GMOs in Food and Agriculture: Risks, Concerns, and Advantages
There were many mixed attitudes towards President Donald Trump’s recent executive order that facilitates the approval of genetically modified crops and other agricultural bio-technologies in the farming industry. However, the controversy surrounding genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is nothing new in that realm of science. Genetic engineering has actually been used for decades across multifarious fields and many of its applications meet no resistance today. Genetically modified (GM) insulin, for example, is currently a widely accepted medical application that uses GMOs to treat diabetic patients. Despite being prevalent in modern medicine, GMOs are still criticized when contextualized in the food and agriculture industry.
When we think of GMOs, we tend to involve it with recombinant DNA technology and other modern techniques. However, the essence behind genetic engineering is simply the modification of an organism’s traits through the manipulation of its genetic material to suit our needs. That said, technically speaking, we have actually been “genetically engineering” organisms for centuries. When our ancestors were cultivating crops for harvest, only crops with the best traits (large, tasty, low maintenance, etc.) were bred so that the next generation would have an increased likelihood of expressing those desirable traits. The same practice was done in breeding and domesticating animals. The traits that our ancestors found desirable represent the expression of regions of DNA (genes). With every new generation, these genes became more pronounced. Eventually, after thousands of years of this selective breeding, these plants became tremendously different compared to its pre-domesticated ancestors. One of the issues with selective breeding is that a level of probability and statistics is involved in order to acquire the desired results. Modern genetic engineering eliminates this aspect by allowing us to choose the traits (genes) we want to be expressed without having to wait thousands of years of selective breeding to receive the exact same result.
Although GMOs, which are primarily designed to make crops larger and more resilient to pests, may at first seem unproblematic, there are multiple objections to their use. A common objection to the practice of GMOs in the agricultural industry is gene flow. Gene flow is when GM crops mix with traditional crops to introduce undesirable traits in the crops. One of the popular solutions to this issue, which is actually a large anti-GMO argument on its own, is the use of terminator seeds. Terminator seeds produce sterile seeds which would require farmers to purchase new seeds every year. Being that there was strong opposition by the public and farmers, the proposal was quickly discarded.
Since terminator seeds are not a viable option to be implemented, the issue of unintentional spreading of engineered DNA still remains. GMOs have been seen growing in areas where they weren’t planted and traces of modified genes were even found in foreign crops. Since GM plants aren’t able to spread amok on their own, that means, like any other crop, they would need to be pollinated by crops related to them. Although buffer zones are used to minimize any cross-contamination between GM crops and traditional crops, the ability of them to cross suggests that there isn’t a radical difference between them. Before being sent to stores to be purchased by consumers, there are a variety of agencies that examine the produce and check to ensure that it’s safe. After examining the quantitative data, the vast majority of scientists conclude that the risks involved in consuming a GM produce as opposed to traditional produce are exactly the same.
GMOs can actually serve as a solution to make agriculture more sustainable, treat malnutrition, and combat climate change. As an example, GMOs were able to improve the overall health of those residing in Bangladesh. In Bangladesh, eggplants (a staple crop of the region) had a colossal pest problem that prompted farmers to use an exceeding amount of pesticides. Not only was this expensive, but it also made farmers sick. As a result, in 2013, a GM eggplant (specifically a BT crop) was introduced causing pesticide use to decrease by 80%. Ergo, farmers, who were now healthier and saving money from pesticide costs, were able to grow more crops and ultimately feed more people in the country. This is only one of many examples where GMOs can be advantageous for a region.
GMOs can also improve our diets and prevent disease such as the purple tomato and golden rice that are rich in antioxidants and vitamins respectively. GMOs can also make plants resilient to climate change and even help combat it. There are even crops that can collect nitrogen from the air much like microbes. Being that nitrogen is a strong fertilizer that can pollute ground water and contribute to climate change, it would be more efficient and better for the environment if plants could absorb their own nitrogen. If GMOs were used to give all crops this ability, it would alleviate some of the issues of wealthier countries with excessive fertilizers in their soil and poorer countries with scant amounts of fertilizers in their soil.
There are 11 million pounds of food eaten every day and the United Nations estimate that it will increase by 70% by 2050. With many of the unsustainable agriculture techniques practiced currently, this would mean clearing even more forests and accelerating climate change more so than ever before. However, if we concentrate on intensifying farming instead of expanding it, we wouldn’t have to. GMOs have the potential to cater the needs of our burgeoning population in a sustainable way. Given the auspicious uses of GMOs already, the future of farming and the environment are almost promising.