2002-2003 Essay Contest

First Place Essay - Standard Economics

Genetically Modified Organisms:
Today's 'Double-Edged Sword'

Crystal Tews
Lewiston-Altura High School
Lewiston, Minnesota


Imagine having the power to end world hunger, the capability to prevent malnutrition, and the skill to create an edible vaccine. Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) have the potential to do all of these things, but not without a price. How much is one willing to pay? These benefits are just the beginning of an incredible phenomenon, GMOs. The term genetically modified foods or crops refers to plants that have been genetically altered to enhance desired traits or the direct manipulation of the genetic makeup of organisms. GM foods are an easy way to quickly ameliorate crop characteristics, such as nutritional or pharmaceutical value, that is not possible with the normal, traditional methods, which take years to develop. Nevertheless, the power of genetic modification techniques brings about concerns for human health, the environment, and economic problems. As Stanley Stevens, an associate professor in the Department of Applied Economics for the University of Minnesota, said, "New agricultural production technologies are inherently double-edged swords."

The world's booming population, which has topped six billion people and is expected to double in the next fifty years, creates a strain on the food supply (Whitman). To meet this growing need, GM foods are being altered to increase the yields of crops in a variety of fashions. For instance, insects can be a major dilemma for farmers, leading to financial difficulties and resulting in starvation in developing countries. GM crops are transformed to be resistant to these insects, leading to larger harvests. In addition, genetically modified plants can be made more resistant to cold weather and diseases, more tolerant of drought conditions, and more adaptable to soil with a high salt content, which expands the areas of arable land. In addition, plants are made more resistant to powerful herbicides, which allows for greater crop production by killing weeds. Herbicides also have negative effects, like run-off poisoning water supplies and other environmental hazards. MONSANTO, a food biotechnology company, has a variety of soybeans called Roundup Ready that have been genetically altered to be resistant to the herbicide Roundup (Whitman). After being planted, only one application of Roundup is necessary to kill weeds, rather than using several herbicides, therefore, reducing costs for farmers (from about $28 an acre with conventional methods to $24 an acre with Roundup) and eliminating many of the dangers of run-off (Burchett 25). However, externalities, or spillover costs, exist. For example, many people could benefit from the increased harvests and easily-gown crops for a small dollar amount, but weeds can adapt to the conditions. Thus, "superweeds" are revolutionized, which means the weeds can also become resistant to the herbicides and create greater problems.

Other benefits of Genetically Modified Organisms include altering crops to contain more vitamins and nutrients. Developing nations have many problems because of malnutrition, which can cause blindness due to Vitamin A deficiencies. Approximately three billion people depend on rice as the major staple in their diet, and about ten percent of them risk blindness due to Vitamin A deficiencies and the other health problems that result (Nash 41). In response to this problem, researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Institute for Plant Sciences have developed a transgenic rice that contains an unusually large amount of beta-carotene, or Vitamin A (Whitman). In developing countries, where rice is the main portion of the diet, this "golden" rice may be their answer to malnutrition. According to Curt Youngs, a professor at Iowa State University, fruits and vegetables can also be enhanced as pharmaceuticals. Bananas are being changed, so, when consumed, they will vaccinate against diseases such as polio and Hepatitis B. In addition, organisms are being modified for phytoremediation. Poplar trees are transmogrified to clean up heavy metal pollution from the soil. Nutritional enhancement, pharmaceuticals, and phytoremediation are all examples of externalities, or spillover benefits. By increasing the nutritional values of certain crops and making pharmaceuticals, health standards are raised not only in the United States, but also in developing countries where genetically modified foods are consumed (Youngs). Phytoremediation benefits the environment as a whole. Pollution is removed from the soil and groundwater, and all of society is able to profit from a healthier, more sustainable world.

The great potential benefits that Genetically Modified Organisms have to offer are contrasted by concerns regarding human health risks, environmental hazards, and economic issues. Many citizens in the United States and Europe have developed allergies to peanuts and other foods. Adding new genes to a plant may cause allergic reactions or create new allergies (Whitman). Unexpected allergic reactions could result in serious side effects, For instance, if a person consumed a food that was altered using a gene from a nut and was allergic to nuts, the consequences could prove to be fatal. Genetically modified food plants may also have unexpected, negative impacts on human health in general. A controversial study was conducted in Scotland by Arpad Pusztai, a pathologist. He found "lowered responses and damage to stomach and intestinal cells in rats fed potatoes engineered to fight pests" (Carey). Extensive research and further testing may be necessary to avoid devastating effects due to food allergies.

