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Arguments: in Context

Take a look at the following argument about genetic modification of the food supply written for an English 1A class. It is a bit long, but it is well constructed. The author, Tracy Gonzales, establishes a claim in the opening paragraph, then refutes opposing arguments and presents plenty of evidence to support her argument that we must be extremely cautious, more than we are, if we want to keep the food supply safe.  The essay is a good model for students learning to write arguments.

"A Cautious Approach to Genetic Modification of Foods," by Tracy Gonzales

Advances in science and, specifically, genetic engineering are proceeding at an amazingly fast pace. There are stories in the media seemingly every day about biotechnology developments from growing pest resistant corn to growing new human teeth. In the area of genetically modified (GM) plant technology, some of these developments are creating concern and controversy. Historically intentional plant modification has been laborious and not very accurate, but has been used for years to breed plants that were bigger and better - to breed out undesirable traits and breed in better ones. Now that the science of genetic modification is so advanced, plants can be modified by direct manipulation of genes. It is faster, more accurate, and advances are incredible and maybe a little disconcerting. Proponents of GMO (genetically modified organisms) technology tout the developments as potential cures for world hunger, agricultural pollution, and pest control problems. Opponents raise concerns over possible effects on health and the environment. Religious groups express outrage over tampering with nature – in effect “playing God”. Considering all the arguments, it can be deduced that there are no quick fixes to the world’s agricultural and ecological concerns. The science of genetic engineering needs to be handled with caution, and all possible hazards considered and addressed. The genetic modification of foods in particular needs to be approached not as a panacea for all the current agricultural and nutritional needs, but as part of a holistic approach to managing the planet’s food supply.

GMO proponents claim that farmers will be the biggest winners when it comes to the newest seeds and plants being developed. Yields will increase and costs will decrease. But, there are other agricultural techniques that are being used today successfully without using GM products. Organic and ecologically minded farmers are using holistic approaches to food production (Clark). They take into consideration all of the ecological elements of their location and use crop rotation and land-use rotation (rotation between crops and animals) to replenish soil. Input - meaning introduction of aids like fertilizers and pest control - is natural instead of chemical, especially in organic farming. Studies have shown that although there are claims that this type of farming produces lesser yields, it is usually due to factors that affect “traditional” farming (commonly used to refer to large-scale farming using chemicals and technology) as well, and which will produce concurrent smaller yields within those other agricultural techniques. A good example of alternative farming methods is Cuba (Rosset). Since a tightened trade embargo forced them to “turn inward”, they have created a self-reliant agricultural system based on smaller farms, higher prices for goods, local production, environmentally friendly inputs, and bio-diversity, all of which has been successful without GM involvement. Before we accept the solutions to agricultural issues that GM puts forward, these other techniques should be studied on an equal basis.

Proponents of GMO’s also claim that the technology of plant modification is necessary to feed the world’s growing population. The claims are that genetic engineering will create crops that are nutritionally advanced, less expensive, more tolerant to adverse conditions, and more abundant. But, historically, it has not been lack of available food that causes starvation, but instead poor distribution of available food and poverty. According to E.Ann Clark, a professor at the University of Guelph in Canada, “we [the US and Canada] already produce vastly more food than we could possibly need ourselves”. She goes on to say that developing countries do not have the funds to pay for this excess food, and so continue being undernourished. Much has been made of the Rockefeller foundation and its development of nutritionally advanced rice and subsequent offering of that product to impoverished countries at reduced cost. This appears to be a step in the right direction, and more approaches could be made to provide surplus food to the impoverished whether or not the food is genetically modified. Humanitarian efforts are key here, instead of technology.

Of course money plays a huge part in all of this technology. Opponents claim that the biotechnology companies producing the GMO’s are the ones who will reap all the monetary benefits. There are concerns that seed companies are manipulating genes to force farmers to buy new seeds each year and use only certain pesticides and herbicides, all to corner their share of the market. According to Professor Clark academic funding has been going more to biotechnology than other agricultural research, and that this funding is unfortunately tied to commercial interests. Money and big-business cannot be what determines the welfare of our food sources. Studies in all the various techniques of agriculture and nutrition need to fairly funded so that our bio-diversity and ecology is preserved.

