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Wheat and Genetic Engineering
Wheat is one of the primary food supplying crops on the planet. It is the third most produced cereal, after maize and rice, and forms the leading source of vegetable protein in human food. It is used to make a variety of food products, such as bread, pasta, noodles and couscous. Furthermore, it can also be used to produce beer and other alcoholic beverages and biofuel.
Despite being one of the main food sources on the planet, production has not kept up with the increasing population. To be able to increase productivity and yield sufficiently, genetic modification in wheat seems to be the only solution. In doing so, the wheat plants can be made more resistant to parasites, produce higher quality wheat and increase the crop yield.
However, the consequences of genetic modification in wheat are not entirely clear and the idea knows both strong proponents and opponents.
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Pros of GM Wheat
Some of the arguments used by the proponents of genetic modification in wheat, are:
- Resistance against parasites and infections: this will decrease the percentage of the annual harvest that will be lost to diseases and parasites.
- Increased yield: through genetic engineering, the wheat can be made to produce more harvestable wheat, or to produce more harvests a year.
- Higher quality: the wheat can be genetically modified to carry additional nutrients, increasing its nutritional value.
- Stress tolerance: through genetically altering the wheat, it can become more resistant against drought, cold, and other environmental conditions.
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Cons of GM Wheat
Here are some of the most often used arguments of the opponents of genetically modifying wheat:
- Human health: genetically modified wheat could potentially impact human health, through allergens and antibiotic resistance.
- Environment: there could potentially be effects on the environment, perhaps through cross-pollination or the replacement of other crops through competition. It could also lead to a decline in biodiversity, when one crop becomes dominant.
- Social effects: advances in crop modification are likely to be expensive, meaning that the rich countries and farmers can take advantage of them, decreasing the farming opportunities of others.
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An important question that needs to be considered when genetically modifying food crops is: is it safe to eat? The problem with food safety studies, however, is that they also need to take long-term effects into account. In order to achieve this, genetically modified wheat should be planted and eaten for quite a while. So, the only way to truly know whether it is safe or not, is by doing it (on a small scale to begin with). At present, there is no evidence that indicates that a genetic modification in wheat has detrimental effects on human health.
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- Bhalla, P.L. (2006). Genetic engineering of wheat - current challenges and opportunities. Trends in Biotechnology. 24(7), pp. 305 – 311.
- GMO Compass: http://www.gmo-compass.org/eng/grocery_shopping/crops/22.genetically_modified_wheat.html
- Reynolds, M.P.; van Ginkel, M. & Ribaut, J.M. (1999). Avenues for genetic modification of radiation use efficiency in wheat. Journal of Experimental Botany. 51(1), pp. 459 – 473.
- Walsh, E. & Dardis J. (1999). Genetic modification of wheat and food safety. The Irish Scientist 7 (November 1999).