Criticism against GM foods is often related to environmental hazards. Unintended harm to other organisms and gene transfer to a non-targeted species could result, if precautions are not taken. A study published in Nature showed that pollen from bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) corn caused high death rates in monarch butterfly caterpillars. These caterpillars perished from eating milkweed which had been polluted by pollen from Bt corn (Gee). Crops are being cross-pollinated by GM crops planted in nearby fields, which results in new genes in non-modified plants. Solutions, such as buffer zones around GM fields, could reduce cross-pollination. However, such methods are often not feasible because much land is "wasted" when using buffer zones, and pollen is also known to travel for miles. In the same way that "superweeds" are developed, insects may become tolerant of Bt corn or other crops that have been altered to be pest resistant. Further studies of unintended gene transfer and pesticide potency may result in a more ideal answer to the obstacles facing the environment.

Although biotechnology has been a scientific triumph, economic stakes are risky. America's farmers are already losing $200 million a year in corn exports because of European opposition to genetically modified foods (Carey). Trying to create a market for GM foods is a long and costly process, which could result in a larger gap between the wealthy and the poor. Small farmers and developing nations will be hit the hardest as biotechnology corporations could take control of agricultural industries. Opponents of biotechnology are arguing that biotech companies do not have the right to reap profits from the sales of GM foods. They also think that the products should be distributed evenly and fairly. Critics argue that everyone has a right to the benefits of GM foods and should not be restricted because of costs. Opposition also points out that the biotech companies are manipulating nature, and they question if it is right to "sell" nature. The tragedy of the commons here is the undefined property rights of nature and genetically modified vegetation. The ownership of these resources is held by society, not the biotechnology companies. Governments will need to explore solutions for regulating GM foods. They also face issues regarding labeling, patenting, and distribution. In the United States, the regulations are confusing because three separate agencies have a part in the administration of Genetically Modified Organisms. The EPA evaluates plants for environmental safety, while the USDA determines whether the plant is safe to grow or not, and the FDA decides if it is safe for eating (Whitman). The roles of each government agency will need to be more clearly defined as genetically modified organisms play an increasingly prevalent role in society.

The question still remains. Is the immense potentiality of genetically enhanced products worth risking the uncertainties of such devastating consequences? According to Time, former President Jimmy Carter said, "Responsible biotechnology is not the enemy; starvation is." However, pinpointing the cause of starvation is controversial (Nash 41). Is starvation caused by a lack of food, or is it simply a problem of equal distribution (Nash)? Genetically modified foods could help solve problems of world hunger and malnutrition by increasing supply. It might also help preserve our world by reducing chemical use and increasing harvests, but many barriers remain in the way, including safety, regulation, international policy, and food labeling. As Youngs said, "Education is the key to addressing these problems. Open, honest dialogue could go a long way toward a better understanding of the technologies by all." By proceeding with caution, unintentional detriment to humans, the environment, and economic systems could be avoided. Patience, along with education, cooperation, and communication, may just lead to changing the potentiality of Genetically Modified Organisms into a reality.

Works Cited

Burchett, Andrew. "Too Much of a Good Thing?" Farm Journal. Dec. 2002:24-26 pg.

Carey, John. "Are Bio-Foods Safe?" Business Week. 20 Dec. 1999. 14 Dec. 2002.

Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. 22 Nov. 2002. Essay Contest.

Gee, Henry. "GM Crop Gate Crashes Butterfly Ball." 20 May 2000. Nature. 18 Dec. 2002.

Nankivil, Amy. Personal Interview. 8 Jan. 2003.

Nash, Madeleine. "Grains of Hope." Time. 31 July 2000:38-46 pg.

Office of Biotechnology. 10 Dec. 2002. Iowa State University. 8 Dec. 2002.

Stevens, Stanley. "Emerging Genetic Engineering Technologies and Minnesota Agriculture." Minnesota Agricultural Economist. No. 698. Fall 1999.

Whitman, Deborah. "Genetically Modified Food: Harmful or Helpful?"
Apr. 2000. Cambridge Scientific Abstracts. 18 Dec. 2002.

Youngs, Curt. Personal Interview. 12 Dec. 2002.

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