Potential Risks Posed by Genetically Modified Crops

Transgenic Foods (genetically Modified Crop)

The objective of this work is to write the ethical issue, history, whole process, application, advantage or risk in regards to transgenic food or GM crops in a historical, factual or argumentative paper.

Transgenic crops or plants are those containing genes which have been inserted artificially rather than through pollination. The inserted gene sequence is known as the transgene often comes from another plan that is completely unrelated or even from a difference species. One example of this is Tb corn, “which produces its own insecticide, contains a gene from a bacterium.” (Department of Soil and Crop Sciences, Colorado State University 1999-2004) Plants that contain transgenes are referred to as “genetically modified or GM crops.” (Department of Soil and Crop Science, Colorado State University, 1999-2004)

Genetically Modified Crops Controversy

There is a controversy surrounding the use of genetically modified crops and specifically those which are human food resources. The work of Melton and Rissler entitled: “Environmental Effects of Genetically Modified Food Crops: Recent Experiences” reports that thus far, “more than 40 genetically modified crops are currently allowed in commerce in the United States.” (Melton and Rissler, 2009) There are two traits that have been engineered into four commodity crops. The two traits are stated to be those of: (1) herbicide tolerance (HT); and (2) insect resistance (Bt). (Melton and Rissler, 2009) The four crops are those of: (1) corn; (2) cotton; (3) soybeans; and (4) canola. (Melton and Rissler, 2009) The most popular crops are those of Monsanto however, these crops are also marketed by DuPont/Pioneer; (2) Syngenta; and (3) Dow/Mycogen. (Melton and Rissler, 2009) The HT and Bt crops are reported to be popular among U.S. farmers and to have been widely adopted by farmers in the United States. (Melton and Rissler, 2009, paraphrased)

II. Six Potential Risks Posed by Genetically Modified Crops

It is reported that genetically modified crops pose six types of potential risk. Those risks are stated to include the following: (1) the engineered crops themselves could become weeds; (2) the crops might serve as conduits through which new genes move to wild plants, which could then become weeds; (3) crops engineered to produce viruses could facilitate the creation of new, more virulent of more widely spread viruses; (4) Plants engineered to express potentially toxic substances could present risks to other organisms like birds or deer; (5) Crops may initiative a perturbation that may have effects that ripple through an ecosystem in ways that are difficult to present; and (6) the crops might threaten centers of crop diversity. (Melton and Rissler, 2009)

III. Genetically Modified Crops and the Monarch Butterfly

It was reported in the spring of 2000 that Bt corn was killing the larvae of monarch butterflies in studies conducted in laboratories and due to the study being published making the public aware of this risk the government undertook testing and studies to determine whether Bt corn was indeed lethal to monarch butterflies. The study concluded that just one of the Bt corn varieties, of which there are seven which have been approved for planting and use in the U.S. “produced high enough levels of Bt toxin in pollen to be lethal to butterfly larvae.” (Melton and Rissler, 2009)

IV. Genetically Modified Crops and Human Health

It is reported that there have thus far being no major human health problems reported in connection with genetically modified food crops and that these have been “consumed by significant numbers of U.S. consumers.” (Melton and Rissler, 2009) However, since genetically modified foods are not labeled as such individuals that suffered ill effects from genetically modified crops would experience a great deal of difficulty linking these ills to having consumed engineered products.

V. Potential Problems Identified

It is reported that there have been several potential problems identified as presently resulting from engineered food crops including those as follows: (1) possibility of introducing new toxins or allergens into previously safe foods; (2) increasing toxins to dangerous levels in foods that typically produce harmless amounts; or (3) diminishing a food’s nutritional value. (Melton and Rissler, 2009) Stated as the primary concern is that of new allergens. It is reported that a paper published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) in 1996 “confirmed predictions that genetic engineering could transfer an allergen from a known allergenic food to another food.” (Melton and Rissler, 2009) It is additionally reported that scientists at Pioneer Hi-Bred seed company were successful in transferring a gene from Brazil nut into soybean for the purpose of improving the nutritional quality of the crop and that subsequent experiments demonstrated that “people allergic to Brazil nuts were similarly allergic to the transgenic soybean.” (Melton and Rissler, 2009)

VI. Economic Impact of Genetically Modified Foods in Developing Countries

The work of Raney (2006) reports a review that has as its objective the identification of the factors that influence the level and distribution of the economic value created by transgenic crops in developing countries.” The most basic requirement for adopt of the use of transgenic crop cultivars by farmers is their availability. Institutional factors affecting adoption of transgenic crops include such as: (1) national research capacity; (2) intellectual property rights; (3) environmental and food safety regulatory capacity; (4) trade regulations; and (5) the existence of functioning input markets. (Raney, 2006) Raney’s work find that evidence indicates that farmers in developing countries “can benefit from transgenic crops, but a fairly high level of national institutional capacity is required to ensure that farmers have access to suitable innovations on competitive terms.” (Raney, 2006)

