What Are Genetically Modified Foods?
Genetically modified (GM) foods have been promoted worldwide as a way of securing food supply for the future. They include food crops and livestock breeds that, like other genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or living modified organisms (LMOs), have had their genetic composition altered via modern biotechnological techniques. GMOs or LMOs are produced when a segment of the molecule responsible for growth, functioning and inheritable traits, namely deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), is taken from one organism and added to the DNA of another organism.
The rationale for genetically modified crop plants or livestock animals is that they are the answer to specific problems such as inadequate yield, threat of disease or vulnerability to changes in local climate and environment. Their value lies in the desirable traits that arise from genetic modifications which result in high yield, disease resistance and greater adaptability to increased incidences of drought or flooding and pest outbreaks. With estimates of the global human population for 2011 reaching seven billion, GM foods are expected to alleviate demands to drastically increase global food production to keep a pace with global food consumption.
Types of Genetically Modified Foods
A wide range of GM foods have been developed to include species that are:
- resistant to certain pests or disease
- tolerant to one or a few environmental conditions such as the presence of a herbicide, cold, drought, and salinity
Risks of Genetically Modified Foods
Since the advent of GMOs in laboratories and consumer markets, there have been compelling arguments against GM foods primarily based on the potential and actual risks to human health and the loss of biodiversity, especially diversity of food sources. A particular challenge is the scarcity of national or regional agencies that have safety testing facilities that can meet the safety requirements of policies seeking to protect humans from any adverse effects of GM foods. Instead, approval of commercial GM foods often rely on research from private companies, like the US-based biotechnology corporation Monsanto, that are not obliged to have national public health as a focus of their research.
Supporters of GM foods argue that reported allergies to GM foods are in the minority and that GM foods are safe. However, the contention is that some scientists, public health policy-makers and consumers believe that there are not enough clinical studies and field trials to back up this claim. This was certainly the case with the GM brand of corn called StarLink that was not suitable for human consumption but ended up in the USA in over 300 corn products including tacos, corn chips and corn meal. In 2001 these items had to be recalled from grocery store shelves, as hundreds of persons voiced concerns about allergic reactions to the Food and Drug Administration, ranging from abdominal pain and diarrhea to life-threatening anaphylactic shock. At least three pathways for production of potentially harmful allergens have been identified for GM foods:
- unintentionally increasing the levels of naturally occurring substances that cause allergies (i.e. allergens)
- transferring allergenic properties through introduced DNA
- unknown allergens arising from foreign DNA and proteins that are usually not a part of the food supply.
Another growing concern is that GM foods are based on a select range of plant and animal species. Their acceptance is expected to promote dependency on technologically produced raw materials and neglect of protection for the genetic diversity of traditional foods. In an article entitled Food Ark, the July 2011 issue of theNational Geographic noted that between 1903 and 1983, 93% of the seed varieties for 66 crops had gone extinct, probably due to greater reliance on a handful of commercial varieties of fruits and vegetables. There is also the risk of small farmers being displaced from the agricultural industry if they cannot adopt the biotechnology or farming methods that accompany the production of GM foods.
In response to these concerns, the United Nations developed the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety to the Convention on Biological Diversity. Biosafety is a term used to describe efforts to reduce and eliminate potential risks resulting from modern biotechnology and its products. The Cartagena Protocol is a treaty governing the movements of living modified organisms (LMOs) resulting from modern biotechnology from one country to another. It was adopted on 29 January 2000 as a supplementary agreement to the Convention on Biological Diversity and entered into force on 11 September 2003. Jamaica signed to this protocol in 2001 indicating its general support, but the Protocol has not as yet officially entered into force. Other Caribbean islands that have signed and where the Protocol has entered into force include Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas, Barbados, Cuba, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Grenada, St. Lucia, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
Dr. Suzanne Davis is the Senior Research Officer – Clearing-House Mechanism at the Natural History Museum of the Institute of Jamaica. She manages the national biodiversity information network for Jamaica (i.e. Jamaica Clearing-House Mechanism), set up in support of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity. In addition to Knowledge-based systems and Information Technology, her professional interests include Protected Areas Management, Biodiversity Conservation, Invasive Species Management, Biosafety and Public Education and Outreach.
For more information on the national biodiversity and biosafety clearing-houses, see www.jamaicachm.org.jm