Genetic modifications of DNA have been a controversial topic since the very beginning. Learn more about such modified plants from the following article.
Genetically modified plants are those that have had their genes modified via genetic engineering. The process is commonly known as recombinant DNA technology. It is most commonly seen in food crops to enhance the quality of the food or to make the plants become more resistant. The most common genetically modified plants seen these days are soybean, corn, canola, cotton seed oil, tomatoes, cantaloupes, and wheat.
The need for such plants arose because of many reasons, the main reasons being:
- Increased resistance to pests
- Increased resistance to herbicides
- Increased resistance to diseases
- Increased resistance to harsh environmental conditions, like cold waves, heat waves, and droughts
- Improved shelf life
- Increased nutritional value.
These plants are modified in the laboratory. The enhancements of the desired traits were traditionally undertaken through breeding, but this process is very time-consuming and in many cases not very accurate. On the other hand, with the help of genetic engineering, plants with the exact desired traits could be produced with great accuracy and also very rapidly.
A simple example being, a plant geneticist could isolate the gene responsible for drought tolerance and insert the same into a different plant, which would in turn become drought resistant. Further, it is not necessary that genes of only a plant are required. Genes from other non plant organisms too could be used. The best example of this is the use of the Bt genes in corn, which is a naturally occurring bacterium and is lethal to insect larvae. The genetically modified corns now produce their own pesticides against insects such as the corn borer.
The genetically modified plants are grown on open fields, often beside the conventional, organic plants. Therefore, there is always a perception that there could be many associated environmental risks. As a result, many countries mandate bio-safety studies before approving the plantation of a new genetically modified plant. This is normally followed by a monitoring program to monitor and detect any environmental impacts.
In Europe, there is a huge concern regarding the coexistence of genetically modified plants and conventional crops. There is also a separate legislation for the former, and also a high demand from consumers that they should have the freedom to choose between them both. As a result, many measures have been put in place to ensure that the food obtained is identified and kept separately.
Thirteen countries have been growing genetically modified food crops from 2000. As per the FDA and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) there are nearly 40 plants that have met all federal requirements for commercial utilization. The increase in popularity can be estimated from the fact that, between 1995 and 2005, the total surface area of the land cultivated increased by a factor of 50 from about 4 million acres to 220 million acres, of which more than 50% is in United States itself.
Brazil was the country that increased its area of cultivation area of modified soybeans nearly 2 times from 50,000 square kilometers in 2004 to 94,000 square kilometers in 2005. In India, cotton is a major source of vegetable cooking oil and animal feed, as a result India has witnessed rapid and continuing expansion of genetically modified cotton varieties, since 2002. It has been estimated that in the year 2007, such cotton varieties were harvested on nearly 30,000 square kilometers of land, which is more than 100% from the previous season.
It has been estimated by the Grocery Manufacturers of America that nearly 75% of all processed food in the United States contains a genetically modified ingredient. These modified ingredients have been introduced with the aim of having direct financial benefits to the producers, indirect environmental benefits, and a marginal cost benefit to the consumer.
Currently, consumers in many parts of the world including Europe, Japan, and Australia demand some form of identification, so that they can choose between foods that have been genetically modified and the organic food that has been produced conventionally.