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 'Genetically Modified Foods'
by Rupali Gupta
B.Tech (food), (food); Manger-Diets and Nutrition
Feb  2003
Genetically Modified foods-beneficial or harmful?

Before we start the discussion on this burning topic, it is essential to understand the process of genetic engineering in brief, and it's application in food industry. Let us discuss from the very basics of this subject.

What are Genetically Modified (GM) Foods?

Although "biotechnology" and "genetic modification" are the terms which are commonly used interchangeably. However, Genetic Modification is the technology that alters the genetic makeup (i.e. composition of genetic material like DNA and/or RNA) of living organisms like animals, plants, or bacteria.

Combining genes from different organisms is known as recombinant DNA technology, and the resulting organism is said to be "genetically modified," "genetically engineered," or "transgenic." GM products include medicines and vaccines, foods and food ingredients, feeds, and fibers.

So, genetically modified foods are the foods that contain some artificial genetic material along with their natural genetic material. For example a GM tomato's genetic composition will be different from a natural (organic) tomato. Moreover, the altered genetic composition of GM tomato will be transferred to all the tomato-based products.

How genetically modified crops (foods) are developed?

The complete procedure of genetic modification of crops involve a series of steps. I will try my level best to explain the procedure in simple language.

Any gene manipulation technique involves following steps

  • Isolation/synthesis of desired genes (carrying desired traits), also known as target genes

  • Combining these target genes to a suitable vehicle DNA (also termed as vector DNA)

  • Amplification of recombined DNA in the host

  • Cultivation of gene in the same host or a different favorable host in which the gene expresses and synthesizes the product

Harvesting of the product for commercial use

These steps can be shown in a flow chart as follows:
  • Target DNA + Vector DNA
  • Recombinant DNA
  • Cells of E. colli containing recombinant DNA
    Colony (or clone) of cells carrying the newly introduced DNA

    In this manner the desired traits are incorporated in crops, which eventually give Genetically Modified (GM) foods.

What are the advantages of GM crops (foods)?
  • Pest resistance- Crops are susceptible of losses from insect and pests. Farmers typically use many tons of chemical pesticides annually. These insecticide sprays have potential health hazards, and run-off of agricultural wastes from excessive use of pesticides and fertilizers can poison the water supply and cause harm to the environment. Growing GM foods such as Bt. corn can help eliminate the application of chemical pesticides and reduce the over-all cost of crop.

  • Herbicide tolerance- Crop plants genetically-engineered to be resistant to one very powerful herbicide could help prevent environmental damage by reducing the amount of herbicides needed. For example, Monsanto has created a strain of soybeans genetically modified to be not affected by their herbicide product Roundup . This practice will eventually reduces production cost as well as dangers of agricultural waste.

  • Disease resistance-There is many viruses, fungi and bacteria that cause plant diseases. Plant biologists are working to create plants with genetically engineered resistance to these diseases.

  • Cold tolerance-Cold tolerance of various crops can be enhanced by genetic modifications. An antifreeze gene from cold-water fish has been introduced into plants such as tobacco and potato. Due to insertion of antifreeze gene, these plants are able to tolerate cold temperatures that normally would kill sensitive seedlings.

  • Improved processing features- with the help of genetic modification, desired features can be incorporated in useful crops. For example increasing the shelf life of tomatoes, increasing the storage-life of other crops etc.

  • What are the disadvantages of GM foods?

    • Safety
      o Potential human health hazards: allergens, transfer of antibiotic resistance markers etc.
      o Potential environmental impact: unintended transfer of transgenes through cross-pollination, unknown effects on other organisms (e.g., soil microbes), and loss of flora and fauna bio diversity.

    • Ethics
      o Violation of natural organisms' intrinsic values
      o Tampering with nature by mixing genes among species
      o Objections to consuming animal genes in plants and vice versa

    • Labeling
      o Not mandatory in some countries (e.g., United States)
      o Mixing GM crops with non-GM confounds labeling attempts

    • Cost
      o New advances may be skewed to interests of rich countries only


    Widespread opposition from the public, farmers and green crusaders has forced the multinational companies as well as governments to ensure the adequate labeling in the GM foods. Moreover, some countries are planning to ban the genetic manipulation of crops at all. Monsanto (a multinational seed giant) has already withdraw experiments involving `terminator gene technology.

    This indications show that it is essential to weigh the benefits of GM foods over natural foods and if possible use this technique only for limited crops. Some strict quality norms should be set for the companies and some long-term studies should be done to ensure that GM foods have no potential harmful effects.
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