What is one benefit of genetically modified foods?

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kateanswers eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Though genetic modification has been a subject of heated debate for some time, almost every food humans eat has been genetically modified in some way. By the time humans began practicing agriculture around 12,000 years ago, genetic modification was already well under way. When our ancestors were foraging for foods, they chose those which looked best to them. After processing these foods, seeds were discarded and might germinate for the next year. Lucky them--a new, preferable specimen of their food would be growing right near their living space! In this way, humans initially did not deliberately make changes to their foodstuffs. When we caught on to what we were doing, agriculture really took off. Wheat kernels became fatter and more nutritious, cows were made more docile, and plants like the apple began their journey towards becoming the sweet, shiny fruits we know today.

All agricultural crops are genetically modified in the sense that humans have deliberately chosen what kind of traits they wanted to be expressed in the food they were growing. The same is true for all domesticated species of animals. Unless you regularly forage for wild plants and hunt wild animals, all of the food you eat is technically genetically modified. The benefit here is that our deliberate modifications of foods make them easier for us to grow and more pleasurable to eat! For the plants, there is the benefit of getting to pass on their genes to a new generation.

The subject of genetic modification has certainly taken on deeper difficulties and implications as technology has advanced to the point where we may now make genome-level changes to foods. Several years ago, the company Monsanto released a bio-engineered (not just genetically modified) potato called the NewLeaf. These potatoes have been given a gene which produces a toxin in the leaves and tubers that helps to repel and kill beetles which might be interested in munching on the potato plant. This sounds great for farmers because a naturally pesticidal potato means having to spray less pesticide on the plants themselves. However, many consumers and farmers alike are wary of using such a genetically modified crop. Some things to consider with the NewLeaf and other genetically modified foods are what the long-term effects on consumers will be and any potential disruption to the ecosystem. While the NewLeaf potatoes kill off any hungry beetles, this could be putting a dent in a food source for the creatures which typically eat those beetles. We should also consider what might happen to the animals which do eat the beetles, and what will happen to people who eat these pesticidal potatoes. 

Genetic modification of food, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. However, as we continue emerging into a new age of agricultural engineering, we should think carefully and critically about the foods that are coming into existence.