GMO and Health Risks

For many people, reading the words “GMO-free” on a food label at the grocery store brings a positive sentiment. In fact, around 39% of Americans reported in a 2016 Pew Research survey reported that they believed GMOs–organisms whose genes have been molecularly altered in favor of specific traits–are worse for one’s health. Resistance or apathy toward GMOs is common in developed Western countries, but these foods have the potential to change the lives of people not as fortunate as their well-fed, wealthy counterparts.

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According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 90% out of the estimated 2050 global population of 6 billion people will live in developed nations, which leaves farmers needing to grow 70 percent more food within the next thirty years. Biofortification through genetic engineering addresses this issue by improving the practicality and nutritional value of foods.

There have been a number of biotechnology initiatives worldwide to combat hunger and agricultural crises, including _______. In Nigeria, a project to supply farmers with a type of rice crop genetically-engineered to contain high levels of vitamin A was introduced in _____ by _______. Three genes from corn and bacterium are inserted into the cells of the rice grain, and the resultant product is light yellow, hence the name “golden rice”. Considering the socio-scientific, economic, and environmental implications, the Nigerian government should subsidize the growing of “golden rice”. _____(Road Map)________. However, opponents argue that the crop goes against valuable traditions and that such direct “tampering” with nature is unethical. Especially in an era in which rapid modernization and the effort to hold on to traditions often clash, the controversy over the consequences of genetically-modified organisms such as golden rice has _____ limited its use.

Addressing the Health and Safety Concerns of Genetically-Engineered Rice

The Nigerian famine has intensified over recent years due to the rising cost of food, ongoing violence, and decrease in aid from international organizations. Currently, up to 5.2 million people are in need of food aid, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council, a humanitarian NGO established after the Second World War. Cheick Ba, director of the NRC explains the situation, “Armed conflict and violence are driving this food crisis, and innocent families are bearing the brunt.” The UN World Food Programme has made a tremendous difference in assisting these innocent civilians, but Ba alludes that Nigeria should not be solely reliant on donations, explaining that “providing people with food is only a short term solution.” Likewise, in times of political or economic struggle, funding from private relief organizations is cut at the expense of desperate citizens. In July of 2017, the WFP was unable to provide emergency food assistance for 400,000 people due to a lack of funding, which highlights the urgent demand for a more sustainable solution. Nutritionally supplemented crops such as golden rice are one strategy for addressing dire hunger and malnutrition problems such as this.

Golden rice is essential in helping to eliminate vitamin A deficiency (VAD) in Nigeria, one of the most significant health consequences of the country’s famine. Thirty percent of children in the world suffer from VAD, which is the leading cause of blindness. Compared to the 62,492 blind people in the United States, at least 1.5 million Nigerian children are blind, according to the American Foundation for the Blind and the Overseas Disability Charity. In addition to vision, Vitamin A is important to the immune system, cell growth, bone strength, reproduction, and adult gene regulation. Russel Reinke is a rice bioscientist at the International Rice Research Institute, an international research center that has been awarded the Third World Prize, John Scott Medal, Krishi Ratna Award, and US Presidential End Hunger Award, among others. He remarks,“Daily consumption of a very modest amount of Golden Rice—about a cup—could supply 50 percent of the recommended daily allowance of vitamin A for an adult.” The widespread adoption of farming golden rice would reduce the number of deaths of Nigerian children under five, currently at 1,049,000 annually.

Despite public concern, genetically modified ingredients such as golden rice are proven to be safe for consumption. People like David Schubert, who say that “there is no credible evidence that GMO foods are safe to eat,” are simply misinformed: Major food safety organizations including the World Health Organization, American Medical Association, U.S. National Academy of Sciences, and British Royal Society have pronounced that GM crops are as safe to eat as foods not genetically-engineered. Furthermore, regulators put GMOs through extremely thorough safety procedures, as is typical with new technology. Some scientists even argue that such rigorous, expensive, and time-consuming testing is not necessary, since the risk of harm is so low and that it may deny nutrition from the poor and hungry. ________ says, “In the national perspective, we are looking for options to become more food secure, not to have to go through such a crisis again”, implying that food availability may be more of a real concern than food safety. Finally, the remaining risk of dangerous substances (if any) is eliminated at the last step since rice is cooked at high temperatures.

What sometimes is the underlying cause of hesitation to support subsidition of golden rice is an instinctive discomfort to the idea of “tinkering” with nature. People often feel that going into a laboratory and altering the DNA of plants is unethical. However, Pamela Robertson, _________, explains that “the whole model just misunderstands how nature is. Nature is a much more chaotic interplay of genetic changes that have been happening all the time anyway.” In her TED talk at ______, she explains that genetic modification evolves from past methods of genetic techniques, including hybridization, mutagenesis, and cell selection, some of which could be even more questionable than genetic modification, if judged by the same standards.

Economic Value of Golden Rice

Farmers will see economic benefits since golden rice crops will produce higher yields at a lower cost. Four years ago, the International Rice Research Institute found that the 2014 version of golden rice resulted a lower yield than un-enhanced rice.To address this issue, the IRRI immediately modified their programs, and field trials from October 2014 to July 2017 demonstrated that the new programs had succeeded in producing a GR2E variety that did not negatively affect the output. The new seeds with the GR2E trait will be available to farmers by 2020. With higher yield and economic return, farmers will also be able to more easily provide affordable golden rice for the impoverished.

The cost for the Nigerian government to subsidize farmers to grow Golden Rice is no reason to delay the project. While non-profit organizations have experienced a lack of funding, many corporations have pledged to assist farmers in need. In one case, the major company Syngenta has promised to supply free seeds to farmers who make less than $10,000 per year, which is about 99% of the targeted, local Nigerian farmers. The Rockefeller Foundation and European Union have also been funding the manufacture and distribution of golden rice seeds. As shown, external support will alleviate much of the costs of subsidition. As well as costing very little for both the government and farmers to purchase, Golden Rice does not need to be reinvested in because the seeds can be re-harvested and planted the following year.

The cost-effectiveness of golden rice subsidition is emphasized by the fact that it is far cheaper than past methods of vitamin supplementation. Continuous funding is required to pay for the mass distribution of vitamin A capsules, while the cost of biofortification is much less since it is a one-time investment. The International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, DC reported that each year around 500 million containers of vitamin A are distributed at a cost of 1 dollar each, which totals to five billion US dollars in ten years. Even considering the expensive safety testing described in section 1, genetic modification is far less expensive than current supplementation practises. In fact, research concluded by the Golden Rice Project states that biofortification of rice costs four million USD over 10 years. Safety regulation does raise the price to sixteen to twenty-four million per ten years, but this number is still only one percent of the cost of traditional vitamin A supplementation.

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