The term “genetically engineered foods” refers to the new discovery of science: food that are produced from a genetically modified organism by genetic engineering. Specific genes are transferred to a given food in order to produce a desired characteristic. These substances are generally referred to as recombinant or transgenic foods. In order to introduce foreign genes into the plant or animal of interest, a transformation vector such as a plasmid or virus, which would normally induce tumors and other diseases, is required. These vectors are mutilated in the laboratory to eliminate pathogenic properties, however, it has been noticed that some of these agents have the ability to be reactivated, thus generating new pathogens; a possible threat for mankind.
While genetic engineering is a powerful tool for manipulating genes, there is insufficient knowledge about the genetic functioning of the plant or animal to be manipulated. What genes are turned on and off throughout the life cycle of a particular plant and how and why does this happen? How does the new introduced gene influence the behavior of the plant genome? How do the activation and inactivation of genes alter the environment of the plant? Currently, most of these questions remain unanswered. The introduction of new genes into the genome of the manipulated animal or plant causes unpredictable changes in the genetic behavior and cellular metabolism. This could result in the production of proteins responsible for allergic reactions in the consumers, which might not be found in the manipulated entity. The production of toxic substances that were not originally present in the unmodified organism constitutes another risk; in the United States, for example, the production of the amino acid tryptophan by a genetically modified bacteria resulted in 27 people dead and more than 1500 affected. Finally, there could also be alterations in the nutritional properties of the food, such as in proportion of sugars, fats, proteins and vitamins.
One of the major concerns is that the international pressure to gain markets and increase profits are pushing companies to release transgenic crops at a very fast rate, without properly considering the long-term impacts on people and on the environment. Most innovations in agricultural biotechnology are driven by profit motives rather than on satisfying humans’ needs; therefore the ultimate aim of genetic engineering is translating into an increase in profitability instead of solving agricultural needs.
These issues have caused heated controversies among scientists, entrepreneurs, politicians and consumer organizations. While the scientific community strives to convince people of the benefits and safety of genetically modified food, environmentalists, a large group of researchers and certain social sectors warn of potential hazards for the health, the environment and the most deprived areas of the planet. It is for this reason the later call for an urgent moratorium. Organizations such as Greenpeace, Aedenat and Pure Food Campaign alert of the risks transgenic food may generate since their long term effects have not been thoroughly investigated.
The time to effectively face the challenge and the reality of genetic engineering has come. Biotechnology companies must feel the impact of environmental and laboral movements so that they reorient their work for the benefit of society and nature. The future of biotechnology-based research will be determined by power relationships and there is no reason for farmers and the general public, if given enough power, to not influence its direction so that it meets sustainability goals. It is an obvious fact that the proper use of genetically modified food would bring progress to the world; however, for now, the lack of knowledge and poor judgment by decision makers regarding this issue make GMO’s a threat. Science means knowledge. In this case there is a great lack of knowledge, this is the problem; “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing” (Alexander Pope).