Friday, June 13, 2008
Unit 1 Ethical Issue: Genetic Technologies
Genetic engineering is the altering of genetic material. The purpose of genetic engineering is to produce a new, a better, or more of a "product." The "product" can be anything from insulin, to a salt-tolerant tomato plant, to a new liver. At the heart of genetic engineering is recombinant DNA. Recombinant DNA contains DNA from two or more different sources. To create it, scientists find a gene that has the characteristics that they are looking for, they cut out that segment of DNA, join it to a plasmid, and insert the plasmid into a host cell. As the host cell divides, the gene of interest is cloned, and you end up with, among other things genetically modified food. There exist both benefits and drawbacks over the use of genetic engineering in general, and more specifically over the use of its products in our farmlands, which ends up on our tables.
The benefits of growing genetically modified plants are numerous. Scientists have developed plant varieties that are resistant to herbicides. The benefit of this to the farmer is that weeding is not required and sometimes only one herbicide is required. What this means is that the farmer does not need to till, which contributes to soil erosion, and only one application of a herbicide is required instead of the application of multiple herbicides. Other plant varieties have been engineered to tolerate cold temperatures to prevent the devastating effects of frost. Plant varieties are also being engineered for improved nutrition. For third world countries that rely on one crop as their main source of food, improved nutritional value per serving could help reduce malnutrition.
At the other end of the spectrum is another view of the use of genetic engineering as it relates to our food supply. One of the biggest concerns is about the safety of the food that is produced. In general, there is concern that there is no way to know which products at the grocery store contain genetically modified foods and which do not. Many also believe that genetically modified foods may introduce new allergens, especially in children. Others worry over the impact to the environment. The pest resistant varieties of plants that are being developed could also be inadvertently killing other organisms, along with the pests. It may also be possible for the gene to transfer to other plant species. For instance the herbicide resistant gene could be transferred from the target crop into a weed species. This could make that weed tolerant to the same herbicide.
As you can see, there are valid arguments both for and against the use of genetically modified plants in the food supply chain. There are benefits that range from reducing erosion to improving nutritional value. The biggest arguments against their use are the potential health risks and the potential impact to the environment.
I believe that this argument will continue for some time to come. Research will continue; new variations will be developed and tested. Tests and studies will continue to determine if any concerns are legitimate. Labeling will be improved, so that people will have the option of choosing genetically modified food or choosing non-genetically modified food. Profit, in the end, will determine whether the use of genetically modified plants continues.