Since the development of recombinant DNA technology, genetically modified (GM) food has been a hot-button topic. In the era of cut-and-paste gene engineering, it has become possible to move genes between incredibly disparate species.
The inception of this novel biotechnology came with both obvious practical uses and questions of consequence. Many have long feared that artificially modified foods will have untold side effects, and initially little was done to assuage these fears. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, 94 percent of all corn, soybeans and cotton are genetically engineered as of this year.
Exactly what does it mean to say "genetically modified," though, and should we be scared?
Mankind has been unwittingly engineering its food supply for thousands of years. When early farmers domesticated corn, the cobs were tiny. Selective breeding over a few thousand years for the biggest ears has led to what we see today.
The same is true for most of our fruits and vegetables. This should come as no shock—farmers naturally choose the most successful strains for breeding in the next generation. Modern science has given us a look into the hereditary mechanisms behind these observed changes. The source lies within the DNA.
Using process of elimination and experimental tactics, scientists can deduce which portions of the DNA are relevant for producing a particular trait. Although a feature such as size may be environmentally influenced, it can also be strongly preprogrammed by the genes.
For example, by peering into the DNA of different breeds of corn, the critical sequences that influence size can be exposed by comparison. To test for accuracy, you simply raise your corn, sequence the DNA, and ask, "Do the sizes match expectations in the DNA?" If so, the hypothesis is supported.
Using similar techniques, scientists have been able to track down genes for toxin production, growth rates, hair color, cancer susceptibility, and almost anything else you can imagine.
It should be no surprise that we would want to enhance our food through simple gene manipulation. In starving third-world nations, they care little whether their giant ears of corn originated on a field or in a lab.
Taking this one step further, we can also consider other important life-saving genes. For example, what if you could take the gene for vitamin D, and add it to crops that would not normally produce it? Not only has this been done for vitamin D, it has been done for countless others. Engineered rice has saved countless lives in both China and India.
The opposition is clearly outweighed here: GM food holds no inherent viability over its "natural" counterparts. No serious scientist expects a sudden hostile takeover by any present commercial GM food.
Some of the largest opponents of GM food have been, ironically, from the staunchest members of the green movement. That is not to say that all members are opponents, but only that a large portion of antagonism originates there. Entire crops have been burned, stock seeds dumped, and farmhouses raided. Why such fierce opposition?
Sadly, like many issues in the United States and elsewhere, a lack of education is strongly to blame. The main argument against GM food is "untold side-effects," without acknowledgement that side-effects can be a positive thing.
Not only do starving children get their food, they get their daily multi-vitamin too.
There's no denying the possibility of a mistake being made along the way, but it is morally unconscionable to deny the poorest nations the right to survive.