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GM biotechnology: 5. Issues with the application of GM products in biotechnology products in agriculture, horticulture and medicine

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INDEX of biology notes on genetics and applications of GM biotechnology from agriculture to medicine

(5) Ethical and many other issues of 'pros and cons' of the products of genetic engineering plants (agriculture, horticulture) and animals (agriculture, medicine) - advantages and disadvantages

For any scientific development there are usually advantages and disadvantages and not all can be predicted!

  • It is not unreasonable to take the moral view that all the people of the world should have food security - that is sufficient nutritious food needed for healthy living.

    • How far can GM crops contribute to global food security?

    • There is no doubt they can increase crop yields even when the plants are grown on poor soil or harsh environments e.g. extremely hot or cold environments.

  • Is it right to insert genes from one organism to another, especially as the species are not related.

    • We have the capacity to confer on organisms, characteristics which do not have naturally?

    • Do we have the right to insert human genes into other animals changing their long evolved genome?

    • Many have a religious point of view that the World was created by God and we have no right to interfere with it - this is the way things should be and ordained by a higher deity!

      • Some people believe that genetic engineering is never justified on any grounds - but tell that to people and their children who have benefited from gene therapy!

  • Again we see positive examples of the use of genetic engineering, but there are, as ever!, issues and problems to solve concerning the application of genetic engineering - use of genetically modified (GM) products.

    • 1. This is new technology, new 'biotechnology' to be precise, and people quite rightly are concerned about e.g. GM crops, though curiously enough, I've never heard anybody express worries about GM produced insulin - the latest versions of which are produced by GM techniques!

      • BUT GM products have enormous potential to solve problems in e.g. increased yields in food production, treating genetic disorder diseases.

      • For people living in poorer less developed countries, the quantity and quality of food CAN be improved.

      • It is no incidence that people in developed countries, who have a relatively good diet to start with, are much more concerned about the use GM crops, than people in poorer countries, with their greater need for an improved food supply.

    • 2. There are concerns as to whether GM crops e.g. cereals or rice have the same nutrient contents (mineral ions, vitamins etc.) as non GM crops.

      • Are there are any risks to human health by eating GM food products?

    • 3. Are there any short or long-term effects on our health from consuming GM modified meat, grain or vegetable products etc.?

      • By changing an organism's genome, you can't predict whether problems will emerge for future generations (crops or people!).

      • Are there any health issues? Any long-term effects on consuming GM produced foods.

      • Will a GM based food cause an allergic reaction when eaten?

      • In fact, will there be an increase in the incidence of food allergies and will new allergies arise?

      • This begs the question whether GM or non-GM varities of the same food will have different allergic reactions or similar or different rate of allergic reaction in a population?

        • Research so far, (as far as I know!), the differences have been proved - but its a controversial question!

      • OR, might GM food be an answer to certain food allergies?

    • 4. Will GM plants spread their genes and affect the local diversity of the farmland and environs.

      • Will there be any effects on food chains and ecosystems?

      • e.g. Will GM plants becoming more successful than local plants?

      • Will this reduce biodiversity around fields and the countryside in general?

      • Will the abundance and variety of wild flowers and insects be affected by using insecticides or herbicides with GM crops?

      • See also point 5.

    • 5. Will GM crops hybridise with other crops or grasses to produce new strains of plant, again, these could affect the original biodiversity of the local flora (plants) and fauna (animals).

      • There are reports of GM crops growing wild away from their original fields of cultivation.

      • Although these escaped populations often die out they may cross-pollinate either a wild or cultivated relative of the crop.

      • Apparently GM oilseed rape is capable of cross-pollinating with 8 wild relative varities.

      • GM crops can swap genes with other GM crops.

    • 6. Unintended consequences - all sorts of unfortunate possibilities:

      • Points 4. and 5. have considerable implications e.g. if the transplanted genes from GM plants spread to other native plants, we do not know what genotypes will be formed and what will be the resulting phenotypes (gene expression)?

      • If we produce a GM herbicide resistant plant, what happens if the herbicide resistant gene enters the genome of a weed, will a herbicide resistant weed evolve (a 'superweed'), that is even more herbicide resistant than the crop! From an agricultural point of view, a bit scary!

      • By using GM plants we are introducing genes into the natural environment, over which we might not have as much control as we would like!

      • There is concern about insect resistant crops killing other 'non-target' insects that are important to the wider, but still local, ecology e.g. communities of harmless insects important to food chains involving other animals.

      • Pollen from GM crops can be carried by the wind and may be toxic to other insects, which might themselves, be important pollinators of other crops and non-crop plants and wild flowers.

      • Many GM crops are made to resistant to a herbicide ('weed killer') called glyphosate (one commercial name is Roundup).

        • Many environmentalists/ecologist believe this herbicide is causing harm to some animals and plants.

        • There is some evidence that it can harm humans (e.g. cancer, autism), but again, its effects are disputed and controversial.

        • It is supposed to break down quickly in the environment, after its killed he weeds, but ...?

    • 7. There are concerns about the welfare of genetically engineered animals.

      • You can't accurately predict all the effects on an animal after its genome has been modified - you may produce one desired product, but are there other genetic consequences?

      • Many genetically modified embryos do not survive, and genetically modified animals, especially clones, can suffer from health issues.

    • 8. Other aspects of producing GM foods

      • Lack of a farmer's independence.

        • If you use GM crops you cannot collect and sow the seed, because it will not breed true.

        • The farmer is forced to buy more seeds from the farming company supplier.

        • Therefore the seed companies can be perceived as exploiting poorer farmers.

      • -

    • 9. The marketing of GM foods

      • Food companies should always have to clearly label foods that contain GM products.

      • That gives the consumer the rightful choice as to whether the do, or do not, buy and eat genetically modified food.

      • Further to this point, it is up to food manufacturers to ensure that supposedly non-GM food is NOT contaminated with GM ingredients.

      • Not all food manufacturers will be ethical about this and may try to substitute more expensive conventional non-GM ingredients with less expensive GM products.!

    • 10. Novel developments - not good or bad?

      • I've read that US scientists have engineered a bacterium that need's an amino acid that does not occur in nature.

        • If this bacteria escapes the culture vessel, it cannot survive, since there is no natural source of the amino acid.

    • 11. Use of GM applications raises ethical issues in some peoples minds - a recap of where we started in this section!

      • Some people argue we are interfering with nature and it is wrong to genetically modify organisms just for the benefit of human beings AND uncertainty are the long-term consequences.

      • Is it right to genetically engineer animals just to benefits us, and ignoring their real/potential health problems?

      • Will we start genetically engineering our offspring for a set of 'ideal' characteristics e.g. good looks, intelligence, athletic prowess phenotypes etc.

Summary of learning objectives and key words or phrases

Be able to understand and discuss the advantages and disadvantages, and ethical issues involving using the products of genetic engineering - conservation and biodiversity issues with plants in agriculture and horticulture, GM products used on animals and in medicine.



INDEX of biology notes on genetics and applications of GM biotechnology


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