VII. Report of Independent Science Panel (2003)

It was reported by an Independent Science Panel in 2003 that GM crops have “failed to deliver promised benefits” and specifically that findings are consistent since 1999 that GM crops “have cost the United States an estimated $112 billion in farm subsidies, lost sales and product recalls due to transgenic contamination.” Furthermore, GM crops are reported due to the instability of transgenic lines to be posing escalating problems for farmers. It is reported that triple herbicide tolerant oilseed rape volunteers that have combined transgenic and non-transgenic traits are now widespread in Canada. Similar multiple herbicide-tolerant volunteers and weeds have emerged in the United States. In the United States, glyphosate-tolerant weeds are plaguing GM cotton and soya fields, and atrazine, one of the most toxic herbicides, has had to be used with glufosinate-tolerant GM maize.” (Independent Science Panel, 2003)

It is additionally reported that extensive transgenic contamination is unavoidable since this contamination has occurred “in maize landraces growing in remote regions in Mexico” and this is reported to be despite that fact that “an official moratorium that has been in place since 1998.” (Independent Science Panel, 2003) Testing in Canada of certified seed stocks found that 32 of the 33 were contaminated.

The Independent Science Panel additionally reports that GM crops have contrary to claims otherwise, not been proven to be safe and that the regulatory framework is flawed and has been from the very beginning in that it is based “on an anti-precautionary approach designed to expedite produce approval at the expense of safety considerations. (paraphrased, 2003)

There have not been but only a few studies that are credible on the safety of GM food however, the findings that are available are stated to be a cause for concern. The only systematic investigation carried out on GM food states that “growth factor-like’ effects were found in the stomach and small intestine of young rats that were not fully accounted for by the transgene product, and were hence attributable to the transgenic process or the transgenic construct, and may hence be general to all GM food. There have been at least two other, more limited, studies that also raised serious safety concerns.” (Independent Science Panel, 2003) In addition, food crops are used to produce pharmaceutical and drugs which is inclusive of cytokines which are immune system suppressors, and which induce sickness and produce toxicity for the central nervous system. Interferon alpha is known to cause dementia, neurotoxicity and mood and cognitive side effects.

It is reported that crops that are engineered with ‘suicide’ genes or that cause male sterility have been supporting as a means of, i.e. preventing, the spread of transgenes. In reality, the hybrid crops sold to farmers spread both male sterile suicide genes as well herbicide tolerance genes via pollen. (Independent Science Panel, 2003) In addition the following additional negative effects have been noted linked to genetically modified food products and crops: (1) Broad-spectrum herbicides highly toxic to humans and other species; (2) Genetic engineering creates super-viruses; (3) Transgenic DNA in food taken up by bacteria in human gut; (4) Transgenic DNA and Cancer; (5) CaMV 35S promoter increases horizontal gene transfer; (Independent Science Panel, 2003) It is reported that there is a history of failure to properly represent and report scientific evidence. This is due to lack of study to report or the reporting of studies that are inaccurate. Sustainable agriculture is reported to have been adopted by 8.98 million farmers. It is reported that in a review of sustainable agriculture projects findings show that “average food production per household increased by 1.71 tons per year (up 73%) for 4.42 million farmers on 3.58 million hectares, bringing food security and health benefits to local communities. Increasing agricultural productivity has been shown to also increase food supplies and raise incomes, thereby reducing poverty, increasing access to food, reducing malnutrition and improving health and livelihoods.” (Independent Science Panel, 2003) Sustainable agriculture results in low-cost and readily available food resources being gained by consumers since organic food is safer. Specifically it is reported that: “Sustainable agricultural approaches draw extensively on traditional and indigenous knowledge, and place emphasis on the farmers’ experience and innovation. This thereby utilizes appropriate, low-cost and readily available local resources as well as improves farmers’ status and autonomy, enhancing social and cultural relations within local communities.” (Independent Science Panel, 2003)

VIII. Controversy Surrounding Transgenic Crops

The work of Schahczenski and Adam (2006) states that there has been “great controversy among government agencies, business consortia, researchers, and certain nonprofit organizations” concerning the “capacity to produce transgenic crops.” In 2001 it is related that the Experiment Station Committee on Organization and Policy (ESCOP) and the Extension Committee on Organization and Policy (ECOP) published a report on issues that are considered critical in agricultural biotechnology and responses that are recommended including education of the public and a land-grant research project on transgenic crops. There is reported to be no uniform definition that is widely accepted for biotechnology specific to transgenic crops. It is further stated that the current methods used in gene transfer “are not precise” since scientists can control “with relative exactness the ‘trait gene’ to be inserted into a host plant genome, they cannot entirely control its location, nor the number of copies that get inserted.” (Schahczenski and Adam, 2006)

