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Saturday, January 16, 2010

Genetic Engineering doesn’t address world food problem and malnutrition

Genetic Engineering doesn’t address world food problem and malnutrition

One of the more current and controversial issue in the field of biotechnology is the use of bioengineering in food production. Personally, I would not support the use of genetic engineering in food production based on the several reasons I will present in my position paper. I do not think that scientists should be able to use their knowledge and social prestige in society to be able to play the role of God in creating new or better living things even if their justification is for the purpose of serving mankind.


Supporters of this technology (Genetic Engineering) maintain that it ensures and sustains food security around the world as the population increases. As time goes on, the science behind genetic engineering is no doubt improving. Biotechnology could be the wave of the future and genetically modified foods could really provide alternatives to help increase food production. However, there is a growing wave of concern from citizens, farmers and scientists who question the way the research is currently being handled by a few large, profit-hungry corporations.

Critics believe:
• The problem of food shortages is a political and economic problem.
• Food shortages and hunger are -- and will be -- experienced by the poorer nations.
• GE Food is an expensive technology that the farmers of the developing nations would not be able to afford easily.
• Patenting laws go against the poor around the world and allow biotech companies to benefit from patenting indigenous knowledge often without consent.
• This is a very young and untested technology and may not be the answer just yet.
• Crop uniformity, which the biotech firms are promoting, will reduce genetic diversity making them more vulnerable to disease and pests. This furthers the need for pesticides (often created by the same companies creating and promoting genetically engineered crops).

Hence this leads to questions of the motives of corporations and countries who are using the plight of the developing world as a marketing strategy to gain acceptance of GE food as well as dependency upon it via intellectual property rights. A quick acceptance of GE foods without proper testing etc. could show corporate profitability to be very influential, while a thorough debate and sufficient public participation would ensure that real social and environmental concerns are in fact adhered to.

There is also the issue of do we actually need genetically engineered food, given that agriculture in small biodiverse farms are actually very productive. World hunger is extensive in spite of sufficient global food resources. Therefore increased food production is no solution. The problem is that many people are too poor to buy readily available food. Therefore measures solving the poverty problem is what is required to solve the world hunger problem.

I would like to point out an important factor that “many people in the world are suffering from malnutrition and hunger because they cannot afford to buy food, not because it is unavailable.” As highlighted in the poverty and hunger part, most of the causes of hunger are found in global politics, rather than issues of agriculture and technology (though of course those causes do exist too). As a result, a variety of groups and people are questioning the motives behind biotechnology as the political causes of hunger appear to be ignored.

An article from Miguel A. Altieri and Peter Rosset “Ten reasons why biotechnology will not ensure food security, protect the environment and reduce poverty in the developing countries” makes the observation that “most innovations in agricultural biotechnology have been profit-driven rather than need-driven” and it questions whether GE technology will really ensure food security, protect the environment and reduce poverty in the developing world. And with GE Food being an expensive technology, that does not help the case, either. Also, in some cases, it has been noted that some GE crop yields are less than conventional crops.

“Genetically engineered crops were created not because they're productive but because they're patentable. Their economic value is oriented not toward helping subsistence farmers to feed themselves but toward feeding more livestock for the already overfed rich” as stated by Amory and Hunter Lovins, Founders of the Rocky Mountain Institute in their article “Are Genetically Altered Foods The Answer to World Hunger?”

The majority of the poor and malnourished in the world depend directly or indirectly on agriculture for their livelihoods – making it essential for small farmers in developing countries such as our country, Philippines, to become more productive. Simply increasing food production is not the only answer, as there are many political, economic and social factors that play a part. Indeed, solutions do not necessarily require additional production, as much as addressing political and economic causes of inequality and hunger.


However, despite all of its advantages in creating better crops, many people are very skeptical about its safetiness and possible long-term health effects. Moreover, the social issue lies deep in the realm of ethical and moral concerns. Many people feel that scientists might have gone too far in terms of experimentation. We have now come to the end of the familiar pathway of leaving everything to the creation of Mother Nature.

With the rise of advanced technology in genetics, scientists now possess the ability to manipulate genes, and redirect the course of evolution. They can reassemble old genes and devise new ones. They can plan, and with computer simulation, anticipate the future forms and paths of life. Hence, the old ways of evolution will be dwarfed by the role of purposeful human intelligence.
However, just as nature stumbled upon life billions of years ago and began the process of evolution, so too would the new creators of life find that living organisms all have a destiny of their own. To evaluate the validity of the benefits of this technology, we need to answer three simple questions: Is it safe, is it wise, is it moral? (Sinsheimer 1987).

I believe that scientists’ knowledge is still very limited in trying to understand what led to these organisms' existence and modes of adaptation. Thus scientists cannot really predict whether all their new discoveries and creations might somehow lead to a new and unexpected group of harmful species since potential organisms that could be converted by one or more mutations be transformed from harmless bugs to serious risks.

Finally, to answer the question of the advantages of genetic engineering in terms of morality and ethics, I can only say that the more we create, the more problems we will have in the long run in trying to solve them. Life has evolved on this planet into a delicately balanced and fragile network of self-sustaining interactions and equilibrium (Sinsheimer 1987). If we try to change or replace the creatures and vegetation of this earth with human-designed forms to conform to human will, I believe we will forget our origins and inadvertently collapse the ecological system in which we were found.

Moreover, do we really want to assume the full responsibility for the structure and make-up of our world? I think that we seriously need to intervene between the scientists and engineers to consider a solution that will help slow down all of these experiments so that we could step back and look at what we are doing.

If not, I think that these practicing scientists and researchers should be more broadly educated in our humanistic values and traditions. They need to understand the implications of what they are doing in order to be able to balance the concerns of the natural environment and that of society's humanistic needs; to bear in mind that technology exists only to serve and not create.


Human beings, are of course, sprung from the same DNA and built of the same molecules as all other livings things. But if we begin to regard ourselves as just another group of subjects to test our experiments on by altering or tampering with the foods we eat, just like another crop to be engineered or another breed to be perfected, we will surely lose our awe of humanity and undermine all sense of human dignity.

The use of genetic engineering in agriculture and food production has an impact, not only on the environment and biodiversity, but also on human health. Therefore, thorough biosafety assessment requires, not only an evaluation of environmental impacts of genetically engineered organisms, but also an assessment of the risks that genetically engineered food pose for the health of consumers. Let us take deeper look at some of the aspects related to genetically engineered foods.

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