In today’s global economy the availability of food is becoming an increasing problem. As populations increase more and more land must be cleared to grow vegetables for human consumption and livestock feeding. In fact, hundreds of acres of land are cleared globally every day for this purpose. To make the most of the land, water and other available resources, and in an effort to increase food yields (and profits) some companies have been developing genetically engineered seeds. These seeds offer both positives and negatives, though they are increasingly becoming viewed negatively. As the International Food Policy Research Center in Washington D.C. has asserted, open and accurate discussion of the value in genetically enhanced seeds is difficult as people on both sides of the argument are so staunch in their opinions. Let’s look at some pros and cons of these seeds.
The Potential Value of Genetically Engineered Seeds For the past few decades a small handful of biotech companies have been developing genetically engineered seeds for use in food and other crops, such as cotton. There are currently over 14 million farmers using these seeds, in a total of 25 countries. These seeds are engineered to be hardy, create plants that grow to fruition quickly, and be resistant to certain pests and disease. This means that farmers can get better yields on less land, increasing product profits and availability. However, there are problems associated with these engineered seeds that need to be considered.
Problems with Genetically Engineered Seeds Emerge Engineered seeds have fallen under fire recently, with opponents citing a variety of concerns. Among these concerns are failure to live up to promises, dangers in consuming genetically altered products and a growing dependence upon these seeds.
Failure to live up to promises: Many of the genetically altered seeds simply fail to live up to the benefits that are promised. For example, many farmers in India have switched to a bio engineered cotton seed that simply has not been what the farmers hoped for. Specifically, the cotton crop has continued to be susceptible to the pink bollworm, a virulent pest that decimates the crops regularly. In fact, some sources say that while a genetically engineered seed may be resistant to certain pests, it can be more prone to other pests and disease actually increasing the need for pesticides. Genetically altered seeds are created by splicing out certain DNA and splicing in other DNA, resulting in a series of seeds that are genetically identical to each other; this means that if one plant in a crop falls prey to a certain fungus or disease then all of the plants in that field will suffer a similar fate and entire crops can be lost.
A less healthful food supply: There are many concerns that genetically altered seeds are less healthy for human consumption. Some have suggested that engineered crops may be lacking in various vitamins and nutrients of their natural brethren. Others know that some crops are altered to be resistant to bacteria which, when consumed, can change the bacterial resistance of the person who eats them. Genetic engineering can produce new strains that may create allergies that we can only imagine, or strains that interact with natural plants to create entirely new plants. In short, there is simply no long term testing on the health and stability of these genetically altered plants and there are many unknown potential dangers.
Dependence: Another negative byproduct of engineered seeds is that farmers become dependent upon them. Often, the seeds are designed to create plants that are unable to produce fertile seeds, requiring farmers to purchase new seeds every year to get their crops. In cases where bioengineered crops are successful in creating larger yields, farmers grow to rely on these yields to sustain profits, again requiring them to continually purchase their seeds from the bioengineering firms. This dependence on purchasing new seed every year is actually believed by some to be the cause of many farms failing and some farmers, in India for example, committing suicide in the wake of financial disaster.
The Debate Continues The debate over genetically modified seeds will likely continue. What we know for certain is that we need more research on the potential dangers of these seeds, more regulation and more studies to provide definitive answers about their safety.