The battle over GMOs has brewed for years, with skirmishes taking place in the aisles of national parliaments and congresses, as well as the local grocery store. However, scientists are increasingly arguing that genetically modified crops are not only safe, they are also critical to feeding a growing world population. Read on to learn the other side of GMOs, including how they can curb pesticide use, raise incomes for subsistence farmers, reduce deforestation and even prevent famine in developing nations.
Modern Technology for an Ancient Practice
Advocates for genetic modification point out that humans have manipulated crops for thousands of years. Early hunter-gatherers domesticated vegetables by selecting wild plants for such traits as size, growth and health. The scraggly roots of flowers were transformed into carrots, and teosinte, a grain about the size of a finger, became maize.
In this way, mankind slowly turned diminutive wild plants into the cultivated vegetables that people eat today, and in so doing, altered the plants’ DNA. Later, plant hybridization allowed farmers to play the role of pollinator between plants, including those of different species. The results of this technique gave birth to new plants, including varieties of tomatoes and corn that you might find at a farm stand today.
Many scientists view genetic modification as the next technology in this age-old practice of altering the DNA of crops. When biologist Pamela Ronald of U.C. Davis spoke to The Grist about her research in genetic modification, she explained what she does as putting ʺrice genes into rice plants.ʺ However, instead of allowing two plants to swap threads of DNA and see what results, Ronald controls every exchange. Using genetic engineering, her lab has discovered a gene that helps rice resist bacterial disease, as well as a gene that helps the plants to survive flooding, a technique that some farmers use to kill weeds in the rice fields.
In the United States, many GMO species can produce their own pesticide, allowing the farmer to spray less. For example, so-called Bt crops contain the protein Bt, which is naturally toxic to insects, but studies indicate that it is safe for human consumption. Bt crops require dramatically less pesticides to achieve the same yields, and the protein, which is naturally produced by the bacterium bacillus thuringiensis, has been found safe for birds, plants and other wildlife, according to a report by Mission 2014 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Reduced pesticide use lowers incidences of pesticide poisoning, both in humans and wildlife. In India, the planting of Bt cotton has reduced the use of pesticides by 50 percent and the incidences of poisoning among farmers by as many as 2.4 million cases annually.
Numerous scientific institutions have gone on record regarding the safety of GMOs for human consumption, including the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the American Medical Association and the European Commission. However, biologists still have concerns about the environmental impact of GMOs, including the risk of GMO crops breeding in the wild and spreading their modified DNA to native species. Creating buffer zones between GMO and non-GMO crops reduces such contamination, but many scientists suspect that containing transgenetic material over the long term could prove difficult, if not impossible.
GMO crops that contain biopesticides such at Bt can inadvertently kill beneficial insect species, including the monarch butterfly. In addition, Bt crops can upset the ecological balance by opening the door to pests that aren’t targeted by the toxin, according to Mission 2014. For example, in Pakistan, mealy bugs never posed a problem before the introduction of Bt cotton, but now, with no other competitors, they destroy as much as 50,000 out of the country’s 8 million acres of cotton.
Big Yields to Third-World Farmers
The benefits of GMOs may seem small potatoes to American farmers, whose expensive equipment and pesticides allow them to grow more than twice the world average for per-acre crop yield. But for farmers in third-world countries who lack this technology, GMO seeds allow for more crops from the same fields in a single season. According to the Grist, reports on cotton yields in India suggest that the switch to Bt cotton raised yields from 300 kilograms per hectare to 500 kilograms, an increase of 66 percent.
Bigger yields means larger profits for small-time farmers. The extra crops can lift subsistence farmers out of poverty and expand agriculture exports for struggling nations. However, many developing countries currently have restrictions or outright bans on using GMOs for food crops.
Higher yields also means less deforestation to make room for new fields. According to the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization, food production must rise 70 percent by 2050 to meet increased global demand, so farmers must either raise yields or plant fields. The dramatic yields produced by GMO seeds offer a realistic alternative to simply dedicating more and more land exclusively to farming.
Food For Famine
GMO strains also promise crops that resist diseases and draught, potentially avoiding blights that can wipe out a whole harvest. Technology Review reported that Chinese researchers created a strain of wheat in 2014 that shows resilience to powdery mildew, a common fungus that reduces the global wheat crop each year. In 1999 at the University of Hawaii, biologists engineered a papaya that is resistant to the papaya ring, a virus that devastated the island’s trees in the 1990s. Today, the strain makes up 77 percent of all papaya grown there, according to the Hawaii Tribune Herald. In a poor country that depends on a single crop, such engineered plants could prevent famine.
The agricultural wealth of developed nations makes it easy to treat GMOs as a matter of preference, but in poor countries, the lost benefits of higher crop yields and disease-resistant plants bear out real consequences. As the global population rises and developing economies consume more, the demand for grains and produce is expected to strain the capacities of existing farm land. For such countries, GMO crops offer a technological edge to bridge the gap.
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