The work of Ervin, et al. (2000) report that the potential benefits of planting insect-resistant transgenic crops includes “decreased insecticide use and reduced crop damage.” However, it is reported that there is the problem of the insect’s ability to rapidly adapt to pressures of the environment and this includes” adaptation to pest protection mechanisms…” (Ervin, et al., 2000) While transgenic crop technologies are stated to have the potential “to enhance yields, it is reported by Ruttan (1999) that “higher levels of public support for basic research in functional genomics and other areas will be necessary to achieve significant yield increases.” (cited in: Ervin, et al., 2000)

IX. Benefits of Transgenic Crops

The World Food Program is stated to have reported that the number of individuals who suffer from malnutrition increased by 25 million from 815 to 840 million. It is stated that the most compelling case for biotechnology is the capacity to:

(1) increase crop productivity and contribute to global food, feed and fiber security;

(2) conserve biodiversity;

(3) more efficient use of external inputs for a more sustainable agriculture and environment;

(4) increase stability of production to lessen suffering during famines due to abiotic and biotic stresses; and (5) improvement of economic and social benefits and the alleviation of abject poverty in developing countries. (James, 2003)

It was reported October 19, 2007 that there is a new technique that speeds up transgenic crop design which has been developed by scientists and which involves a new method of construction of artificial plant chromosomes “from small rings of naturally occurring plant DNA which can be used to transport multiple genes at once into embryonic plants where they are expressed, duplicated as plant cells divide and are passed on to the next generation — a long-term goal for those interested in improving agricultural productivity.” (Biopact, 2007)

According to Daphen Preuss, PhD professor of molecular genetics and cell biology at the University of Chicago the technique has applications that will serve energy crop and biofuel production. Specifically Preuss states:

“This appears be the tool that agricultural scientists, and farmers, have long dreamed of. This technology could be used to increase the hardiness, yield and nutritional content of crops. It could improve the production of ethanol or other biofuels. It could enable plants to make complex biochemicals, such as medicines, at very little expense.

Summary and Conclusion

While genetically modified crops have not been proven to be safe and since these crops are creating an entirely new approach to food source stability and endurance when battling insects and other environmental challenges to crop growth. There is much more needed in the way of research in this area of study. Transgenic crops are known to cause effects to other natural crops however, the complete understanding of this phenomenon is as of yet studied in depth.

This study has noted that sustainable agriculture is recommended as an alternative method. Sustainable agriculture is characterized by the lack of harmful agents known to be present in transgenic crop farming. Finally, there is a great deal of research yet to conduct in regards to environmental warming and climate change.


What Are Transgenic Plants? (2010) Transgenic Crops: An Introduction and Resource Guide.

Department of Soil and Crop Sciences, Colorado State University 1999-2004. Online available at’ http://www.cls.casa.colostate.edu/TransgenicCrops/what.html

Melton, Margaret and Rissler, Jane (2009) Environmental Effects of Genetically Modified Food Crops — Recent Experiences. Union of Concerned Scientists: Food and Agriculture. Online available at: http://www.ucsusa.org/food_and_agriculture/science_and_impacts/impacts_genetic_engineering/environmental-effects-of.html

Raney, Terri ( 2006) Economic Impact of Transgenic Crops in Developing Countries. Opinion in Biotechnology 2006, 17:1-5. Online available at: http://www.agbioworld.org/pdf/raney.pdf

Why Genetically Modified Crops Can Devastate Health (2003) Independent Science Panel Report June 15, 2003

Scahdzenski, Jeff and Adam, Katherine (2006) Transgenic Crops. ATTRA. Online available at: http://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/PDF/geneticeng.pdf

Ervin, David E. et al. (2000) Transgenic Crops: An Environmental Assessment. Henry Wallace Center for Agricultural and Environmental Policy at Winrock International. 2000 Nov. Online available at: http://www.winrock.org/wallace/wallacecenter/documents/transgenic.pdf

Ruttan, V.W. (1999) Biotechnology and Agriculture: A Skeptical Perspective. AgBioForum 2(1): 54-60. University of Missouri; Illinois-Missouri Biotechnology alliance, Columbia, Missouri. Available online at: http://www.agbioforum.org/archives.htm.

James, Clive (2003) Global Status of Commercialized Transgenic Crops: 2003. International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications. http://www.isaaa.org/kc/CBTNews/press_release/briefs30/es_b30.pdf

Carlson SR, Rudgers GW, Zieler H, Mach JM, Luo S, Eric Grunden, Cheryl Krol, Gregory P. Copenhaver, Daphne Preusset, “Meiotic Transmission of an In Vitro — Assembled Autonomous Maize Minichromosome,” PLoS Genetics, Vol. 3, No. 10, e179 doi:10.1371/journal.pgen.0030179

New Technique Speeds up Transgenic Crop Design — Applications in Bioenergy (2007) Biopact. 19 Oct 2007. Online available at: http://news.mongabay.com/bioenergy/2007/10/new-technique-revolutionizes-transgenic.html

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