By Amanda Biederman
Chief Science Correspondent
When you hear the phrase “genetic engineering,” what comes to mind?
Designer babies? Frankenfoods? Playing God? For some people, the concept seems to inspire heated debate and anger. For others, it is a technology that could save the world.
The reality is that genetic engineering, the process of inserting a gene into another an organism to induce a certain trait, could hold the key to mitigating the world’s most critical health-related issues.
By inserting genes artificially, we are essentially achieving the same end results as we would through natural breeding; the process is simply faster and more effective. Thus, over time genetic engineering employs fewer resources to produce vast amounts of food under less than ideal environmental conditions.
It is clear that our current methods are not working. Over a billion people in the world do not have access to adequate nutrients, according to a 2010 study by the World Health Organization.
For those who don’t have easy access to food, genetically modified foods are infinitely better than starving to death. By inserting various traits into cheap, easily cultivated plants, it could be possible to help members of various third world countries to consume nutrients that otherwise be impossible to obtain.
One example of the potential of genetic modification is the golden rice project, which was implemented in 2000. The rice is created by inserting several beta-carotene synthesis genes and expressing them in the edible grains. Golden rice can combat vitamin A deficiency, a serious condition that results in one to two million deaths each year, according to the WHO.
Furthermore, there is the potential to add even more nutrients and traits to these foods. If we can insert Vitamin A into rice, we can add iron or calcium as well.
So why not just ship out vitamins? Rice is a staple food in many cultures, so introducing golden rice is likely a more feasible way to get people to actually consume the nutrients. Even more importantly, golden-rice cultivation allows these countries to be self-sustainable. Essentially, it’s more efficient for everyone.
Opponents of genetically-modified foods cite studies that link them to allergies, autism and cancer. The validity of many of these studies has been called into question in the scientific community, and the risks are still up for debate. And that’s what peer review is all about.
But as of last May, the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences, the WHO, the American Medical Association, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the British Royal Society agreed that “consuming foods containing ingredients derived from GM crops is no riskier than consuming the same foods containing ingredients from crop plants modified by conventional plant improvement techniques.”
Whether you want to consume GM foods yourself is a completely personal choice. If you prefer to buy locally-grown produce from Whole Foods, go ahead. Personally, I love organic food.
But don’t try to take away this incredible technology from the people who need it the most.
If I had the choice between possibly developing allergies and starving to death, I’d take the allergies any day.