Farming is a very difficult profession. So much is involved, including preparing the land, planting the seeds, maintaining the crops, harvesting the crops, storing the produce, transporting it, and finally delivering it to the market. In any step during this process the produce could get damaged, resulting in significant losses to the farmer. One way to avoid some of the losses is to plant crops that are less likely to be affected by environmental conditions and more likely to grow healthily. These hardier set of crops are engineered in a laboratory with certain features that give them an advantage over natural produce. This is definitely a plus in terms of mass production, but it may have unintended consequences.
Advantages of Genetic Modification
The main advantage of genetic modification of fruits and vegetables is that the modified fruit or vegetable is better able to grow and thrive in harsh conditions. Not only do genetic engineers create crops that are resistant to cold, which is a huge concern for farmers in regions that are prone to low night temperatures or early season frost, they also engineer produce that are resistant to pests. This reduces the number of crops that are damaged by insects. Another advantage is that genetically modified crops are resistant to specific types of viruses, bacteria or fungi.
More regions are becoming viable to farming because of genetically modified crops. Areas that were thought to be too dry to grow anything are now planted with drought resistant varieties. Soil that contains a high concentration of salt is now farmable thanks to genetically altered crops that are able to thrive in various soil conditions.
Another advantage of genetic engineering is that it can increase the nutritional value of a crop. This is useful in regions where only a few types of crops are developed. Because of the limited access to food, these regions are limited to certain crops, which may not fulfill all the nutritional requirements. By modifying the crop to contain more vitamins and minerals, it becomes much healthier to the consumer.
Risks of Genetically Modified Crops
The main disadvantage of genetically modified food is that the newly introduced gene produces a characteristic that is potentially harmful to people, other organisms or the environment. Nothing has been established so far that points to a risk to human health, but one area that is a concern is allergens. The concern is that individuals with a specific allergy, such as peanut allergy, may have an allergic reaction to a genetically modified food that was altered with a gene from a peanut.
Gene characteristics that are naturally transferred to the environment, usually through pollen, can alter the properties of surrounding plants and animals. The main concern is that herbicide resistance in modified crops would spread to weeds, leading to increased weed growth. Some studies have shown that pollen from modified crops could harm certain insects.
Examples of Fruits and Vegetables Altered Genetically
There are several foods that have been altered genetically. Some varieties of tomatoes and cantaloupes have been modified with genes that enhance ripening. Specifically, tomatoes have been engineered to ripen on the vine and resist bruising during shipping. Tomatoes that are used for sauces, ketchup and pastes have been modified to be more fleshy and contain more lycopene. Increasing the sweetness of winter cantaloupes is a goal of some genetic engineers, while others have tried to introduce resistance to viruses.
Soybeans and sugar beets have been made resistant to herbicides, and one type of corn is engineered with genetic material from a bacteria to increase its resistance to pests. There is research that aims to prevent sugars from turning to starch in sweet corn with the goal of prolonging its sweetness after harvest. Also, strawberries and other berries may have been tested to resist damage from cold temperatures and frost.
Food Labels and Regulation
Foods that are genetically modified generally look the same as naturally grown produce. In the market the only way to tell if a fruit or vegetable is genetically modified is with a label. Unfortunately, farmers are not required to label foods that are genetically modified. Instead, it is a voluntary effort that isn’t uniform among agribusinesses. There is regulation regarding foods that are exported to other countries. The export country must label foods that are genetically modified, and the country that imports it has the right to reject the food. In Japan, it is mandatory to test the safety of genetically modified foods, while some states in Brazil have banned such foods. In the United States, several regulatory bodies oversee the safety of genetically modified foods, including the FDA, EPA and USDA.
1. Whitman, Deborah B. “Genetically Modified Foods: Harmful or Helpful?” CSA Illumina. https://www.csa.com/discoveryguides/gmfood/overview.php
2. “Genetically Engineered Fruits and Vegetables.” Biotechnology Information Series - Iowa State University. https://www.biotech.iastate.edu/biotech_info_series/bio8.html