Since the essay specifications read “GM Food: What it means to us”, I talked to a couple of my classmates on what they knew (or cared) about genetically modified food. Brinjals seemed to be the one constant, with other responses ranging from “creations of Satan” to “they put fish stuff in tomatoes”. I must admit here that my knowledge of genetically modified food was also pretty challenged until I wrote this essay. The only information I had on GM food was what I had garnered from a couple of debates on their ethicality.
The heated opinions on GM food seem to grow more radical by the day, with each side bringing in some rather extreme arguments. While scientists continue to argue that the GM food currently on the market is equally safe and more nutritional as regular food, opponents raise a host of environmental, health and economic concerns. India has an interesting relationship with genetically engineered food, one which I hope to bring out during the course of this essay.
Genetically modified foodstuffs are those whose DNA has been altered slightly to give them certain characteristics that they would not normally possess. So how is this different from traditional selective breeding? We were doing the same thing a hundred years ago when we chose to grow plants with bigger fruits or longer stems. What’s changed now is -
(a) the time it takes to “choose” the characters you want to keep, and
(b) the ability to combine characteristics from unrelated species (like introducing fish DNA into strawberries, thus allowing them to be frost-tolerant).
GM food has several advantages:
(a) We are now able to develop better quality crops with much higher nutritional yields than regular crops. For example, carrots are being grown with more antioxidants. GM golden rice is regular rice that has been injected with daffodil DNA. This not only changes the colour of the rice, it also gives it more vitamin-A.
(b) Foods that taste better and have longer shelf-lives can be created. The first GM food on the market, the Flavr Savr tomato, was one such food designed to delay ripening.
(c) One of the more esoteric advantages of genetically modifying food is the production of medicinal edible vaccines. Certain bananas have bacterial and rotaviral antigens. Scientists are also exploring the possibilities of removing the proteins that cause allergies from nuts (like the peanut and the brazil nut).
(d) By using GM crops that are inherently disease and pest resistant (like canola), farmers can eliminate the use of pesticides and insecticides. This reduces the residual levels of these chemicals in the environment.
(e) Plants can be grown to tolerate extreme weather, and to grow in highly saline and dehydrated soils.
Despite the seemingly large number of benefits GM crops offer, there is a range of risks associated with these foods. Many of these are unprecedented as all GM food currently on the market has been tested. However, some causes for concern are: