Food Tech

Do We Really Need GMOs to Feed the World?

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are organisms whose genetic material has been manipulated using genetic engineering techniques in the laboratory, resulting in organisms that do not occur naturally. DNA, which determines the characteristics of a plant or organism, is manipulated to produce GMOs with desired qualities. This involves inserting a new combination of DNA into plant cells, which are then grown in tissue culture.

Genetic engineering is employed to develop improved varieties of crops aimed at addressing global food needs or enhancing existing traits. The process begins by identifying a desired trait, such as drought resistance or enhanced nutritional content, and identifying organisms that already possess these traits. Comparative genomic studies may be used to isolate relevant genes, which are then extracted using biotechnological methods.

Typically, a virus or bacterium serves as a vector to transfer the modified DNA into host cells, although a particle gun method may also be utilized. The gene of interest is integrated into the plant genome as part of the vector’s normal life cycle. The resulting plant, possessing the desired quality, is termed a ‘GMO.’

Do we need GMOs?

Do we need GMOs to Feed the World?

Contradictory beliefs exist regarding the utility and importance of GMOs in addressing global food security. Biotechnologists advocate for the adoption of these modified foods, while others express reluctance due to perceived limitations. Both viewpoints are supported by compelling data, yet the matter remains subjective.

Over the past 50 years, the world population has doubled and continues to increase by approximately 100 million annually, projected to reach 11 billion by 2100. With rapid population growth, concerns arise regarding future food shortages, already affecting regions like Africa. By 2050, chronic hunger is expected to become a global issue, necessitating solutions to increase crop yields, enhance agricultural practices, and expand the use of genetically modified crops.

The World Resources Institute emphasizes the need for new policies to address global food security challenges while alleviating poverty and preventing hunger. Adapting to changing climatic conditions and water scarcity requires significant changes in agricultural systems. The Green Revolution of the 20th century, though not without drawbacks, demonstrated the potential of high-yielding crop varieties produced through intensive chemical use. Scaling up these technologies, along with genetic engineering, is seen as crucial to meeting increased food demands.

Utilizing genomics and genetic techniques is essential for generating higher yields and pest-resistant crop varieties. Faster breeding cycles and a focus on “orphan crops” like millet, barley, and peas can benefit regions like Africa where these crops are staple foods. Embracing these approaches can help address global food security challenges in the face of growing population pressures.

Advantages of GMOs

For many crops in various regions, genetic modification has become imperative. The Drought Tolerant Maize for Africa project was initiated to enhance maize varieties, resulting in the development of 153 new varieties across 13 countries. It is reported to have contributed to poverty alleviation by up to 9% in these nations. A prestigious scientific journal, Nature, has also highlighted the benefits of these genetically modified crops, estimating that over half a million people in Zimbabwe would benefit from them. According to Sarah Davidson, Director of the Cornell Alliance for Science, who focuses on global food security, “We have to utilize all the tools available to us. Genetic engineering may not be the only tool, but it is certainly a valuable one.”

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There is a land gap of 1.48 billion acres between the required agricultural land area and the available land for expansion by 2050, as indicated by the WRI report. The Hawaiian papaya industry faced a threat from the papaya ringspot virus, leading to the development of improved and genetically modified varieties known as Rainbow and Sunrise. These varieties saved the industry from extinction, with farmers selling over 23 million pounds of papaya in 2014. Scientist Dennis Gonsalves, who developed the GMO papaya, emphasized the crucial role of biotechnology, stating, “Without biotechnology, there is no papaya industry, simple as that.”

GM crops have significantly contributed to the improvement of the food sector. The flavor-saver tomato, the first GMO food, provided substantial economic benefits for farmers by increasing yield and reducing the cost of canned tomato products by 20%. Reduced costs and increased profits continue to drive technological advancements. Biotech crops have not only positively impacted developing nations in terms of farm income but have also led to gains for developed nations. According to recent trends from the US Department of Agriculture, herbicide-tolerant maize adoption by farmers significantly increased in 2018, covering 90% of the total corn acreage in the US.

The benefits of GMOs make them indispensable for addressing world hunger and ensuring food security for the growing population through enhanced agriculture.

