Is Genetic Engineering a Solution to the Food Security Problem in Developing Countries? Term Paper

Pages: 14 (4546 words)  ·  Style: Harvard  ·  Bibliography Sources: 25  ·  Level: Master's  ·  Topic: Agriculture

Genetic Engineering of Food

"Protagonists argue that Genetic Engineering entails a more controlled transfer of genes because the transfer is limited to a single gene, or just a few selected genes, whereas traditional breeding risks transferring unwanted genes together with the desired ones. Against that advantage, antagonists argue that the side effects in terms of potentially adverse impacts on the environment and human health are unknown…" (Neilsen, et al., 2000)

Genetically Modified food (GM) has been controversial since it first appeared on the agricultural scene several decades ago. While the corporations that produce GM seeds and foods -- notably Monsanto, the giant international corporation -- assert through myriad public relations strategies and studies that these genetically manipulated products are safe, serious questions remain. Monsanto, in fact, has vigorously resisted allowing the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to use "GM" on food product labels, along with fat, sodium, and the other ingredients. "The FDA has determined that where genetically-modified crops don't differ from non-GM crops," products don't need labels (Monsanto, 2011). Monsanto is very aware that millions of people around the world do not wholly trust genetically engineered products. Meanwhile, this paper reviews and critiques the myriad aspects linked to GM products, to the international agencies (like the WTO) that supposedly are overseeing the safety of these products, and to the need for food in areas of frequent famines like Africa.

What is Genetically Engineered Food?

Genetic engineering involves the "…excision of individual genes or sections of chromosomes from a particular genome" (Kollek, 1995, p. 95). Those chromosome sections are then transferred into a different cell, and hence a new and different genomic background has been built, professor Kollek explains. Through this mechanical manipulation of genes -- quite in contrast to natural evolution -- practically any number and type of changes in the relationship between genes is made possible, Kollek continues on page 98. In addition, exchanging genes between different species -- in the sense of qualitative and quantitative characteristics -- "…goes far beyond what is observed within the framework of natural mechanisms," according to Kollek. professor of human procreation at the University of Hamburg, Germany.

Genetically Engineered Food - Issues

The conservative Wall Street Journal (WSJ) understates that the use of Genetically Modified (GM) seeds for food production "…is fraught with controversy"; and the problem in this particular article has to do with "bt" (bacillus thuringiensis) GM cotton seeds that did not turn out to be "all that farmers in India had hoped" (WSJ, 2010, p. 1). Monsanto, the corporate leader in the production of GM seeds, has admitted that the GM cotton seeds it sold to India did not effectively prevent a pest -- the pink bollworm -- from "attacking cotton crops" (WSJ, 1). It is reported that about 90% of the cotton grown in India derives from the "bt" seed, and Monsanto and its sub-contractors are the main suppliers of the "bt" seed.

The WSJ refers to those opposed to the use of GM seeds as "the anti-GM camp" and explains that this group was cheering when India's Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh had put a moratorium on the use of GM seeds. Soon thereafter India also reassured those in favor of the use of GM seeds that India sees the GM milieu as important for "higher agricultural productivity" and as key to "ensuring food security" (WSJ, 1).

The WSJ points to the strong resistance that some conservation groups have put up against the use of GM technologies -- "the likes of Greenpeace" have been in the mainstream of opposition -- due to concerns over the fear GM seeds would "weaken or destroy other seeds and crops" (p. 1). But the European Union, after a 12-year period of investigation, has approved the cultivation of a GM potato, and indeed an estimated 14 million farmers in 25 countries are now producing crops based on GM seeds, the WSJ reports on page 2.

The "clear message" is that farmers are "getting substantial benefits" from the GM crops, according to Carl E. Pray, Rutgers University professor in the agriculture and food resource department. Indeed it would seem a beneficial addition to India's desire to feed its population, now estimated to be 1,155,347,700 (World Bank). However, Indian physicist and conservation activist Vandana Shiva says while on paper GM shows great promise, "…on the ground it's a tragedy. Otherwise," she continues, "we wouldn't have farmer suicides concentrated in the Bt cotton belt" (WSJ, 2). Shiva's point is backed up with the data that show "more then 200,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide over the past decade, according to government statistics"; Shiva blames those deaths on "farmer indebtedness aggravated by transgenic cotton seeds" (WSJ, 2).

