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In this lesson, we will explore a recent advancement in agriculture known as genetic engineering. We’ll look at how it’s used to create genetically modified foods and also examine the advantages and disadvantages of these types of foods.

Genetic Engineering and Genetically Modified Foods

Think about the food you’ve eaten today. Most of us don’t question where our food comes from or how it’s grown, but we should.

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In the agricultural world, there has been an increase in genetic engineering, which is when the genetic makeup of an organism is altered by inserting, deleting, or changing specific pieces of DNA in order to obtain, modify, or prevent a specific characteristic. Organisms that have their genetic makeup altered are referred to as genetically modified organisms, or GMOs for short.

Genetically modified organisms have altered DNA
Common genetically modified crops: corn, soybeans, and cotton
plants

Animals can also be genetically modified.

Cows, chickens, and pigs are examples of farm animals that are often genetically modified. These animals are being genetically altered to grow faster, grow larger, and have more proteins and nutrients. This makes it possible for farmers to get more money for their livestock and also produce more animals in a shorter time frame. The image below shows how chickens have changed over the years–chickens are often genetically modified to grow larger.

Chickens have become larger over the years due to genetic modification.
chickens

Advantages and Disadvantages of Genetically Modified Foods

Genetically modified foods have their fair share of advantages and disadvantages.

The most noticeable benefit is that genetic engineering has made it possible to produce more crops. Crops can be modified to grow faster, are resistant to diseases, and can be altered to successfully grow in poor growing conditions. The development of genetically modified crops has also positively impacted the environment, because the resistant crops require less chemical pesticides and fertilizers known to harm the surrounding environment.

Even though there are advantages to genetically modified crops, there are also several important disadvantages. One major concern is that as pests experience constant exposure to a pesticide or herbicide that is genetically inserted into crops, the pests can develop genetic resistance to the chemical. When this occurs, the genetically modified crops eventually become unable to prevent harm to the crops, making them obsolete. Other concerns associated with genetically modified foods include the long-term effects on human health, the development of new and unknown food allergies, and the potential for genetically modified organisms interbreeding with natural species or out-competing with them for resources.

Lesson Summary

The next time you go to the grocery store, look at the food label and see if you can determine if the food is genetically modified or natural. Genetically modified foods have had their genetic makeup altered in some way. Some crops are modified to:

  • Be resistant to pests or herbicides
  • Have delayed fruit ripening
  • Have higher levels of vitamins and minerals
  • Have higher protein concentrations

Livestock can also be genetically modified to grow faster, grow larger, and have more protein and nutrients. Genetically modified foods are becoming more common, though they are still widely researched due to the variety of advantages and disadvantages to their use.

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