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Plant Disease and the Link to GM Foods

By: Ian Murnaghan BSc (hons), MSc - Updated: 30 Aug 2012 | comments*Discuss
Plants Disease Gm Foods Environment

The link between genetically modified (GM) foods and plant disease is a complicated one in that GM foods can be engineered to prevent plant disease but the potential also exists to trigger disease as well. It is this complex interaction that has led to some of the controversy around GM foods and their potential for use long-term. Damage to the ecosystem and issues relating to plant health are all important to investigate, particularly given any consequences to our food supply and quality.

Unintended Consequences Of Plant Disease

If you think about the time prior to the biotechnology field's rapid growth, living organisms were able to evolve quite slowly in response to changing environmental and similar conditions. With the advent of biotechnology, however, suddenly entire organisms were manipulated to have new genes virtually as an overnight process.

The consequences of these kinds of manipulations are still coming to light even today and there remains much we do not know about genetic modification. Whether the consequences are to the host organism itself or to surrounding plants and crops, there is still a lot to learn about genetic engineering. The speed at which the field has advanced means that questions have been raised about potential negative effects on plant health and the ability for genetic engineering techniques to directly or indirectly result in plant disease.

The very fact that a researcher can essentially take a gene from any organism and put it into another organism paves the way for unexpected consequences, which could lead to new diseases in plants and humans. Not only are researchers worried about plant disease, but they also worry that plants could indirectly cause disease in other organisms who feed on the plants.

Preventing Plant Disease By Using GM Techniques

Plants can be plagued by pests, which lead to disease and poor crop quality. GM techniques can actually minimise the effects of pests. By inserting a gene into plants that makes the plant resistant to insect attacks, the plant can continue to thrive. Alternately, other genes can make a plant resistant to herbicides, which allows farmers to eliminate weeds that kill the plants without harming the plant itself.

The use of GM plants that are resistant to disease and pests is touted to have significantly reduced pesticide and herbicide use, thus benefiting the environment and human health. With pests and plant disease causing huge crop losses in some areas, GM foods are thought to be a beneficial way to reduce plant disease and improve crop quality.

Balancing The Risks Of GM Techniques And Plant Disease

Ultimately, technology is virtually never a risk-free thing and it is to be expected that there will be concerns and safety issues relating to human health, plant health and the environment. The goal is to minimise these risks and protect plants from disease without creating new plant diseases in the process. To accomplish this task, extensive testing needs to be done on a GM plant prior to its approval for production. In this way, we can encourage progress in the biotechnology field without compromising plant and human health in the process.

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