Transgenic plants and safety of human health
Through classical plant breeding techniques, present day cultivated crops have become significantly different from their wild counterparts. Many of these crops were originally less productive and at times unsuitable for human consumption. Over the years, traditional plant breeding and selection of these crops have resulted in plants that are more productive and nutritious. The advent of GM technology has allowed further development. To date, over 30 million hectares of transgenic crops have been grown and no human health problems associated specifically with the ingestion of transgenic crops or their products have been identified. However numerous potential concerns have been raised since the development of GM technology in the early 1970s. Such concerns have focused on the potential for allergic reactions to food products, the possible introduction or increase in production of toxic compounds as a result of the GM technology, and the use of antibiotic resistance as markers in the transformation process.
Every effort should be made to avoid the introduction of known allergens into food crops. Information concerning potential allergens and natural plant toxins should be made available to researchers, industry, regulators, and the general public. In order to facilitate this effort, public databases should be developed which facilitate access of all interested parties to data.
Traditional plant breeding methods include wide crosses with closely related wild species, and may involve a long process of crossing back to the commercial parent to remove undesirable genes. A feature of GM technology is that it involves the introduction of one or at most, a few, well-defined genes rather than the introduction of whole genomes or parts of chromosomes as in traditional plant breeding. This makes toxicity testing for transgenic plants more straightforward than for conventionally produced plants with new traits, because it is much clearer what the new features are in the modified plant. On the other hand, GM technology can introduce genes from diverse organisms, some of which have little history in the food supply.
Decisions regarding safety should be based on the nature of the product, rather than on the method by which it was modified. It is important to bear in mind that many of the crop plants we use contain natural toxins and allergens. The potential for human toxicity or allergenicity should be kept under scrutiny for any novel proteins produced in plants with the potential to become part of food or feed. Health hazards from food, and how to reduce them, are an issue in all countries, quite apart from any concerns about GM technology.
Since the advent of GM technology, researchers have used antibiotic resistance genes as selective markers for the process of genetic modification. The concern has been raised that the widespread use of such genes in plants could increase the antibiotic resistance of human pathogens. Kanamycin, one of the most commonly used resistance markers for plant transformation is still used for the treatment of the following human infections: Bone, respiratory tract, skin, soft-tissue, and abdominal infections, complicated urinary tract infections, endocarditis, septicaemia, and enterococcal infections.
Scientists now have the means to remove these marker genes before a crop plant is developed for commercial use (Zubko et al. 2000). Developers should continue to move rapidly to remove all such markers from transgenic plants and to utilise alternative markers for the selection of new varieties. No definitive evidence exists that these antibiotic resistance genes cause harm to humans, but because of public concerns, all those involved in the development of transgenic plants should move quickly to eliminate these markers.
Ultimately, no credible evidence from scientists or regulatory institutions will influence popular public opinion unless there is public confidence in the institutions and mechanisms that regulate such products.
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