Environmental Impacts of Genetically Engineered Crops


 

By Ian Teñido

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In terms of time, Genetic Engineering is a very recent concept in science. Gates (1996) defines it as involving the direct manipulation of an organism’s genome through the use of biotechnology. This technology alters the chemical makeup of cells, effectively aiming to bring out more advantageous and admiring qualities within an organism. The technology was first tried in the early 1970s and as such, there are numerous known and unknown problems that continue to plague the same innovation. Given that humans are used to the ecological settings, biodiversity, and organic existence, the risks involving the health of humans, the societies, and the environment at large remain the largest concerns standing in the way of this innovation.

Some countries like the U.S. have allowed GMOs to be cultured and introduced in the market while some other countries are still skeptical about attempting this new technology. From an environmentalist point of view, however, there are vital questions that must be answered in order to universally accept Genetic Engineering as the solution to the food crisis in the world as well as the solution to high poverty indices in countries such as in the Sub-Saharan region.

To date, it is undeniable that there are some notable benefits that genetic engineering has brought to the general public (Gates, 1996). For instance, the GMOs have been able to address the persistent concern of crop resistance to diseases and harsh conditions; this has led to an increased safety net in food security. However, there are also a number of damaging consequences it brings to the environment. Of these include health and ecological risks, a lack of biodiversity, an increase of insecticides and herbicides, and many others.

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In 2011, genetically modified crops were cultivated commercially in 29 countries. The United States led the way with 170.5 million acres of commercial genetically modified crops grown, while Brazil, Argentina, India, and Canada each grew more than 24.7 million acres.
-Alison Mackey/Discover Magazine

In fact, one cannot accurately predict the changes the genetically engineered species would make on the environment. Given the natural balance in nature, releasing these alien components into the environment might lead to a great natural imbalance which might start affecting the environment from the level of its building blocks all the way up to the food chain. From an ecological angle, we understand that a slight change (either removal or addition) in an ecological unit sets up a ripple of effects; in this case, negative effects or natural imbalance.

The effects of genetically engineered products on humans is manifold. Come to think of it, that genetic engineering employs a viral vector which carries a functional gene inside the human body is largely scintillating. I do not want to be a prophet of doom but when it comes to human lives, I can be a devil’s advocate… There is no clue from the scientific world where these functional genes are placed. Could it be that important genes in our bodies are being replaced?

At the genetic level, this might lead to another whole new condition for humans which might plunge them into an uncharted world of ill-health and which might probably require a few hundred years to discover the cure. Equally, the Genetic Engineering could also lead to unknown side effects. For instance, certain gene changes in animals or plants could lead to unpredicted allergic reactions thus creating a new set of human conditions. In the end, instead of bolstering food security it might lead to human ill-health.

Another great concern for GE is the aspect of Antibiotic Resistance. Most genetically modified plants carry a fully functioning antibiotic resistance gene and this alone could have lethal effects. Eating these foods destroys/weakens the effectiveness of the antibiotics in fighting microorganisms that cause ill-health to humans and animals. At the same time, the resistance genes might be transferred to the human bodies making them impervious to antibiotics. A case in point for this is the herbicide substitution in growing of Soybean, cotton, and corn in the US. A higher proportion of herbicide-resistant soybean has been planted than any other GE crop in the country. Adoption of this has, by now, exceeded 90% of acres planted to soybean by American farmers. The cotton acreage for GE has reached 71% while that of corn is at 68%. There is scientific proof that these GE crops have altered the mix of herbicides normally used in the cropping systems. Now it has been replaced by glyphosate.

GMO-Food
Chart shows how top GMO crops spread to near full capacity in 20 years – Organic Hawaii

From an ethical angle, there are strong propositions arguing against the installation of genetic engineering. Given that the proponents of GE have marketed it as a lifesaving technology that will eliminate food crises and end humanity’s poverty, however even the poorest and the hungriest are raising concerns over its viability and safety. The general lack of knowledge in this area continues to raise more questions than the proponents are ready to answer.

Despite the numerous concerns surrounding utilization of genetic engineering, its potential is tremendous but only when such pressing concerns are adequately addressed. It should not be the case where one nation can own the rights to a superior kind of gene and thus plunge the world into food crisis so that a new superpower emerges. It should not also be the case where good genes fall into the hands of bad people who can use it to terrorize the entire world and demand the life of tokenism. It should, also, not be the case where humans ultimately become slaves to technology. It should not be the case where environmental integrity is altered for the worst and lastly, it should be the case where short-term needs supersede the vitality and our fidelity to the future generations.


Reference

Gates, D. (1996). The Environmental Impact of Genetically Engineered Crops. Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering Reviews, 13(1), 181-196. doi: 10.1080/02648725.1996.10647928.

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