Mon, May 19, 2014 - Page 8 News List

Genetic engineering represents progress

By Chu Wen-shen 朱文深

The issue of genetically modified crops is a matter that has been widely discussed in the media in recent years and there is a divergence of expert opinion on offer. The result is scientifically unfounded ideas that in their turn create fear. In reality however, genetic engineering technologies are not as harmful to health as many think. On the contrary, they are an important driver of policies related to technology, living standards and food.

Genetic engineering technology is designed with good intentions, and scientifically unfounded ideas end when knowledge begins.

Some people think that genetically modified crops are unnatural products resulting from a series of scientifically generated mutations. In fact, our ancestors engaged in genetic modification, for example by creating corn through the repeated hybridization of various teosinte species. This kind of modification is largely the same as what we would today classify as genetic modification.

In addition to the genes that are affected by the characteristics of the modified crop, crossbred corn also contains both many interrelated and many non-interrelated genes. Looking at modern genetic modification technology, delicately transplanting one or several genes allows us to control the consequences of breeding or the evaluation of mutations.

From this perspective, what are described as genetically modified crops are the successful products of scientists modifying the genes of a crop using naturally existing genetic resources to make it more resistant to adverse circumstances.

In addition, some people also say that genetically modified crops are more likely to damage the environment than non-genetically modified crops. Institutions in both the UK and the US, as well as the Council of Agriculture, have evaluated changes in the gene flow in genetically modified crops and in the microorganisms in the soil where genetically modified crops have been planted and they have all found that there are no noticeable differences in the environmental impacts of genetically modified crops and of non-genetically modified crops.

Addressing the situation in Taiwan in particular, invasive plants easily become dominant species and supplant native species. This creates great environmental problems and in comparison, the impact of genetically modified crops on the environment is negligible.

The spread of misinformation has made us forget that the genetic modification of crops in fact signifies scientific progress for humanity. It can help solve food shortages and nutritional deficiencies around the world.

Take golden rice, for example — rice that has been genetically engineered to produce and accumulate beta-carotene which is then either stored in the fatty tissues of the body or converted into vitamin A. It may help solve the deficiency of vitamin A in poor children.

In addition, thanks to technological developments, it is now possible to use genetic modification to reduce allergens in crops. This, of course, is the exact opposite of the view that genetically modified crops create allergies.

In this era of the Internet, we have access to a diversity of information, but this information is fragmentary and incomplete — and sometimes plain wrong. The result of this situation is that we often forget that true information is based on scientific facts.

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