Considering If Genetically Modified Food Should Be Banned

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Introduction

Transgenic, or genetically modified (GMO) plants are plants who‘s DNA has been genetically modified using various methods. Original method used for adding or removing genes include gene guns, electroporation, agrobacterium and microinjections. Newer methods, such as CRISPR and TALEN are more precise and convenient, and are therefore more often used nowadays. This is usually done to make a certain trait more prominent with the goal to better suit our needs. Many GMO plants are crops which are used in agriculture. Some common examples are; corn, soybeans and cotton. There are multiple reasons for us to modify plants in this way, such as increasing the plant‘s resistance to diseases, pests and environmental conditions, and improving the nutrient value of the plant. There are many more reasons for plants to be genetically modified, but many believe that consuming these modified plants is harmful to us and harmful to the environment in general. Supposed risks include increased risk of diseases, contaminated gene pool and increased herbicide use. The question is, should transgenic plants be banned? Some advantages and disadvantages will be discussed in the following paragraphs to be able to get a better view on the matter.

Genetically Modified Plants Can Help Battle Vitamin Deficiency And Malnutrition

Many people on earth are chronically undernourished, with no secure access to food. These include small-time farmers who lack the funds to buy herbicides or pesticides, which often leads to poor crop growth and less yield and therefore, less food. This in turn, can also lead to deficiencies of certain vitamins and minerals. This problem prompted scientist to genetically modify plants to increase their yield or nutritional content. In this way, transgenic plants help battle malnutrition and/or deficiencies. An example of this is Golden Rice, which was developed for populations in countries prone to vitamin A deficiency. This deficiency accounts for around 2 million deaths of children each year. Golden Rice are rice which have been modified to contain a much higher yield of the vitamin A precursor β-carotene, from which humans can synthesize Vitamin A. Golden Rice provides around 50% of the RDA of vitamin A for young children (Key, Ma and Drake, 2008).

Around 850 million people worldwide suffer from malnutrition, lack of protein in the diet being a big factor. Plants generally do not contain sufficient amino acids for humans. It is known that maize tends to be low in the amino acid Lys and soybeans tend to be low in Met and Cys. Genetically modifying these plants to be high in Lys and Met can reduce nitrogen excretion in humans by improving the internal balance of essential amino acids. Consumption of these GMO crops can therefore help to prevent malnutrition in poorer countries (Newell-Mcgloughlin, 2008).

Many Biopharmaceuticals Are Derived From Transgenic Plants

Non-food plants can be genetically modified to produce biopharmaceutical products, and are in fact, currently being used for this purpose. This method provides us with certain active proteins, mammalian antibodies, vaccines, hormones, and other therapeutic agents. Today, about a quarter of pharmaceutical drugs are made from transgenic plants. These drugs are used to treat numerous human diseases, including growth disorders, diabetes, neurological and genetic disorders, and infectious diseases (Goldstein & Thomas, 2004). Using transgenic plants to mass-produce pharmaceutical products is also much less costly than traditional methods. An example of a useful plant-derived product are antibodies from Tobacco plants, which were used to combat the Ebola outbreak in Africa (Yao, Weng, Dickey, & Wang, 2015).

Antibiotic-Resistance Markers In Transgenic Plants Could Pose A Risk To Humans

In the making of a transgenic plant, antibiotic-resistance gene markers are often used. This helps the scientists distinguish the GM plant and cells from the non-GM ones. It has be suggested that these markers could pose a risk to humans by increasing the rate at which pathogens become antibiotic resistant. This could happen in soil, or in the human digestive tract, where bacteria and microbes are often present. If a potential recipient bacteria comes into contact with intact DNA of the GM plant containing the marker, horizontal gene transfer could take place. The marker would then be added into the bacteria‘s genome which could result in the bacteria becoming resisant to certain antibiotics (Gay & Gillespie, 2005). The chances of this occurring are extremely small, but nevertheless, the chances are there. This could potentially render important antibiotics useless.

Conclusion

Should transgenic plants be banned? The answer to this question isn‘t a simple yes or a no, since transgenic plants have both great advantages and potentially great disadvantages. Genetically modified plants can help battle vitamin deficiencies, as proven by the Golder Rice, which were made for children with vitamin A deficieny. Making crops more nutritious helps battle malnutrition e.g. by increasing their content of certain amino acids. Transgenic plants are also widely used to produce biopharmaceutical products, which are then used to treat many human diseases. This method also being much less expensive than alternative methods. The plants do have potential disadvantages, such as the chance of horizontal gene transfer of antiobiotic-resistance markers from the GM plant to bacteria. Which could make the bacteria resistant to certain antibiotics used by humans. But the chances of that happening are very low. This is indeed, a cause for concern but it doesn‘t completely overweight the many advantages of transgenic plants.

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There are many more advantages and disadvantages to transgenic plants which are not addressed in this essay but in general, the advantages seem to out-weigh the disadvantages, for now, at least. It is worth noting that with time, new risks could be discovered. At this time though, there seems to be no reason to completely ban transgenic plants, but regulations do need to be in place to contain any possible risks by minimizing potential harmful effects.

Resources

Key, S., Ma, J. and Drake, P. (2008). Genetically modified plants and human health. JRSM, 101(6): 290–298. doi: 10.1258/jrsm.2008.070372

Newell-Mcgloughlin, M. (2008). Nutritionally Improved Agricultural Crops. Plant Physiology, 147(3), 939-953. doi:10.1104/pp.108.121947

Goldstein, D., & Thomas, J. (2004). Biopharmaceuticals derived from genetically modified plants. QJM, 97(11), 705-716. doi: 10.1093/qjmed/hch121

Yao, J., Weng, Y., Dickey, A., & Wang, K. (2015). Plants as Factories for Human Pharmaceuticals: Applications and Challenges. International Journal of Molecular Sciences, 16(12), 28549-28565. doi:10.3390/ijms161226122

Gay, P. B., & Gillespie, S. H. (2005). Antibiotic resistance markers in genetically modified plants: A risk to human health? The Lancet Infectious Diseases, 5(10), 637-646. doi:10.1016/s1473-3099(05)70241-3

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