Biotechnological foods: what they are and what health risks

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Joe Dispenza

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Most of the foods we bring to the table are the result of human intervention: many fall into the category of GMOs while many others are not classified as GMOs despite having undergone changes in their characteristics. So what are GMOs? How are they produced? Are they risky for health and the environment?


Biotechnological or GMO foods: why we intervene on plants

Feeding all the inhabitants of the planet is a difficult task, especially if you want to conserve the soil and preserve the natural areas that have not yet been exploited for agriculture. 

To guarantee the livelihood of the population, it has always been in the agri-food sector the problem of preserving crops against parasites and climatic conditions that are not always favorable; increasing yields means on the one hand a greater profit on the part of the food industry but on the other it also means less land consumption and greater availability of food.

Many foods that we bring to the table every day they are the result of selections and modifications by nature and man. The varieties of cereals, fruit and vegetables that are now part of our diet are in fact the result of crosses that took place within the environment and in the laboratories, and of changes in plant DNA: human intervention on nature has made it possible to obtain otherwise inedible fruits, plants resistant to diseases that would have compromised crops, species more easily cultivated or more suitable for human nutrition.


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Biotechnological or GMO foods: what they are and how they are obtained

Wheat, rice, apples are some examples of foods that are part of our daily diet and that derive from numerous crossings; once these crossings took place precisely by crossing different species or varieties of species with each other, in order to obtain a hybrid more resistant to a parasite or with characteristics more suitable for cultivation.

The disadvantages of such crossings consist in the unpredictability of the result. In fact, by crossing different species or varieties, it is introduced into the new plant the desired gene but also many other genes. The procedure, not being selective, can be expensive in terms of time and money and the result can be unpredictable. From the point of view of the result, genetic engineering is very effective, since it allows to control the changes to the DNA in a targeted and rational way, reducing time and costs. 

Although the development of such technologies could lead to produce plants that offer higher yields reducing the use of herbicides and pesticides that are harmful to the environment and health, or plants that are better from a nutritional point of view, more resistant to stress or capable of defending themselves from contaminants, such as heavy metals, public opinion does not look favorably on GMOs and tends to see these practices as "unnatural", considering them risky for the environment and health and little or no ethical.

According to the European Directive, a genetically modified organism it is an organism whose DNA has been modified differently from what occurs in nature, through natural genetic reproduction or recombination. GMOs are obtained by inserting a gene in the DNA sequence of the plant: the gene can derive from varieties of plants of the same species, from plants of different species or from the DNA of microorganisms.

DNA changes however, they do not occur only through the transfer of genes: DNA mutations occur spontaneously in nature and in gene improvement programs the frequency with which these mutations occur is amplified using radiation or mutagenic chemicals. The mutations are then selected and, the advantageous ones, are kept: an example of human-induced mutation concerns the Croesus wheat, obtained in the 70s precisely by irradiation. These foods are not classified as GMOs despite having undergone changes in their DNA.


What are the health risks?

The production of GMOs could present risks to the environment and health; however, this also applies to hybrids selected by man or to varieties obtained through irradiation. In fact, the genes introduced into the plant could be transferred to other plants through pollination; there could be an uncontrolled growth of a population of resistant plants, or toxic or allergen-containing species may develop for other living beings, including man.

These risks also concern species that continually arise from hybridizations that occur in nature but the introduction into the environment of naturally unselected genes can have long-term effects on the environment and on the health of other living species that it is difficult to predict.


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