Arguments abound about the potential dangers of biotechnology’s tampering with nature. Concerns include cross-contamination through pollen exchanges, the development of super-weeds, threats to animal life, and reduced effectiveness of pesticides. Already there are questions about how genes that are lethal to certain insects will affect other animal life in the same eco-system, and modified plants that could, in effect, take over all the plant life in the surrounding area. Concerning human consumption of modified foods, there are concerns over allergenicity, and unknown effects on human health that are unforeseeable. These concerns are argued back and forth, studies are done, claims are proved and disproved, and evidence is unclear. What is clear is that the genetic modification of plants and foods needs to undergo the same type of testing that bio-engineered pharmaceuticals undergo to determine safety and long-term effects. Who will do this testing? Editor and author Deborah B. Whitman attended an FDA meeting in Washington D.C. in November 1999 that was held in response to the public’s concerns over GM products, and her deduction from the information presented is that current jurisdiction over regulating GM foods, at least in the United States, is “confused”. The jurisdiction is shared between the EPA, the USDA and the FDA. none of which has specific jurisdiction over “genetically modified food”. According to Whitman the EPA “evaluates GM plants for environmental safety, the USDA evaluates whether the plant is safe to grow, and the FDA evaluates whether the plant is safe to eat”. Logically, GM foods themselves would seem to fall under the FDA’s umbrella, but their jurisdiction is over pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and food products and additives. Whole foods, which, for example, B.t. corn would be considered, are not included under their regulation. In order to determine the safety and long term effects of GMO’s someone needs to take responsibility, and it would seem logical that the FDA, EPA, and USDA guidelines need to change as this technology changes, so that someone takes responsibility for the plants and foods being produced, and GMO’s undergo the testing, and subsequent labeling required.

In the end consumers will be the deciding factor in how accepted GMO’s become in the marketplace. It has already been made clear, especially in Europe, that there is nervousness and a general unwillingness to trust the claims about GM safety, and as a result there is very little market for food products containing genetically modified ingredients. Heinz and Gerber have responded to pressure and have removed all GMO’s from their baby foods. There have been incidents of crop burnings and demonstration in protest of crop modification. Much of this hysteria is likely due to people being uninformed. The field of genetic engineering needs to develop the practice of being forthcoming about their work – to disseminate information about what they are doing so people will be more informed and educated. The more people are informed, the less hysteria there will be. But, ultimately people have the right to decide what they put in their own bodies, and alternatives to GM food will always need to be available.

Economically and ecologically proponents are claiming that GMO’s will be nothing but good for the planet. Farmers will benefit from increased yields and decreased expenditures on input. Plants modified to grow in adverse conditions will flourish. Ecology will benefit from reduced pollution. Impoverished countries will benefit from increased supply and advanced nutrition, and from availability of vaccines and pharmaceuticals incorporated into crops that are easy to administer and store. Pharmaceuticals and industry have benefited from GM technology already. Opponents protesting genetic engineering neglect to acknowledge some of those benefits already in use such as insulin, and bacteria that eat oil-spills. There are many who would argue in favor of eliminating GMO’s entirely. There needs to be a balance, because there is much at stake – our children, our ecology, our planet.

Our ecology is a constantly changing thing. Evolution changes our plant and animal life over time, but it could be risky to rush things to the extent that the biotechnology companies seem to want to. Our fears and concerns over genetic engineering in general need to be addressed. Bio-diversity and ecologically healthy farming techniques, food distribution to the impoverished, thorough testing, elimination of big-business influence, dissemination and education, and extreme caution are needed if this technology is to proceed at a safe pace and make GM something that consumers and agriculture can accept and benefit from.

Works Cited

Clark, Professor E.Ann, from study done by Science Magazine, GMF Questions, Many Positions (Copyright 2000-2002 by the SCOPE Research Group, UC Berkeley, UW, AAAS), Nov. 29, 2002 <http://scope.educ.washington.edu/gmfood/position/>

Rosset, Dr. Peter, co-Director of Food First/The Institute for Food and Development Policy Toward an Agroecological Alternative for the Peasantry, Posted: May 7, 2000

Whitman, Deborah B., Genetically Modified Foods: Harmful or Helpful? (Released April 2000)


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