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Unexpected Consequences of GM Foods

By: Ian Murnaghan BSc (hons), MSc - Updated: 2 Sep 2012 | comments*Discuss
Gm Foods Effects Tests Health Safe

Unexpected consequences of genetically modified (GM) foods are a concern for virtually anyone – including supporters of GM foods. To minimise the chances of an unexpected consequence, strict regulations in the UK are in place to assess a GM food's potential to cause toxicity, health risks, allergies or environmental damage. However, there is no definite way to guarantee that such unexpected consequences will not occur. In this way, there is still public mistrust of GM foods and worries about the long-term consequences and effects of these crops and products.

Issues In Crossbreeding

Crossbreeding has actually been successfully used with conventional crops for a number of years. Yet, the process of genetic engineering is different than the facilitation of a more 'natural' crossbreeding. With genetic engineering, the process is far more complicated in comparison with conventional crossbreeding that tended to involve two types of the same species – or similar species.

There are grave fears about genetic engineering that involves two vastly different species because the potential for unexpected consequences is seen as a greater issue and one that has a higher likelihood. For instance, genes that are 'mixed' between animals and plants are one concern regarding GM foods. Tomatoes that have been engineered to have a longer shelf life had genes inserted from flounder.

This kind of genetic manipulation will clearly provide financial benefits but there is concern that it may trigger some kind of disease to be spread across different species. Another issue in this type of animal-plant transfer of genes relates to vegetarians and in particular, vegans. Given that these groups of people choose not to consume animal products, a gene from an animal in a plant food is a major issue, ethically speaking.

Allergies In Humans

Allergies continue to be a worrisome unexpected consequence of GM foods. Any transfer of a new kind of protein or one that has yet to be identified could cause the GM food to trigger an allergy in the person who consumes it. A new allergen may ultimately be produced and it could affect anywhere from a few people to large numbers of people who consume the GM food.

Learning About Long-term Effects

Assessing long-term effects of GM foods is one of the greatest challenges of this biotechnology. The unpredictable element of GM foods means that knowing in advance what might go wrong is difficult to assess. Criticisms of the corporations who produce these foods has also encouraged issues around long-term effects because some people believe these companies are unethical and that they essentially try to 'cover up' evidence showing negative long-term effects of the foods.

Even the issue of deciding who will be liable for unexpected consequences is a vital one to examine. Is it the company who engineered the product, the growers, the government and regulatory bodies who approved it or the supermarket for selling it? These are all important issues to investigate when the public thinks about the unexpected consequences of GM foods.

Removing Important Food Elements

Another potential unexpected effect of GM foods is that the engineering process may result in a food losing a valuable nutrient or element that could prevent disease.

While on the flip side, some foods are engineered in tests to specifically have a higher level of a nutrient – such as vitamin A in 'golden rice'– the other side of the spectrum could involve an unintended loss of an important food element. An engineer might extract a gene that causes what they consider to be an undesirable trait, but this particular trait may actually prove to have a valuable role in preventing a disease such as cancer, for example.

Choosing Good Health

We are all affected by biotechnology, not only because there are GM foods that are not labelled, but also because any risks to the environment can have a global effect over the long-term. Any unexpected consequences could put the public at risk, which is one reason that GM foods have been subject to so much debate and controversy about how safe these products are over the long-term. Not only that, but any unexpected consequences and effects may take time to show up, thus affecting future generations from our own actions as a society today.

Genes are one aspect of a very complex and detailed network – with much we still do not know about their interactions and responses to the environment. In this sense, we need a great deal more research and tests on GM foods to help prevent any unexpected consequences from occurring and harming our health and our environment.

Sorting Out The Issues

Given that labelling is not as clear and consistent as it should be from one country to another, the lack of choice for vegetarians and others who have concerns about unexpected consequences is a key problem with GM foods.

Public opinion overall seems to indicate a need for adequate labelling, which allows each person to make a decision about whether or not to support GM foods. While it is a positive step that regulations are in place to help prevent any unintended consequences from occurring, another positive step would be to ensure that labelling is done in every country.

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