological processes increase, then so will our ability to make GM foods accurately.

                        We now understand how recombinant DNA can be used to create GM foods, which allow us to modify food so that they have useful traits. But is this ability useful?  Would society gain anything if we use GM foods, as opposed to normal food? We can answer these questions by examining the potential applications of GM foods.

Possible Applications

                        Given that we can modify our food to have particular desired characteristics, the potential applications are numerous. Obvious possibilities include those in agriculture. We can genetically modify our crops to adapt to certain climates or ecological environment. For example, we can modify crops to have better water retention so that they can be grown in hotter or drier climates. Or we can make crops that synthesize organic anti-freeze molecules, so that it can survive freezing weather. This concept was applied to tomatoes, in an experiment where a fish gene coding for anti-freeze proteins was inserted into the crop’s genome.

                        In addition, we can make crops that are resistant to pests to minimize the damage they can do to our food. In the United States, certain crops are genetically modified to produce a bacterial toxin called the Bt toxin. This toxin is lethal to the pests who eat the crops, but are harmless to mammals or passing insects.

                        Of course, GM foods are not confined to crops only. Recent commercial efforts succeeded in creating GM Atlantic salmon that grows faster than conventional salmons, thanks to the addition of a growth hormone-regulating gene. All these can make agriculture more efficient in terms of time and resources.

                        Apart from benefiting farmers, GM foods can also yield gains for consumers. These include changes for culinary requirements, like modifying food to have particular flavors, textures, or simply to make them less susceptible to rotting. Nutritional aspects of food can also be improved. We may introduce specific, essential nutrients into common food to ensure a healthy diet for all people, or we can increase their overall nutritional content. These changes can help us combat malnutrition, as well as other issues. One notable related example is a GM crop called golden rice, which contains a substance called beta-carotene.

                        Normal rice does not contain beta-carotene, which is needed to produce vitamin A in the human body. As such, human populations with rice-dominant diets tend to have vitamin A deficiency, which causes eyesight impairment or even total blindness. To combat this problem, a group of scientists inserted genes that codes for the synthesis of beta-carotene into the rice, creating what we call golden rice. Because golden rice contains beta-carotene, populations that eat mostly rice can still obtain sufficient amounts of the substance, and produce enough vitamin A for healthy eyesight. Of course, vitamin A deficiency can be avoided if people had a balanced diet. Yet for poor rice-dependent populations (mostly in Asian countries), they probably cannot afford much other than rice. Golden rice has yet to reach consumer markets, but if it does, then the crop can help improve the health of millions of people.

The Causes of Public Opposition

                        All of the potential benefits mentioned above can – if successfully executed – greatly improve our standard of living, and these examples are just the tip of the iceberg. Yet despite all of its potential benefits, GM foods have been a controversial topic from the start. Public opposition is widespread and further research on it has greatly slowed down. So why exactly are people against GM foods? And what are their arguments? I think three major ones can represent the feelings that people have towards GM foods. As we shall see, however, my view on these concerns is that either they can be solved or they are not significant problems.

1. GM foods are not safe for consumption

                        This may be the main concern that most people have about GM foods: because scientists still do not have a complete knowledge of biological processes in our food, any genetic modification might result in unintended harmful products being produced in the food. If such harmful GM foods are widely utilized, distributed, and consumed by various populations, then millions of people can be affected.

                        Personally, I am not too concerned about this aspect of GM foods. In my opinion, a complete knowledge of the biological processes of a food organism is not absolutely necessary for us to safely make GM foods from it. If GM foods are thoroughly analyzed and tested after they are successfully created, and confirmed that they do not produce harmful substances in normal circumstances, then they should be safe to eat. If such tests are made compulsory, then there should be nothing to worry about, as scientists have many methods to study and probe into organisms at the macroscopic, cellular, and even molecular levels.

