Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are organisms whose genetic material has been manipulated using genetic engineering in the laboratory. This leads to the development of organisms that do not exist in nature otherwise. DNA determines the characteristics of a plant or any organism. Producing a GMO with desired qualities required the insertion of a new combination of DNA into the plant cells, which are further grown in tissue culture.
Genetic engineering is used for the production of improved varieties of crops in order to feed the world or enhance existing traits. To make a GMO, firstly, a trait of interest is identified, such as drought resistance, enhanced nutritional content, pest-resistance, and organisms that already exist with these traits would be identified. Then, comparative genomic studies may be utilized to identify the relevant genes, and they are isolated using biotechnological methods. Generally, a virus or a bacterium may be used as a vector to transfer the modified or desired DNA into the host cells. A particle gun method may also be used. The gene of interest is then transferred into the plant genome as part of the normal life cycle of the vector. The newly grown plant will have the desired quality and would be termed as a ‘GMO’ .
Do we need GMOs?
Contradicting beliefs exist regarding the utility and importance of GMOs to ‘feed the world’. Biotechnologists encourage people to opt for these modified foods while others are reluctant to the widespread use of GMOs as foods due to their limitations. Both beliefs are backed by strong supporting data. But currently, it can be thought of as a subjective matter entirely.
Over the past 50 years, the world population has doubled and continues to increase by around 100 million each year expected to reach 11 billion by 2100 . As the human race is expanding at a rapid pace, it is feared that world hunger would soon become a problem that would need proper management. It has already affected many parts of Africa, and it is expected that chronic hunger would engulf the planet by 2050. This problem can be overcome by increasing crop yields, improving the means of crop growth and harvest, and commercializing the use of genetically modified crops widely .
According to the World Resources Institute report, newer policies need to be implemented that not only help meet global food needs but also help alleviate poverty and prevent hunger. Serious changes need to be made in the Global Food security systems to cater to the changing climatic conditions, shortage of water supplies, and exponentially growing world population . Green Revolution starting in the 20th century, paved the way for the production of high-yielding varieties of crops with increased production of grains and wheat using excessive chemicals and fertilizers. Although it had its ups and downs, these technologies need to be implemented at a larger scale in order to cater to the global needs for food . The WRI suggests that genetic engineering would come as a handy tool to feed the world population owing to increased demands.
The use of genomics and genetic techniques is essential, as explained in Bloomberg post that amended approach needs to be practicalized for increased yields and pest-resistant varieties to be generated. Introducing faster breeding cycles with marker-assisted breeding and a shift towards ‘orphan crops’ such as millet, barley, and peas would be beneficial for African citizens who depend on these crops for food .
Advantages of GMOs
For many crops in a number of areas, genetic modification has proved to be the need of the hour. The Drought Tolerant Maize for Africa project was started to improve the varieties and has produced 153 new varieties for improvement in 13 countries. It is reported to lead poverty alleviation up to 9% in these countries . A prestigious scientific journal Nature has also reported the advantages of these cross-bred crops. More than half a million people in Zimbabwe would benefit from this . According to the Director of the Cornell Alliance for Science, Sarah Davidson, who works for global food security, ‘We have to use all the tools that we have at our disposal. Genetic engineering might not be the only tool, but it would definitely be a good one, she said . A land gap of 1.48 billion acres also exists between the required area of land for agriculture and available land for agricultural expansion by the year 2050 .
The WRI report also points out that Hawaiian papaya crops were under the attack of the papaya ringspot virus. It was about to be extinct and wiped out, so it became necessary to develop improved and genetically modified varieties known as Rainbow and Sunrise. The farmers sold more than 23 million pounds of papaya in the year 2014. Hence GMO technology saved the papaya industry as the scientist, Dennis Gonsalves, who developed GMO papaya, stated, ‘Without biotechnology, there is no papaya industry, simple as that’ .