Improved Crop Yield

Most of the world’s yield gains have been attributed to improved crop yield and better crop varieties. The various advantages include pest resistance, drought resistance, herbicide tolerance, and temperature fluctuation tolerance in crops, which can be produced without the fear of being destroyed by pests or harsh weather conditions. Moreover, enhanced crops with modified breeding cycles will better utilize daylight length to the maximum and also withstand dry periods. Stems with increased stiffness to support more grains and disease-resistant traits have also been introduced in crops to boost yields and assist farmers in combating pests. It is imperative to adopt emission-reducing rice varieties, making GMOs an essential component for the sustainability of agricultural production.

Better Soil and Water Management

Sustainability in the environment and agriculture necessitates better air and soil quality, as well as improved water conservation, to support the growing demands of the food supply. Restoring degraded soil is essential for food security, and this may be achieved through water harvesting and agroforestry practices. Soil and water resource management are among the key benefits associated with the use of GMOs. The quality of the soil is not compromised with genetically modified herbicide-tolerant crops, as constant tilling previously required to prevent herbicide use is no longer necessary. This also prevents soil erosion and improves water retention ability. Better soil, air, and water management are the gifts of GMOs.

Water resources are crucial for enhancing agricultural production, and farmers need to use these resources wisely to combat periods of drought. Drought-resistant plants produced through genetic engineering also offer improved transpiration, leading to better irrigation throughout the crops. Soil erosion can also clog waterways, a problem prevented with the use of GMOs. Hence, the overall agricultural system can be enhanced.

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Reduction in Food Wastage

Food wastage has been one of the most challenging consequences of agricultural issues, as food rotting and gas emissions have negative impacts on the environment. A significant amount of food produced is never consumed by people due to food loss and wastage occurring at different stages from farms to the table. Hence, comprehensive plans need to be executed to prevent it. According to an estimate by the FAO, one-third of all the food produced in 2009 was either lost or wasted. This highlights the importance of preventing this to feed the world and avert the chances of chronic hunger. GMO crops reduce food loss and wastage, as non-browning varieties of apples and potatoes with reduced bruising have led to a significant decline in the amount of food being wasted daily.

Challenges & Limitations

Various challenges need to be encountered for diligent progress in the GMOs industry, including database storage, correct analysis of markedly diverse genomes of different species with variable traits, gene identification in polyploid species, and the introduction and enhancement of high-throughput technologies for the development of desired phenotypes.

As much as genetic engineering of crops is needed, it has serious limitations and technological constraints, as huge funding is required for it to proceed and be implemented. Bill Freese, an analyst at the Center for Food Safety, claims that the WRR report is “too optimistic” about the use of technology in food production and does not weigh the concerns associated with their common use.

The reluctance of acceptance is not only among buyers but also among farmers, as they believe that using GMOs would affect their sales and reduce the need for naturally grown crops, ultimately affecting their livelihood and being replaced by newer technologies. This belief renders them unwilling to cooperate, and they are hesitant to adopt improved technologies for growing crops. Another contrasting set of beliefs is seen in the report by the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network, which states that the promise of GMOs “feeding the world” is far-fetched, as this technology increases the problems posed in agriculture and the environment, which are usually neglected by biotechnologists.

It is a lesser-known fact that there are very few differences between naturally grown crops and GMOs because the chemicals used by farmers also contain certain quantities of substances included in GMOs, just with the difference that they are not labeled or highlighted.

Deconstruction of Myths regarding GMOs

A number of myths have been associated with the use and production of GMOs, not only limiting farmers’ use of GMOs but also affecting consumers. Consumer beliefs regarding GMOs need to be clarified for them to be willing to adapt to the changing requirements of food security systems.

Among the various myths circulating regarding GMOs is the belief that they are a plot introduced by corporate nations to control developing nations. However, developing nations actually need GMOs more than others due to increasing hunger, and farmers prefer biotech crops to increase income and alleviate poverty and hunger. GMO crops are bred for improving nutritional quality and increasing the yield of staple foods such as rice, pulses, banana, mustard, and potatoes. Many concerns are raised about the safety of GMOs as human food, and it’s still under investigation to determine their long-term effects on human health.

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The safety of GMOs is a complex and nuanced issue that requires ongoing research, transparent communication, and careful consideration of both the potential benefits and risks. As scientific understanding continues to evolve, it is essential to engage in informed discussions and decision-making processes to ensure the responsible development and use of GMOs.


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