                        Besides, scientists are not entirely clueless about biological processes in our food. In fact, in order for scientists to accurately modify food to have specific characteristics, they must have a good understanding of such biological processes in food organisms, the recombinant DNA that they insert into the food, and the recombinant DNA’s products. For the food to express the desired traits, all of the factors above must work according to scientists’ projections. Suppose something goes wrong in the GM foods, say, the protein made by the inserted recombinant DNA has reacted to become a toxin. By then the toxic protein cannot do what scientists hope it would, and the desired trait will not be expressed by the GM foods. Scientists will have to go back to the drawing board, and the toxic GM foods will never reach consumers, because it lacked the desired   traits.  So if scientists have successfully made a GM food with the expected traits and tested them thoroughly, then the GM food should be safe for consumption (unless those scientists are working for terrorists).

2. GM foods will decrease biodiversity

                        The reasoning of this argument is this: if genetically modified variants of food (mostly crops at the present) are utilized, then these GM crops can breed with wild, non-GM variants. The result is that most of the hybrid offspring will inherit the recombinant DNA of the GM parent. Because crops will be planted in large scales, a lot of GM variants will breed with wild variants, giving a lot of offspring with recombinant DNA in plant populations. The net result is that the hybrid offspring generation is more similar genetically, leading to decreased diversity in nature. And the diversity of life in general, either in one species or between different species, is what we call biodiversity.

                        Biodiversity is important for several reasons. One is that an ecosystem can recover more quickly from natural disaster if it has high biodiversity, because it has a larger number of species or species variants. The more species and variants there are, the greater the chance that some might survive a disaster, and rebuild the ecological community afterwards. High biodiversity tends to make ecosystems more stable. The same reasoning applies to resistance against disease or harsh environmental conditions in general. Also, many of our resources come from nature (like wood or medicine), so that the greater the diversity of life, the more potential resources there are.

                        So if GM foods decrease biodiversity, then it can make biological communities less stable and decrease our number of future natural resources. Apart from biodiversity, there are also concerns that crossbreeding will transfer the recombinant DNA of GM crops from one species to a different, wild species with undesirable effects.

                        These issues on biodiversity and cross-breeding are legitimate, and must be addressed in the long run before we can fully use GM foods. Despite of this, I think the current use of GM foods will not seriously harm the environment, for two reasons.

                        First, GM foods made used today are only slightly modified, typically by adding one to a few genes. When these genes are transferred to various wild species through interbreeding, they will only constitute a small part of all the genes in species, and so will they barely affect biodiversity.

                        Second, most of the modifications in GM foods do not code for harmful products, and even if recombinant DNA is transferred to wild species, they should not cause adverse effects.

                        So at the present, decreasing biodiversity and harmful cross-breeding are not big issues. Furthermore, potential solutions are currently being developed so that we can prevent these problems in the future.

3. Genetically modifying animals or plants is an immoral exploitation.

                        Because GM foods involve the direct alteration of the genetic composition of other species, it inevitably gives the impression that we are forcing other species to suit our needs, which may violate their rights or our own ethical principles. However, the fact is that humans have been actively making genetic modifications to their food ever since the rise of agriculture (and whether that is immoral is open to debate).

                        At some point during human history, certain hunter-gatherers domesticated plants, and later animals, which eventually developed into agriculture. However, those plants and animals were not exactly perfect for human farming and consumption. It was only through selective breeding that farmers turned wild plants into crops, animals into livestock. By doing so, humans have modified their food to better suit their needs. This method, mentioned before at the beginning, is called artificial selection, and many farmers still use this conventional method today.

                        Recall that in artificial selection, variants with the desired traits are selected from a population to breed, and the same selection process is applied to the resulting offspring generations. Eventually, we get a whole generation of the  species with desired trait. Although this may appear to be just a basic breeding method, it is in effect a genetic modification of the species.

