GMOs or genetically modified organisms are microorganisms, plants or animals with a genetically altered code. Their DNA has been modified by scientists to meet the growing demands of the world. The world’s population has gone beyond 6 billion and is only increasing. Many people regard GMOs as a way out to ensure an adequate food supply for the world. Others see it as undesirable and unethical.
Latest techniques in molecular biology are used to produce GMOs. GMOs usually mean agricultural crops that have had their DNA modified through the process of genetic engineering or transgenesis. This can produce plants or animals from the same species or using different species. Rice can be modified with new genes that provide more beta carotene making it healthier for human consumption, or pigs can be genetically altered to lack the gene that rejects transplanted organs. This can make them ‘guinea pigs’ for organ growth needed in human transplantation! And that’s what makes this topic controversial.
When a gene is transferred from one species to another, it shows a new trait. This new trait is then transmitted to its offspring.
Genetically modified crops can help us meet our growing demand for food. They also help in reducing costs incurred by farmers to control weeds, pests and diseases in crops. In developing countries, crop loss can lead to starvation and debt. GM foods can reduce dependence on chemical pesticides and herbicides. They can also be genetically engineered to resist disease, frost and drought. GM rice with higher levels of beta carotene contains more nutrients. In third world countries where rice is the staple diet of the poor, this can prove to be a huge boon. Researchers are even developing bananas and tomatoes as vaccines. It would be much easier to administer these edible vaccines doing away with injections.
Plants such as tobacco and potatoes have been injected with an antifreeze gene taken from cold water fish, making them more cold resistant. The possibilities are endless—pigs with less fat, tomatoes that stay fresh or fish that detect pollutants in the water.
Little is known about the long term effects of GMOs. The possibility of creating new allergens due to genetic modification is a concern. This could lead to allergies in human beings or aggravate existing ones. GM food is also costly to produce and can have an unexpected effects on the human body.
Some environmental, religious and public interest groups are concerned that GM foods can be hazardous to the environment, human health and the economy. Many people feel that their governments have let them down by not regulating and overseeing the production of GMOs.