Genetic modification is the transfer of genes from one organism to another by use of a sequence of laboratory techniques referred to as recombinant DNA technology (Sheaffer & Moncada, 2012). Some of these techniques include gene cloning, splicing DNA segments together, and gene insertion. Genetically modified crops can, therefore, be defined as crops in which the genetic material has been changed.
Gene transfer is accomplished through two primary methods: gene gun and Agrobacterium tumefaciens. In gene gun technique, tiny pellets of gold or tungsten, coated with a foreign gene, is shot at high speed into target plant cells or tissues. The cells shot into these plant cells or tissues integrate the gene of interest into their genome. (Sheaffer & Moncada, 2012). Plant genetic modification can also involve Agrobacterium tumefaciens, a pathogenic soil bacterium, which is capable of transferring DNA from its plasmid. The plasmid of this bacterium has genes that integrate DNA elements in plant genomes. To accomplish genetic modification, the original genes contained in the plasmid are removed and replaced with the mapped gene of interest. After that, the transformed plasmid is placed in contact plant cells or tissues. The modified plasmid transfers a portion of its DNA to the plant cells or tissues, which is incorporated into the plants DNA sequence (Yadav, 2006). Another genetic modification method is electroporation, which involves uptake of macromolecules from fluids by plant protoplasts. This process is accomplished using an electrical impulse. The protective walls of cells growing in a culture medium are removed, leading to the formation of protoplasts. When known DNA is supplied to the protoplast culture medium, the cell membrane is destabilized allowing for entry of DNA into the entire cell. The modified cells can then renew their cell wall and develop into new transgenic plants.
Genetic transformation of crops is aimed at accomplishing some goals. First, plant modification is conducted to generate nutritionally improved food crops, a process known as biofortification of crops. Biofortified staple crops such as maize contain essential micronutrients which are beneficial in enhancing peoples health and in combating chronic conditions (Hefferon, 2015). This technology has also led to the development of stress tolerant plants, which can tolerate extreme temperatures, salinity, and drought (Shu, 2012). Additionally, it has resulted in the development of disease-resistant crops which has resulted in enhanced crop yield (Parker & Pace, 2016). Other accomplishments associated with the technology include insect resistance which has reduced pesticides use, removal of allergens from food products, decreased browning of foods, and enhanced shelf life leading to decreased food spoilage (Parker & Pace, 2016).
Social and Ethical Implications
Genetic modification of crops comes with some benefits as well as risks. One of the advantages of genetically modified crops is higher yields. Because of their improved productivity, these crops have led to a reduction of poverty in rural areas through increased incomes. Additionally, they generate higher crop yields with fewer inputs such as fertilizers. Another benefit associated with the crops is pest and herbicide resistance resulting in decreased use of harmful chemicals such as herbicides and pesticides. Decreased use of these chemicals has significant environmental benefits, including decreased environmental pollution and reduced exposure to hazardous chemicals. Other advantages include the development of disease-resistant crops, biofortification, and increased shelf life.
Despite the benefits above, the emergence of genetically modified crops has created social and ethical debates. One of the leading debates is how this agricultural technology can be utilized in the development of high yielding food crops while ensuring that the environment and human health are protected. While it is widely proclaimed that biotechnology has led to enhanced crop productivity and the development of highly nutritious food, consumers are worried about their long-term health impacts of genetically modified crops such as resistance to antibiotics, toxicity, and allergenicity.
Even though genetically modified crops have been found to be herbicide and pest tolerant leading to decreased herbicide and pesticides use and decreased greenhouse emissions, there is a concern over the transformation of the ecosystem (Maghari & Ardekani, 2011). For example, there is a concern that prolonged genetically modified agriculture can lead to the formation of superweeds and superbugs which can result in disturbance of ecological balance and decline of beneficial insects.
Proponents of genetically modified crops argue that the foods derived from the crops are safe. However, there has been concerned over their potential detrimental health impacts. For instance, there is scientific evidence showing that animals feed with these crops are harmed, and some even die. Rats exposed to genetically modified potatoes have been reported to have defective sperms while cattle grazing on biotech corn or maize has been reported to have higher abortion rates, early deliveries, infertile, and to die in many cases (Momma et al., 1999). Even though biotechnological companies deny the existence of a link between genetically modified foods consumption and human health problems, studies have shown that increased soya allergies are related to consumption of such foods. Similarly, skin allergy has been reported in India among individuals exposed to genetically modified cotton.
Lastly, there has been a concern over the transfer of multiple and, sometimes, harmful traits into plant cells. Genetic engineering technologies have been employed in transferring single gene traits such as pesticide tolerance from into plant cells. However, studies have shown that genes of higher eukaryotes do not work independently of each other. Consequently, other genes transmitted with the gene of interest may undergo recombination causing mutation in the host genome which may lead to the production of proteins that may cause allergies and other health problems.
Personal Opinion on Genetically Modified Crops
I believe that planting of genetically modified crops should be embraced because of certain reasons. First, traditional crops or regular crops do not grow well when conditions such as rainfall, fertilizers, and pesticides are not availed as required which leads to decreased crop yields. Low crop yield leads to famine, malnutrition, and diseases among the affected individuals. To eliminate such societal problems, farmers should be encouraged to plant genetically modified crops, which have been scientifically proven to be high-yielding. These crops can help feed the poor in countries where famine and malnutrition are severe problems. Additionally, their highly nutritious nature can help solve the problem of malnutrition.
Second, global warming has led to many environmental problems in many parts of the globe. Some of these problems include desertification and increased crop pests and diseases. Consequently, the productivity of crops has been adversely affected. Growing of genetically modified crops is capable of enhancing crop yield. This is because they are disease resistant, pest-resistant, and can tolerate extreme temperatures, salinity, and drought.
Hefferon, K. L. (2015). Nutritionally enhanced food crops; progress and perspectives. International Journal of Molecular Sciences, 16(2), 38953914.
Maghari, B. M., & Ardekani, A. M. (2011). Genetically modified foods and social concerns. Avicenna Journal of Medical Biotechnology, 3(3), 109117.
Momma, K., Hashimoto, W., Ozawa, S., Kawai, S., Katsube, T., Takaiwa, F., ... & Murata, K. (1999). Quality and safety evaluation of genetically engineered rice with soybean glycinin: analyses of the grain composition and digestibility of glycinin in transgenic rice. Bioscience, biotechnology, and biochemistry, 63(2), 314-318.
Parker, R., & Pace, M. (2016). Introduction to food science and food systems. New York, NY: Cengage Learning.
Sheaffer, C. C., & Moncada, K. M. (2012). Introduction to agronomy: food, crops, and environment. New York, NY: Cengage Learning.
Shu, Q. Y. (2012). Plant mutation breeding and biotechnology. Cambridge, MA: CABI.
Yadav, P. R. (2006). Plant Product Biotechnology. New Delhi: Discovery Publishing House.
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