Rolling out the Red Carpet

I welcome you to my blog and hope that you will like the tour. Please leave your footmarks with comments and feedback. This will through and through enhance my knowledge and profundity of thought. Enjoy! Asif J. Mir

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

GM Food -- A Boon or Doom

New technologies play an increasing role in food production, and genetically modified foods (GMF) are at the forefront of the changing nature of our food culture. The promise of GMFs seems almost too good to be true. With a human population of more 6 billion, producing higher yielding foods may be more crucial than ever. Genetically modified (GM) crops are now grown in more than 16 countries. In 2002, farmers around the world planted 60 million hectares of land with dozens of varieties of GM crops. The appearance of GMFs in the marketplace of the West has resulted in a firestorm of public debate, scientific discussion, and media coverage. A variety of ecological and human health concerns come with the new advances made possible by GM.
GM is the technique of changing or inserting genes. Genes carry the instructions for all the characteristics that an organism – a living thing – inherits. They are made up of DNA. GM is done either by altering DNA or by introducing genetic material from one organism into another, which can be either a different variety of the same or a different species. For example, genes can be introduced from one plant to another plant, from a plant to an animal, or from an animal to a plant. Transferring genes between plants and animals is a particular area of controversy. Developing countries have special interests, but fairer trade rules would do more to eliminate hunger than GM crops.

GM foods offer a way to quickly improve crop characteristics such as yield, pest resistance, or herbicide tolerance, often to a degree not possible with traditional methods. Further, GM crops can be manipulated to produce completely artificial substances, from the precursors to plastics to consumable vaccines.

By manipulating the genetic code of organisms that provide food sources, they have created new strains of plants and animals capable of growing larger in less time on less suitable soil. From an ecological perspective, adding more food to a starving population promotes reproduction, exacerbating the very condition scientists are trying to solve.

The policymakers of Pakistan ought to see how GM technology can help produce more food and offer medical, social and economic benefits but without attached threats. Some of the many health advantages of GMF include the edible vaccines, which can help curb various diseases in Pakistan. Nutritionally improved crops with a higher content of proteins and vitamins can supplement the nutritional requirements of the lower strata of the population, who cannot afford a non-vegetarian diet. Pulses constitute a major source of protein in Pakistan. However, the presence of raffinose-like sugars can cause digestive problems. The genetically tailored pulses that contain reduced amounts of raffinose and similar sugars can result in enhanced digestibility. GMF that contain sweet proteins like thaumatin will be good for people with diabetes. And GMFs that have greater iron content can be especially beneficial for Pakistani women, as they are susceptible to anemia.

GM crops can result in enhanced agricultural productivity with lower inputs in terms of plant protection strategies and fertilizer applications, raise the per capita income and, hence, the living standard. Further, the availability of better quality nutrition at affordable costs can also improve the general health of the population, which in turn will raise national productivity.
Contrary to the natty payback, many leading scientists admit that GM is unpredictable, unstable, and potentially dangerous because of the consequences. GMF raises the possibility of human health, environmental, and economic problems, including unanticipated allergic responses to novel substances in foods, the spread of pest resistance or herbicide tolerance to wild plants, inadvertent toxicity to benign wildlife, and increasing control of agriculture by biotechnology corporations.

In Pakistan it will be a tragedy if the multinational corporations pushing genetically engineered crops gain control over crops and seeds. Although the corporations claim biotechnology is needed to feed the world, this is a myth. There is already more than enough food to feed everyone; poverty and inadequate allocation of resources are the major hurdles. According to a FAO report, the world can produce enough food to meet global demand in the year 2030 without the use of GM crops.

Meanwhile, organic farmers are among those most threatened by GMF. One reason is because cultivation of genetically engineered crops on neighboring farms can contaminate their crops via pollen drift. No genetically engineered materials should be used in organic products. Thus, a grower may be unable to sell his or her crop as organic if it has been contaminated
Ultimately, it is the consumer--and all Earth's inhabitants--who have the most to lose in the long run. Because little thought is being given to the consequences of what GM crops will do to the environment and to biodiversity, Earth's ecosystem could be turned upside down. There will be no way to undo the damage or recall new organisms that have been unleashed.
Large seed companies are likely to make large profits from GM crop seeds. This will be exacerbated if they make crops that produce sterile seeds, which cannot be replanted the following year. Consumers and small farmers who are forced to buy seed year after year will lose.

Pakistan needs to adopt a harmonized, uniform and transparent procedure for safety assessment of GMF. Coordinated and comprehensive labeling requirements for GMF should also be prepared with the aim of providing the consumer with a real choice.

Pakistan has a national food poverty rate of 33% and 40% of children under the age of five are underweight, 50% are stunted, and 9% are wasted. The GMF has the capability of overcoming these problems. Its dubious impact, nevertheless, compels us to seriously consider all pros and cons before the risks involved in GMF take the nation by surprise. (