                        That is because the traits of our food are the result of the genes that it has. When we have bred a generation of a species with particular traits, we are actually breeding for particular genes. In a normal population, only one or a few  individuals might have the genes for the desired traits. Yet when farmers select these individuals to breed for the next generation, most individuals of the resulting population will have the genes for the desired traits. So through artificial selection, farmers have effectively altered the genetic composition of our food species when breeding for particular traits. GM foods only take this a little further, allowing us to directly specify the particular genes that we want our food to have.

                        As such, outright genetic modification is barely different than conventional farming in terms of its genetic effects. So if genetic modification of food is an immoral exploitation, then so is traditional agriculture, and to date I have heard of no complaints about agriculture being as immoral exploitation of other species. In short, if humans can justify using artificial selection, then we should be able to justify using GM food as well.

                        So there really is nothing to worry about GM foods in terms of its health, ecological, or ethical impacts. GM foods should be safe if they are tested before they are used, and in the future prevent those with extensive genetic modifications from interbreeding with wild species. We are reasonably capable in accomplishing the former by now, while some feasible solutions already exist for the latter (like making GM foods sterile so they cannot interbreed).

                        Yet some might still protest, citing the economic and social problems that they claim GM foods will cause. One such example is the potential corporate monopoly that might arise, as most GM foods producers are usually biotech companies. If GM foods become our main source of food, then these corporations will have direct control over society’s most important resource. I agree that social and economic aspects of GM foods can cause problems. However, such issues can be resolved through laws, regulations, and policies, which are just matter of policy-making by governments. As such, I do not think they will pose major problems.

                        Given that the main concerns about GM foods can be addressed, I think society should not refrain from using them, especially in light of the various ways that it can improve our lives. We have seen that there are many potential benefits by using GM foods, like as solutions to the pressing problem of malnutrition or to make farming easier. And as our knowledge about biology and genetics increase, there will be even more possible applications of GM foods that can fit our various requirements. These benefits are all compelling reasons for us to start using GM foods.

                        Before we can use GM foods and reap its benefits, however, the general public must be convinced that they are safe to us and the environment. This will not be easy, as the public have generally harbored hostile feelings against GM foods for nearly four decades. However, many people oppose the use of GM foods even though they only have rudimentary knowledge on it. As such, scientist should take a more active role in informing the public about what precisely GM foods involve, as well as its benefits and risks. This will allow society to make an informed and rational decision about the matter.

Our Great Need for GM Food

                        Still, I think society should stop dragging its feet on this decision and start developing GM foods, because, in my opinion, society has a great need for it. That is because as the human population growth continues in future decades, the demand for food will also increase greatly. Yet our current agricultural methods require immense amounts of fertilizers, water, and other resources which are becoming increasingly hard to find or produce. Such unsustainable farming cannot be used to feed our current population in the long run, let alone the burgeoning population of the future. So society will have to come up with some other, sustainable ways of food production.

                        However, if society uses GM foods, then we may be able to cultivate food sustainably while producing enough food as well. Genetic modification of crops or livestock can make them capable of growing mostly by their own, without involving a lot of extra resource inputs. For example, pesticides can be eliminated if crops are modified to produce their own pest-specific toxins. If necessary, the same can be applied to livestock against disease. We can also modify crops to absorb water more efficiently, which can help us conserve water. If we add to GM foods other changes in agriculture to improve our efficiency in terms of resource use and food output, then it will be much easier for society to feed its population in the future.

                        GM foods can greatly improve our lives by allowing us to modify our food with greater precision. Although it has its share of issues, further research can resolve them, but only if society allow them to be carried out. Yet GM foods are not just about improvements to our current lives. In the future, society will have a much greater population to feed, and to produce enough food sustainably, we must increase our efficiency in our use of natural resources in agriculture. GM foods can be part of the solutions to this and other challenges. As such, society should allow more (much more) research on the technology to be carried out, because GM foods are not just beneficial; they are necessary for society’s future.

                                                                                                                                                                  Mike Ko
                                                                                                                                                                  ( 3,573 words )


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