Author`s name Dmitry Sudakov

The pros and cons of GM food

Genetically modified (GM) foods gave rise to quite a few frightening rumors that circulate through the town like portends of doomsday. The Agrarian Party of Russia maintains that “slowly but surely you turn into a mutant if you eat imported potatoes.” According to Greenpeace and other environmentalists, GM food causes changes in the genetic code, and those changes are likely to transform the humans into a bunch of underachievers. Newspapers publish stories about the “mutant foodstuffs killing children.” Researchers with degrees in various branches of science claim that GM food can cause cancer. Sausage manufacturers boast about making varieties of “doctor’s sausage” (bologna) or salami that are ostensibly free from GM soy ingredients. We will try to find out if all that fuss holds any water, and find evidence of the so-called “Frankenstein’s food” reportedly created by modern genetics.

Our usual diet mostly comprises vegetable food and meat with mushrooms thrown in for a change. Man invented agriculture for growing foodstuffs. Man also adopted selective breeding to boost the crops. The breeding of the most productive types and groups of plants and animals had been going on for ages.

Agriculturists learned to crossbreed different varieties of the same species or mate one variety with another variety of the same species to produce plants and animals with improved characteristics. The crossbreeding resulted in production of the Kholmogory breed of dairy cattle, bullterriers, and wheat that yields 100 hundredweights to the hectare.

The Russian consumer is afraid of GM foods. The Russian consumer is concerned about the following:

  1. GM food can change the genetic code of both adults and children. Children are thought to be especially vulnerable, the consumption of GM food will make monsters or retards out of children.
  1. GM food causes cancer, e.g. cancer of esophagus.
  1. GM foodstuffs are terrible allergens.
  1. GM foods are the source of food poisoning.
  1. GM foods make humans unsusceptible to treatment with antibiotics.
  1. And last but not least: CM foods are either awful to taste or tasteless.

Genetics appeared in the 20th century as a scientific basis of selection. Researchers eventually found out a basic unit of inheritance and mutation, a gene – now usually defined as a sequence of DNA or RNA – that determines any characteristic of a life form. The gene determines such things as germinating capacity of seeds, milk’s fat content, or, to some extent, a crotchety streak in the personality of the 19th century Russian poet Yuri Lermontov. It was small wonder that researchers came up with an idea of grafting the genes of one creature into another one for the purpose of “inserting” into it some required properties in a quick manner.

In the 1990s, researchers learned to perform the above procedures almost automatically. In short, that is how the genetically modified plants and animals were created.

As a result, a specialist can borrow a fertility gene from some plant and put it into, say, a variety of gooseberry to quickly produce a grade he is after, without spending years on the selective breeding. Therefore, genetic modification is selection at full speed.

Not only high-yield kinds of wheat or breeds of livestock with a high fertility rate are required for modern agriculture. Plants and animals should have a lot of other properties and characteristics.

For example, a high-yield variety of potato will be considered useless if it fails to withstand the activity of Colorado potato beetle. The aim of genetic engineers (biotechnologists) employed by agricultural companies is to create grades and varieties that would meet the requirements of a certain arable and pasture land or specific conditions of growing.

The use of pesticides or chemical preparations for destroying plant and animal pests is a traditional way of fighting Colorado potato beetle and other harmful insects. Unfortunately, plants absorb the poisonous chemicals. Nearly a third of all potato crops in Russia is destroyed by the vicious potato bug. That is why the potato varieties (proof against Colorado potato beetle) produced by biotechnology can be listed among the great achievements of it

Weeds are yet another challenge. One can remember how the Soviet-era bureaucrats addressed the problem in this country some 20 years ago. University students and scientific staff from research institutes were sent to the fields on a weeding mission. But this method has fallen out of fashion since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Migrant workers from Mexico do this kind of work in the southern states of the United States. But migrant workers are getting scarce for weeding all the fields, not to mention the problem of illegal immigration in the United States.

Therefore, U.S. researchers created GM corn that can be resistant to herbicides.

In 1990, the first commercial production of GM corn started in China, the world’s most populated country. U.S. agriculture began growing GM tomatoes in 1994. These days the total area of arable land allocated for cultivating GM plants is 100 million hectares. The total area keeps growing year in and year out at a pace that is greater than that of the increase of the Internet users.

In actuality, we have been using the results of genetic engineering for quite a while now. Artificially made insulin became available some 40 years ago, thus far the drug has saved several hundred thousand diabetics. For approximately the same period of time biotechnologists have been producing new antibiotics, hormones, and other medications and substances necessary for a wide range of patients.

Imported fruits e.g. apples, peaches, apricots, oranges and strawberries are available in Russia’s big cities. Some varieties of those imported fruits, primarily apples and strawberries, taste rather strange or have no taste at all. Many consumers believe the questionable flavor stems from the genetic modification of foreign produce. Though we have already made ourselves clear as to the lack of harm in GM foodstuffs, we can make a point of drawing attention for the benefit of those who are still in doubt. Imported apples and strawberries contain no GM ingredients. The blandness of imported fruits can be explained by the industrial methods of production of those fruits. Hydroponics i.e. the cultivation of plants by placing the roots in nutrient solutions rather than in soil is widely used for the production of fruits and vegetables.

“Green” critics of GM foodstuffs claim that alien genes can cause dire consequences in the human body. A few years ago the media spread far and wide the reports on experiments conducted by the Hungarian scientist Puzstai and Russian researcher Yermakova. The experiments allegedly showed that feeding GM potato and corn to the lab rats brought out diseases for the rats and a higher mortality rate for their offspring. However, later reports indicated the above experiments had been conducted in a very negligent way in terms of methodology used in their research. Therefore, the results are completely unreliable. More than 20 years of research failed to produce any evidence clearly showing that GM food is detrimental. Unlike any other food articles, GM foods are subject to most rigorous methods of monitoring.

By and large, monitoring might as well be applied to something else since all kinds of food in the human body – be it GM foods or non-GM foods – is decomposed into the simplest components, which are completely equal in both GM foods and non-GM foods. For centuries the humans have been using beef and poultry for food yet no one has developed a cow’s tail or a rooster’s wings.

In other words, we can tell for sure that GM foods are safe to eat. Moreover, they are safer than regular foodstuffs because of the strict norms of control applied to monitoring of GM foods. However, “green” activists get pleasure in carrying out occasional “checks” by inspecting the labels on sausages and cheeses for GM content. We would not mind a proper labeling of foodstuffs either. The consumer has the right to information. On the other hand, would the consumer feel better if he knew that his favorite brand of chewing gum contains the artificial sweetener called “acesulfame K” or some preservative made of benzoic acid? You can conduct a small public opinion poll by putting this question to your friends. The results of the poll seem predictable.

Izvestia Nauki

Translated by Guerman Grachev

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