Genetically modified crops are agricultural products that have had their DNA manipulated in order to give them certain traits such as resistance to diseases, pests, or herbicides. Food crops might also be engineered to have other desirable traits, such as faster maturation or increased nutritional content. The genetic modification of foods is hotly debated. More than 40 countries, including the European Union, have strict restrictions on genetically modified food and animal feed while other countries including Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka, and Algeria have banned outright the import and cultivation of genetically modified crops.
Traditional breeding of food crops involves selecting plants with good characteristics like improved flavor, yield, or disease resistance and breeding them in order to create cultivars with these qualities. When crops are genetically engineered, genes from one organism are inserted into another organism using biotechnological techniques. For example, corn can be made resistant to certain insects by inserting genes from a soil-borne bacteria that is toxic for those insects. Genes can also be altered to cause their suppression.
Biotechnology companies argue that genetically modified crops will increase food production and protect the world from a global crisis of food security. They claim that these crops reduce pesticide use because they do not need to be sprayed for insects, disease, and noxious weeds. Not only can food crop yields be increased, but nutritional qualities of food can be enhanced, as well as flavor and quality.
Environmentalists, scientists, doctors and farmers contend that there are as of yet unknown consequences to people, agriculture, and global ecology. Opponents of genetically modified crops point out that there is plenty of food in the world, and that famine is caused by political and economic forces. Some weeds and other pests are becoming resistant to pesticides, requiring their increased use, and pollen from modified plants can contaminate natural food crops. The World Health Organization cautions that genetically engineered food might develop proteins that cause new food allergies and antibiotic resistance.
Agricultural biodiversity is threatened through increased use of genetically modified seed, which increases the likelihood of crops that can't resist disease and pests. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that in 2009, 88 percent of cotton, 91 percent of soybeans, and 85 percent of corn grown in the U.S. is genetically engineered. The companies that produce these seeds have patents on them, giving these industries control over as much as 75 percent of all processed food sold in the U.S.