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Genetic Engineering in Food and Freshwater Issues

There is a growing problem of hunger facing most of the world’s population. Many thousands die from starvation daily, and as the population increases, this problem escalates, which further necessitates the desperate need for a reliable supply of food. The technology of bioengineered foods, sometimes referred to as genetically modified, genetically engineered, or transgenic crops, will be an essential element in meeting these challenging needs. The concept is not new, but along with the increasing amount of bioengineered food appearing in the marketplace and as the associated benefits are being realized, a growing amount of controversy has ensued.

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Though some have termed the genetically manipulated crops ‘frankenfoods’ and have questioned the potential harm to people and the environment that could come from their production, genetically engineered foods are safe and necessary.

Bioengineering food involves “splicing a gene from one organism, such as a bacterium, into a plant or animal to confer certain traits” (Muth et al., 2002). These traits, developed for agricultural crops such as corn, soybeans, canola, and cotton, include increasing nutrients, tolerance to herbicides and drought, resistance to fungus and insects, and reduced spoilage.

Bioengineered corn and soybeans have become increasingly widespread among farmers during the last decade, and the products can be commonly found in most grocery stores. Companies that engineer and produce bioengineered foods, as well as manufacturers that choose to use these foods in their ingredients, are faced with astringent and ever-developing regulatory oversight by three government agencies; the USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture), the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) and the FDA (Food and Drug Administration). Which agency regulates a particular product is determined by the intended use of the crop. Very often, a product is regulated by multiple agencies. The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, a division of the USDA, monitor products and organisms that affect plants. Products and organisms derived from bioengineering methods introduced to or manufactured in the U.S. require USDA identification.

This agency then determines if the item in question is a ‘regulated article’ or a possible disease. If the USDA decides that the product or crop is to be regulated, “a written approval usually is issued that designates conditions for the introduction of the article” (McCammon, 2002).

The EPA has the responsibility of regulating the sale, use, distribution, and testing of all pesticides, even those genetically produced in a crop such as a type of corn that produces toxins that repel insects but are harmless to humans. The EPA also establishes tolerances for pesticides in crops meant for both animal and human ingestion. It does not designate between the two; however, either a genetically produced crop is safe for both or neither. The FDA bases its policy concerning bioengineered foods on the conception of ‘substantial equivalence.’ Those bioengineered foods not considered substantially equivalent are categorized as food additives.

These foods are found significantly like foods both functionally and structurally as foods commonly found in the marketplace. “Thus far, the FDA has determined that most bioengineered food crops are substantially equivalent” (US Food and Drug Administration, 2001). Companies involved in producing foods from bioengineering methods are required to inform the FDA. It has been reported that the industry has been 100 percent compliant with this notification requirement.

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All genetically produced proteins contained in food products currently on the market have been evaluated by the FDA. According to the FDA, these proteins have been found to be “non-toxic, sensitive to heat, acid and enzymatic digestion, and hence rapidly digestible, and have no structural similarities with proteins known to cause allergies” (Thompson, 2000). This governmental agency has determined that the quality control and safety procedures such as taste testing, visual and chemical analyses commonly practiced by genetic food manufactures are adequate to ensure the public’s safety.

The USDA, EPA, and FDA have tested bioengineered foods extensively both in a natural environment and controlled laboratory settings for more than a decade. During the past 15 years, more than 4,000 field examinations by the various government agencies have been executed for performance, suitability, and efficacy of the crops as well as environmental influences of manufacturing in 18,000 locations all over the U.S. Additionally, many thousands of similar examinations of bioengineered food products have been conducted in several countries throughout the world. “Volumes of data have been generated on the food safety of bioengineered foods as well, with no evidence of safety risks” (Ruttan, 1999).

The further development and distribution of bioengineered foods will provide additional food sources in which to feed the masses of today and future generations of people as well. These products are also genetically designed to enhance vitamin deficiencies in staple food items, which already have greatly improved life circumstances for many people. The implications for the future are boundless. Strains of rice genetically infused with Vitamin A have been developed, which holds the promise of preventing blindness. This will give the gift of sight to millions of children in Asian countries whose diets, which consist mainly of rice, are currently deficient in the vitamin. “Vitamin A is a highly essential micronutrient, and widespread dietary deficiency of this vitamin in rice-eating Asian countries has tragic undertones… five million children in South East Asia develop an eye disease called xerophthalmia every year, and 250,000 of them eventually become blind” (Potrykus, 1999).

The new strains of rice have the potential to reduce the instances of this significant health issue greatly.

In addition, according to UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund), vitamin-enriched rice could prevent as many as two million infants from dying of this dietary deficiency because it predisposes them to measles and chronic diarrhea. Rice strains are also being genetically infused with iron which could supplement the diet of approximately 30 percent of the world’s people, who are located mostly in under-developed countries, who suffer from iron deficiency. “Edible vaccines, delivered in locally grown crops, could do more to eliminate disease than the Red Cross, missionaries, and United Nations task forces combined, at a fraction of the cost” (Arakawa et al., 1998).

Companies involved in manufacturing and distributing bioengineered foods, several academics, and many various organizations throughout the world, including the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, continue to warn that crop yields must be increased so that adequate supplies of food are available to feed the ever-growing populations of the world. As time goes on, this challenge will become harder to meet, and many more will starve on a daily basis unless bioengineered foods are more generally accepted and thus made more accessible to every part of the world. Many of those that warn of the horrors of ‘frankenfood’ are the same ones that attempt to debunk other scientific advances such as stem cell technologies. These advances will eventually be integrated into society but will do so more slowly because of fear-based objections, which have little merit. While the development and distribution of bioengineered foods are slowed by these fears, millions more will starve, be blinded, or die from malnutrition.

Drinking water is remarkably clean and safe in most industrialized nations. The only problem caused by water is when people buy plastic bottle containers which require pollution-generating energy to produce and do not degenerate in landfills. Freshwater is relatively plentiful and inexpensive. Bottled water is a large expense to the environment and the pocketbook.

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Arakawa, T. et al. “Efficacy of a Food Plant-based Oral Cholera Toxin B Subunit Vaccine.” Nature Biotechnology. Vol. 16, pp. 292-297. (1998).

McCammon, Sally L. “Ensuring Safe Food.” Science Advisor. Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, US Department of Agriculture. (2002). Web.

Muth, M.K.; Mancini, D; & Viator, C. “US Food Manufacturer Assessment of and Responses to Bioengineered Foods.” AgBioForum. Vol. 5, I. 3, pp. 90-100. (2002). Web.

Potrykus, I. “Vitamin-A and Iron-Enriched Rices May Hold Key to Combating Blindness and Malnutrition: A Biotechnology Advance.” Nature Biotechnology. Vol. 17. (1999).

Ruttan, V.W. “Biotechnology and Agriculture: A Skeptical Perspective.” AgBioForum. Vol. 2, N. 1, pp. 54-60. (1999).

Thompson, L. “Are Bioengineered Foods Safe?” FDA Consumer. Vol. 34, I. 1, pp. 1-5. (2000). 2009. Web.

US Food and Drug Administration. “Premarket Notice Concerning Bioengineered hFoods: Proposed Rule.” Federal Register. Vol. 66, N. 12, pp. 4706-4738. (2001).

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