GM crops have a significant contribution to the improvement of the food sector. The flavor-saver tomato was the first GMO food that provided immense economic benefits for the farmers. It increased the yield and reduced the cost of canned products of tomato by an enormous 20% . Reduced costs and increased profits drive the technology even forward. Biotech crops not only have a positive impact on developing nations in terms of farm income but also led to gains for the developed nations. As per the recent trends of the US Department of Agriculture, Herbicide-tolerant maize has been adopted by the farmers significantly in the year 2018 and reached 90% of the total corn acreage in the US .
The following are some of the benefits of GMOs that make them a necessity for reducing world hunger and feeding the growing population with better agriculture.
Improved Crop Yield
Most of the world’s yield gains have been the result of improved crop yield and better crop varieties. The various advantages include the pest-resistance, drought-resistance, herbicide-tolerant, and fluctuating temperature-tolerant crops that can be produced without the fear of being destroyed by pests or stringent weather conditions. Moreover, better crops with modified breeding cycles will better exploit the day-light length to the maximum and also resist dry periods. Stiffness of stems to support more grains and disease-resistant traits have also been introduced in crops to increase the yields and help the farmers to combat pests . It is imperative that emission-reducing rice varieties should be adopted hence making GMOs an essential component for the sustainability of agricultural production.
Better Soil and Water Management
Sustainability in the environment and agriculture requires better air and soil quality as well as improved water conversation in order to support the growing demands of the food supply. Degraded soil restoration is needed for food security, and this may be achieved via water-harvesting and agroforestry . 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 is no longer necessary. This prevents soil erosion as well and improves the water retention ability. Better soil, air and water management is the gift of GMOs.
Water resources are important for better agricultural production, and farmers need to use these resources wisely to fight the seasons of drought. Drought-resistant plants produced from genetic engineering also provide an opportunity for better transpiration hence better irrigation throughout the crops. Soil erosion also clogged waterways, which is prevented in the case of GMOs. Hence the overall system of agriculture can be improved .
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 larger amount of food produced is never consumed by the people due to food loss and wastage. Food is lost at different stages while reaching from farms to the table. Hence comprehensive plans need to be executed to prevent it. According to an estimate by 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 . The 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 the database storage, correct analysis of markedly diverse genomes of different species having variable traits, genes identification in polyploid species and introduction, and enhancement of high throughput technologies for the development of desired phenotypes .
As much as genetic engineering of the crops is needed, it has serious limitations and technology constraints, as huge funding is required for it to be proceeded and 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 out the concerns that are associated with their common use .
The reluctance of acceptance is not only among the buyers but also among the farmers as they believe that using GMOs would affect their sales as well as 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 on the agriculture and environment, which is usually neglected by the biotechnologists .
It is a lesser-known fact that there are very fewer differences among the naturally grown crops and the GMOs because the chemicals used by farmers also contain certain quantities of substances included in the 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 that not only limit the use of GMOs by the farmers but also affects the consumers. The beliefs of consumers need to be clarified regarding GMOs for them to be willing to adapt to the changing requirements of the food security systems.
Among the various myths circulating regarding GMOs, it is thought to be a plot introduced by corporate nations to control the developing nations. But, developing nations need GMOs more than others because of the increasing hunger, and farmers also prefer biotech crops to increase the income for the alleviation of poverty as well as hunger. GMO crops are actually bred for improvement of nutritional quality and increasing the yield of staple foods such as rice, pulses, banana, mustard, and potatoes . GMOs are not harmful to the environment as they can reduce soil erosions and limit the use of pesticides. Moreover, the quality and taste of genetically developed foods are not compromised, as it is commonly believed by some consumers . Many concerns are raised about the GMOs being safe enough to be used as human food. But they have a long safety record, and there have been no reports where GMOs might have harmed human health particularly. Therefore, it is not justified to label the GMOs as unsafe or not suitable to be used generally as human food .
Keeping aside all the advantages, the challenges, or the myths, the only question left to be answered is, Are we ready to accept GMOs as food as much as we have accepted GMOs as drugs and therapies? Or we would stay blind to the fact that genetically modified crops are the need of the time and can help the sustainable improvement of global food security systems.
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Dr Martin receives his MD from University of Iowa. His expertise includes microbiology, anatomy and clinical psychology. He also dedicates himself to continuous learning in different fields.