Advantages and disadvantages of transgenic foods

Transgenic foods are those organisms whose genetic or genome information is artificially modified for human consumption.

All living beings have their genome organized in a set of genes, pieces of DNA with the instructions for the functioning of the cell. Through biotechnology, genes from other beings can be introduced into plants and animals, which is called a “transgene.”

This transgene allows the modified cell to perform new functions. For example, the purple or purple tomato is due to the introduction of the gene to produce the anthocyanin pigment of the Antirrihinum majus plant .

Like all technologies, transgenic foods have benefits and risks that must be taken into account for the best benefit of humanity.

AdvantageDisadvantages
For the economy
  • Accelerated product growth
  • Production increase
  • Defense against disease
  • Fight pests in agriculture
  • Investment financed by large companies
  • Complications to regulate and legalize its use
For the environment
  • Reduction of the environmental impact of agriculture
  • Accuracy in the desired characteristics
  • Preservation of biodiversity
  • Biological competition
  • Loss of biodiversity
  • Negative effects on wildlife
To health
  • Fight nutritional deficiencies
  • Reduction of toxins
  • Potential negative effects on human health
  • Ethical implications

Advantages of transgenic foods

The advantages result from the improvement or the utility that genetically modified organisms bring to the different areas of human endeavor. Among the advantages we have:

1. Accelerated product growth

Knowing the physiology of organisms, one can discover the genes that are involved in growth mechanisms. This can be used to produce larger or faster growing animals or plants.

For example, it takes transgenic salmon to reach adult size in half the time of wild salmon. This gives you a marketing advantage in less time.

2. Increase in production

The productivity of agricultural crops decreases due to the presence of grasses, which compete for water and nutrients. One strategy to eliminate competing grasses is to modify plants of agricultural interest, such as corn and soybeans, so that they are resistant to herbicides.

3. Defense against agricultural diseases

In some regions of the world, crops are attacked by viruses, fungi or bacteria that destroy them, causing great economic losses. By means of bioengineering techniques, food can be built capable of resisting the attack of these agents.

For example, papaya is affected by a virus that destroys the plant. A papaya resistant to this virus was developed, which made it possible to recover the cultivation of this fruit in many regions.

4. Fight nutritional deficiencies

In many human populations there are nutritional deficiencies that cause disease. This is usually due to difficulty in accessing certain types of food. Supplementation is an expensive measure and is not available to everyone.

For example, in certain areas of Asia there is a vitamin A deficiency that causes vision problems and infant mortality. To combat this problem, a rice was designed that could produce a precursor of vitamin A. This is known as golden rice.

5. Fight pests in agriculture

Bacillus thuringensis bacteria produce an insecticide that is commonly used to protect crops. It has been possible to insert the gene for this bacterium into some plants, in such a way that the plant can produce the insecticide itself.

6. Precision in the desired characteristics

Since the creation of agriculture, human beings have selected the best plants and animals for their consumption. Through artificial selection and hybridization, the production of certain species was favored, but this is time consuming and faulty. For example, the corn we know now took millennia and originated from a plant (teosinte) that had only a few grains.

With biotechnology, the desired effect can be specified, such as producing a pig with more muscles or a cow with a higher milk production. This process is much faster than artificial selection or hybridization, as well as being easier to control.

7. Reduction of the impact of agriculture on the environment

The use of fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and antibiotics are agricultural industry practices that alter the environment. With the creation of organisms resistant to pests and of greater growth, the use of toxins and substances that can alter the balance of ecosystems is reduced.

8. Reduction of harmful toxins to humans

Corn that is affected by insects is more likely to be infected by mycotoxin-producing fungi. These mycotoxins cause liver damage, are carcinogenic, and pregnant women who consume corn contaminated with mycotoxins are at increased risk of having babies with defects.

With the introduction of the gene for the bacterium Bacillus thuringensis in corn, the levels of mycotoxin in the ears are reduced.

9. Preservation of biodiversity

With the implementation of more productive transgenic crops, the need to intervene in virgin areas will be reduced. In this way, wild fauna and flora are protected from the impact of the transformation of the forest for agricultural use.

On the other hand, with the reduction in the use of synthetic pesticides with a non-specific effect, the diversity of insects that do not affect crops is maintained.

Disadvantages of GM foods

GMO foods present some risks and problems if their implementation is not properly regulated.

1. Biological competition with the original species

One of the risks posed by the use of genetically modified organisms is that they develop better with respect to the native species, establishing a competition for available resources. This can lead to the decline and potential disappearance of the original species.

2. Large investment financed by large companies

Genetic engineering processes are expensive and large biotech companies dominate the market for GM foods. Furthermore, the excess of regulations diminishes the economic interest to develop these organisms on the part of public institutions. This promotes the establishment of oligopolies that can control the market.

3. Potential negative effects on human health

Opponents of GM foods argue that genetic modification of foods can cause allergies or other health problems. In this sense, to ensure that an organism of this type is safe for human consumption, different tests and analyzes are carried out before they are marketed.

On the other hand, controlled studies carried out on transgenic foods show that they are not more prone to producing diseases than normal foods. For example, cassava if not prepared correctly can cause death.

4. Loss of biodiversity

One of the most widespread risks is the disappearance of native species due to the superiority of transgenic foods. This has been solved by creating genetically modified organisms unable to reproduce.

5. Complications to regulate and legalize the marketing of transgenic foods

The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety is an agreement between different countries that establishes the rules for the import and export of living organisms with modifications in their genome.

However, each country is responsible for establishing laws for the use of transgenic foods. For example, transgenic salmon is marketed in Canada, while in the neighboring country, the US, its approval has been delayed.

6. Ethical implications

Genetic manipulation of any kind has always raised concerns about what is right or necessary. Ensuring food for humans could be a reason to produce more and better transgenic foods.

But is it ethical to create a glow-in-the-dark fish to make it easier to catch? Does it help food safety to produce a decorative blue corn without any extra nutritional value?

7. Negative effects on wildlife

The use of some herbicides on resistant crops not only kills weeds, they can also affect wildlife, such as beneficial pollinating insects.

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