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Genetically Engineered Food and the Sustainability of Health and the Environment

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Genetically Engineered Food and the Sustainability of Health and the Environment

Jennie Brooks

COR 3145

John F. Kennedy University

Fall 2006

People hold a very intimate relationship with food, whether it be for nourishment, a peace offering, trade, part of a religious practice, to provide a sense of community, or to satisfy a personal need. Its meanings are rooted deep within and are the foundations of many cultures. There was a time when humans were very connected to the food they ate. Not only did they know its origins, but they ate what was needed for survival. They were as much a part of earth as any other animal, although they had an intelligence to understand, appreciate, and respect all of nature's offerings. During the hunting and gathering era, fruits, vegetables, grains, and other food sources were abundant in nature. Humans had not only choices between types of food, but also thousands of varieties of one species.

However, as human populations grew and more civilized societies formed, various farming techniques were created, and a vast majority of these species became extinct to make way for the harvesting of a select few (Pringle, 2003, p. 38). Over time, it appears people began perceiving nature as something to control rather than to live within harmoniously. The goal was to make their lives easier even if it was at the expense of the environment. Technology began to be the main focus of most western societies. People became more and more disconnected to their natural resources, taking for granted nature's sacrifices so they could thrive.

Although technology has resulted in many profound benefits to humanity, such as breakthroughs in health care and prolonging the human lifespan, it has not come without a price. Perhaps one of the most notable areas is agriculture. As Pringle (2003) discussed, the dawn of the Green Revolution in the 1960s was a pivotal point in the history of agriculture as it marked the transcendence from traditional to monoculture methods of farming, and led to a vast increase in crop yields. To spawn these high yields, farmers began using fertilizers and pesticides containing chemicals, such as nitrogen which was left over from the making of World War II explosives. New irrigation systems were introduced and animals began replacing some of the human labor in order to handle the large crop fields (Pringle, 2003). The institution of monoculture agriculture provided significant food relief to starving nations after the war. However, not long after, farmers experienced a rude awakening when yields started to decline due to a number of unforeseen or unaddressed consequences. Although the salvation of millions of lives was a profound result of the dawn of the Green Revolution in the 1960s, little consideration was given to its future effects on the sustainability of the environment. The lack of food plant diversity eventually led to a number of problems, such as mass destruction of crops due to disease contraction and pesticide- resistant insects, chemically saturated and overly watered soils, and inevitably a decline in production yields (Pringle, 2003).

Thus by the late 1900s, a new solution was being sought and for many scientists and people in the biotech industry, genetic engineering seemed like just the way to go. The idea was to create food plants that could grow and withstand harsh conditions, such as pesticides, infertile soil, unfavorable climates and geographical locations. This could be done by taking a gene from one completely different organism and inserting it into the plant in order to make it yield a desired outcome (Ticciati 1998). Despite reservations from skeptics, particularly environmentalists, about the unknown future effects of genetic food engineering, those who could gain profit and power from this new food technology proclaimed it to be the wave of the future. As Ticciati (1998) further indicated, in 1996 the FDA approved the use of genetically engineered foods with no label requirement and thus they were introduced on grocery market shelves with very little consumer awareness. In fact, as Hart (2002) pointed out in her suitably titled book, Eating in the Dark, a survey that took place just a couple years later revealed about two-third's of the American adult population had no idea that supermarkets were carrying such items (p. 6). GMO's (genetically modified organisms) have since become part of the staple food products in the diets of the every day consumer. This essay is meant to provide a deeper understanding for the general public of the purpose of genetically engineered foods and addresses the moral dilemma of their imposition on the sustainability of human health and the environment. Although there has been no substantial evidence indicating GMO's are directly harmful to human health, extensive research is still needed, evident by the growing number of environmental issues and ethical concerns related to this new "biotechnology'. To support this claim, this paper will examine the various viewpoints of and political stances taken on bioengineering, consider the future implications it has on human health and the environment, and question the infringement on moral integrity surrounding this controversial topic.

There's No Business like Agribusiness

The term, agribusiness, was first coined after the farming method of artificial hybrid breeding became a huge success in the mid 1900s, attracting a lot of commercial attention, which Pringle (2003) discusses in his book, Food Inc. (p. 47). He goes on to explain how scientists found that by crossing-breeding "two varieties [of a species of plant] that had been inbred, [and] fertilized by their own pollen for three or four generations...showed a tremendous leap in hybrid vigor, with grain yields up to 50 percent higher [than the natural bred variety]" (p. 45). However, the hybrids' strength did not withstand when naturally crossed in the farmers' fields and thus farmers had to rely on industry- produced seeds. Seed and fertilizer companies experienced an economic boom and businesses in this industry began sprouting up at a rapid pace, similar to that of the crops being produced. It was only a few decades later though that "the early warnings of genetic uniformity suddenly became a reality"



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