Speaking of Shiva, who claimed in the WSJ article that Monsanto markets its GM seeds to India on "fraudulent claims of yields of 1,500 kilograms a year [per acre] when farmers harvest 300 kg to 400 kg/year on average," her books have become a staple in the intellectual side of this environmental debate. In her book Biopiracy: The Plunder of Nature and Knowledge, Shiva traces the development of GM seeds to General Electric's application for a patent on "genetically engineered pseudomonas bacteria" in 1971 (Shiva, 1997, p. 19). GE was given the patent rights based on its argument that his engineered micro-organism was "not a product of nature" and hence it was acceptable; U.S. law prohibits plants and animals from patenting, Shiva explains on page 20.

There were lawsuits, but when the GE case worked its way up to the Supreme Court the justices found that GE had "produced a new bacterium with markedly different characteristics than any found in nature," hence the legalization of this shuffling of genetics. "On such slippery grounds, the first patent on life was granted," Shiva writes, (20). When living organisms are patented that process encourages "two forms of violence," Shiva continues on page 23. One, life-forms are "treated as if they are mere machines" which denies their capacity for self-organizing; and two, by permitting the future generations of animals and plants, the self-reproducing capacity of living organisms "is denied" (Shiva, 23). The entire engineering paradigm of biotechnology is "based on the assumption that life can be made," Shiva insists (24).

Professor Michael J. Reiss of the University of London explains that notwithstanding the "diversity of views about GM crops" and the "significant uncertainties as to the consequences of GM crops" there is no "single widely agreed ethical framework within which GM crops can be evaluated, and there may never be" (Reiss, 2001, p. 180). Reiss explores several ethical considerations vis-a-vis the continuing -- and expanding -- use of GM crops. The argument that controversial items should be banned because they are potentially harmful or at least provocative has proven to have flaws over the centuries; e.g., many practices that "…were banned" are now considered "appropriate" (Reiss, 181). Another argument is that scientists "…should have autonomy with respect to their work… [since] they do their best work when they believe that they are doing what they want to do" (181). Still another ethical position in this matter is that while there certainly may be usefulness in the information gained through scientific discovery, the research process itself may have "unacceptable consequences" and "the money could be spent better elsewhere" (Reiss, 184).

According to a report from the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization the Third World is already in trouble regarding land that is suitable for crops. Henk Hobbelink reports that due to soil erosion and degradation, over one-third of the earth's land area "suffers from some form of desertification" and the Third World loses about 500 million hectares (about 240 million acres) (Hobbelink, 1991, p. 9). The problem is a result of logging (clear-cutting forests), "inappropriate agricultural modernization schemes" and years of "intensive soil treatment with the world's most powerful biocides" (which, in the Netherlands, turns "once so fertile" land into "a barren desert" (Hobbelink, 9).

What is at stake for transnational corporations?

In the interest of securing its place in the market as the world's top producer of seeds, including of course GM seeds, Monsanto in 1998 paid $1.9 billion for a patent from Delta & Pine Land, which means Monsanto took ownership of the so-called "terminator" system. The terminator seed patent covers plants and seeds of a number of species, and basically the way it works is that farmers plant the seeds, harvest the crops, but those farmers cannot use the seeds from the harvest to plant another crop the following year (Shand, 1998). Hence, it forces the farmers "to return to the commercial seed market every year," Shand explains on page 2.

How do scientists produce seeds that prohibit "seed saving" by farmers, and why would this process be helpful, especially to agriculture in developing countries? Prior to sale, the seeds are soaked in "…a common antibiotic, tetracycline, a chemical process that activates a molecular switch in one of the bacterial genes" (Shand, 2). When the farmer plants the seeds, and produces… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Is Genetic Engineering a Solution to the Food Security Problem in Developing Countries?.  (2011, August 14).  Retrieved December 15, 2018, from

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"Is Genetic Engineering a Solution to the Food Security Problem in Developing Countries?."  14 August 2011.  Web.  15 December 2018. <>.

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"Is Genetic Engineering a Solution to the Food Security Problem in Developing Countries?."  August 14, 2011.  Accessed December 15, 2018.