Genetically Modified Crop Plants

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Genetically modified food is for plants that undergo genetic modification and are developed such that they are used for either animal or human feeding. Molecular biology techniques which were adapted a few decades ago are used in this genetic modification process. There is always a great debate whenever Genetic modification of crop plants is to be utilized. Many people are concerned about the safety of these crops on humans and the environment. They fear that altering the genes of a plant can affect their well-being in the future. On the other hand, people support genetic modification, claiming that it has led to reduced diseases in plants, high-quality nutrients, high yields and a short growing period (Maghari). This paper will describe the technology, its working principles, benefits and risks and its ethical implications in the society.

Genetic Modification Technology and Techniques

Genetically modified plants/transgenic plants refer to crop plants modified using recombinant DNA technology. DNA recombinant comprises techniques such as gene cloning, splicing of genes and gene insertion. The process involves either expressing a non-native gene to a plant or the modification of the original genes. The gene encoded protein will carry on a particular trait to that plant. There are several ways in which the technology can be applied such as engineering resistance to abiotic stresses like extremes in salinity and temperature and drought. It can also be used to configure resistance to biotic factors such as pests and pathogens that threaten the survival of the crop plant (Byrne).
There are various techniques utilized in developing and production of genetically modified plants. The common ones include the Agrobacterium tumefaciens which is a natural DNA transfer to plants and the ‘gene gun’ which utilizes the mechanism of shooting genes into the cells of the plant. The techniques involve targeting of certain individual plant cells which are then regenerated into whole genetically modified plants (Byrne). However, this process must apply tissue culture techniques. Electroporation is another technique facilitating the incorporation of genes into the genes of the subject plant. It is appropriate for the plant tissues that lack cell walls. The microscopic pores in the plant cells allow the entry of the DNA through the aid of electric pulses (Byrne).
Since only a few of the plant cells are inserted with the desired DNA, the DNA is attached to a marker gene prior to the transfer. These marker genes are to help the researcher to identify and confirm that the transfer of the gene has successfully taken place. Few issues, however, arise after a complete transfer of the gene. These include the stability of the gene in the new plant cell regarding its genotypes and phenotypes. Whether the genes transferred can be permanently inherited is also another pressing concern.

Benefits of Genetically Modified Crop Plants

Among the primary reasons for developing genetically modified crops was to ensure that there is increased nutritional content in the food that people or animals eat. Although developed countries have access to food with high nutrient content, most developing countries are still dependent on one type of staple food (Bawa). Genetic modifying technology offers a way out by engineering crops so that they can produce added nutrients hence solving the problem of malnutrition (Godfray et al). A good example is the ‘Golden Rice Project’ which aimed to confer β-carotene trait into rice grains which lack vitamin A. Humans can synthesize vitamin A from β-carotene and therefore vitamin A deficiency become less of a problem.
The prevalence of pests and pathogens around the world has resulted in drastic reduction in crop yields. Application of genetic modifying process has led in increased yields hence avoiding food shortage. Insect-resistant crops have been designed which expresses the Bacillus thuringiensis (bt) gene. The United States, for instance, have a maize production comprising 35% genetic modified maize (Bawa). Due to the expected loss of water bodies and intensified desertification due to climate change, new technologies on crop production need to be implemented to ensure plants survival (Godfray et al). Developing of crops that are resistant to abiotic factors such as extreme temperatures and salinity will enable sufficient production of food. Other benefits associated with genetically modified crops include a shorter growth period and improved yields.

Risk of Genetically Modified Crop Plants

A major concern has been the transfer of genes to species not intended. There is a possibility of gene transfer to weeds when cross-breeding occurs. This may make weeds resistant to pesticides when the trait for pesticide resistance is transferred to weeds growing together with plants. It, therefore, becomes difficult to kill the weed using the existing pesticides (Bawa). Genetically modified crops are also associated with other environmental harmful effects. Some of these plants have been identified to cause harm to other organisms. Development of resistance caused by these crops can result in difficulties in treating some diseases for example resistance to antibiotics. Studies have shown that pollen from Bacillus thuringiensis has led to many deaths of monarch butterfly caterpillars. Although concrete research is yet to prove this theory, genetically modified foods have been primarily associated with the rising cases of cancer.

Social and Ethical Implications of Genetically Modified

The world is currently experiencing a heated debate on the use of genetically modified crops thereby creating ethical and social contradictions. The agribusiness community and researchers argue that engineered genetic crops are the solution to the food shortage in the present and also in the future. On the other hand, farmers, environmentalists, consumers and other concerned groups say that genetic foods pose a significant threat on biodiversity, food security and antibiotic resistance among others (Maghari). Environmentalists have a view that engineering genetic materials can cause irreversible alteration of the ecosystem. They argue that modifying plants van result to the emergence of ‘superweeds’ and ‘superpests’ which can affect the balance of nature and lead to decrease and extinction of beneficial insects (Maghari). The critical ethical concerns however about genetically engineered crops is their potential to cause allergies and diseases to the people.

Conclusion

Genetic modification of crops has dramatically increased in the 21st century with this development owed to the advancement in technology and scientific research. This technology allows the transfer of beneficial traits into a plant using various techniques. It utilizes recombinant DNA technology to confer genes. The controversy on the issue of genetic modification of crops started since the initial production of genetically modified foods. Those supporting the technologies of genetically modifying crops argue that the food from these crops are entirely safe for human and animal consumption. The opponents of the genetic engineering technology raise concerns about health risks, environmental effects and emergence of resistance by non-target plants and pests. With the emerging trends in climate change, it is evident that genetically modified crops can present a solution to food shortages and malnutrition around the world. However, the biotech companies should proceed with production of these crops with extreme caution to avoid any harm these plants may cause to human and animal health and also the hazardous effect on the environment.

Works Cited

Bawa, A. S., & Anilakumar, K. R. "Genetically modified foods: safety, risks and public concerns—a review." Journal of food science and technology, 50(6) (2013): 1035-1046.
Byrne, P. "Genetically Modified (GM) Crops ." Techniques and Applications. Colorado State (2014).
Godfray, H. C. J., Beddington, J. R., Crute, I. R., Haddad, L., Lawrence, D., Muir, J. F., ... & Toulmin, C. "Food security: the challenge of feeding 9 billion people." Science, 327(5967) (2010): 812-818.
Maghari, B. M., & Ardekani, A. M. "Genetically modified foods and social concerns." Avicenna journal of medical biotechnology, 3(3) (2011): 109.

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