How Genetic Engineering Can Improve Food Supplies

The United Nations forecasts the world population to rise to almost 10 billion by 2050.  Scientific research studies warned that climate variation may mean that the crops we depend on now may no longer be suited to the areas where they are currently grown. Due to altered weather patterns, the plants are increasingly threatened by droughts and floods. Moreover, global food security is highly threatened by the emergence and spread of crop pests and pathogens. So feeding everyone in the coming decades will be the biggest challenge ever – Can genetic engineering increase world food production by at least 60% using the same amount of land by 2050? And how genetic engineering can improve food supplies?

For many years, people have been using conventional breeding methods for altering the genomes of plants and animals. Artificial selection has resulted in a variety of different organisms for specific, desired traits, ranging from sweetcorn to hairless cats. But this technique has been limited to naturally occurring variations in which organisms that exhibit particular characteristics are chosen to breed subsequent generations. However, according to GM Science Review, advances in the field of genetic engineering have allowed scientists to have more accurate control over the genetic changes introduced into an organism.

The use of genetic engineering to induce genetic changes in species leads to genetically modified organisms (GMOs). GM crops are one of the most frequently cited examples of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Today, through genetic engineering, the scientist can incorporate new genes from one species into a completely unrelated species, optimizing agricultural performance and crop plants to the next level.

The techniques and technologies of genetic engineering can improve food supplies by:

  • Enhanced agriculture production
  • Improved nutritive value of specific foods
  • Enhanced food safety
  • Ensured better crop harvests
  • Reduced environmental impact of the food system
  • Sustained food-system

This fact-based article is compiled to provide information gathered from credible, fact-based sources to give a high-level overview of how genetic engineering can help to increase food supplies.

help to increase food supplies

 

Genetic Engineering Trends That Shape the Food-Future

  • Disease Resistance

Farmers have always faced hazardous crop diseases – think of the Irish potato famine of the 19th century. Our average global crop loss estimate due to diseases and pests ranges from 11–30%.

Some scientists predict that climate change may allow previously contained plant infections to spread into new areas and become more severe and damaging. It may have already contributed to the devastating appearance of a fungal infection called wheat blast in Bangladesh, an aggressive new wheat fungus disease that can cause nearly complete damage of this staple crop in infected fields.

One of the most sustainable and effective ways to cope with plant pathogens and expand the breeder’s toolkit is to use genetic modification (GM) and genome editing. These solutions, with no adverse effect on plant agronomy, are efficient and deployed thoughtfully.

Several genetic interventions can ultimately increase the natural defense system of plants by improving disease resistance in crops. For example, many plants are vulnerable to infection because they cannot detect the invading organism. However, increasing the natural defenses of plants may reduce the impact of plant-pathogens on agricultural productivity.

Using genetic engineering techniques, the proteins that identify an infection and activate a plant’s defense can be moved between varieties or even species. It will enable previously vulnerable crops to turn on resistance mechanisms. For example, this modification helped to cope with late light (the most devastating potato disease in the world) and bacterial spot disease in tomato.

For your further detailed knowledge, here are the currently available research studies of genetic disease solutions, based on pathogen perception;

Point of InterventionGM technologyReferences
Increasing the natural defenses of plants by pathogen perceptionInterspecies transfer of pattern-recognition receptorLacombe et al. (2010); Schoonbeek et al. (2015);
Boschi et al. (2017);
Kunwar et al. (2018)
Interspecies transfer of nucleotide-binding leucine-rich repeat (NLRs)Foster et al. (2009);
Horvath et al. (2012)
Modification of nucleotide-binding leucine-rich repeat (NLRs)Maqbool et al. (2015)
Nucleotide-binding leucine-rich repeat (NLR) protease trapKim et al. (2016)
NLR resurrectionWu et al. (2017)

 

In this way, genetic engineering helps to tackle 11–30% average global yield losses, and, in turn, improves global food supplies.

  • Resistance to Selected Herbicides

Genetic engineering also helps farmers to eliminate weeds without harming their crops. The crops are genetically altered in such a way that they are not affected by the herbicides. These crops have alluring advantages: more lenient weed management, reduced crop damage when herbicides are sprayed, and even the potential for environmental benefits.

For example, glyphosate-resistant crops can increase farming efficiency by helping to get rid of weeds.

  • Natural Biopesticide

Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that around 5 billion pounds of pesticides are used each year globally, costing more than 35 billion dollars. However, with the arrival of genetic engineering, new, profoundly targeted procedures for pest control have become accessible in the form of transgenic plants that are created to have insecticidal traits.

These natural biopesticides and insecticides inside the parts of the plant that pests eat protect the yields of these crops against insect infestation, which is arguably more environmentally friendly than using sprays that could be toxic to other organisms.

For example, Bt crops are highly effective at combating pests.

  • Supercharged Photosynthesis

Plants use photosynthesis to convert light energy, water, and carbon dioxide into food. So, improving photosynthesis would increase how much food we produce.

In the 17th International Congress on Photosynthesis Research, the obvious discussed target to improve photosynthesis was the step that captures carbon dioxide, as it sometimes mistakes oxygen for carbon dioxide in a wasteful set of reactions called photorespiration. To reduce the rate of photorespiration, some plants possess a system that pumps carbon dioxide into specialized parts of the leaf where most photosynthesis occurs, concentrating it there so that photorespiration doesn’t happen. These species are known as C4 plants, which can make more use of sunlight at higher temperatures and need less water.

It has been estimated that transferring these mechanisms (C4 engineering and supercharged photosynthesis) into other crop species such as rice could increase productivity by 50%.

Recently, geneticists announced that they’d made a significant advance in engineering rice plants to carry out photosynthesis in a more efficient way. Moreover, a new type of wheat, the Genetically Modified Super Wheat, has been introduced in which productivity increased by 20% by speeding up the recycling of ribulose bisphosphate, which is vital for carbon dioxide capture.

  • Biofortification (Improving nutrition)

Plants are not just being genetically altered to increase their quantity but also their nutritional status.

Golden Rice

In developing countries, 500,000 people become blind every year, mainly children, and 50 percent of them die within a year of becoming blind. Nearly nine million children die of malnutrition each year. Vitamin A deficiency seriously affects the immune system; therefore, it is involved in many of these children’s deaths in the guise of various diseases. This deficiency is more common in populations whose diet is heavily dependent on rice. Recently, a research study reported that malaria deaths in children younger than five years of age had been linked to deficiencies in the intake of protein, vitamin A and zinc.

Golden rice is the most significant GM crop. It designed by the genetic alteration of the rice plant to generate and compile provitamin A (β-carotene) in the grain, something that doesn’t occur in typically occurring rice plants. This approach not only helps to cope with vitamin A deficiency and related diseases, which cause 250,000 deaths per year but also improve rice productivity.

 

Protein-rich potato

Protein malnutrition is also a leading challenge of the modern age, which is mostly caused by poor-quality diets that include high consumption of staple crops with less protein or low-quality proteins in terms of amino acid profile. Protein deficiency delays physical growth and development and lowers resistance to disease. And it may cause permanent impairment of the brain in young children and infants.

A promising approach is the genetic engineering of genes encoding proteins with high nutritional value into food crops. Recently, scientists developed a new generation of potatoes with enhanced nutritive value. Analyses of the potatoes revealed an up to 60% increase in total protein content to cope with protein malnutrition.

Fortified Cassava

Cassava is the principal source of calories for an estimated 800 million people worldwide, the prevailing focus of the Gates-funded project. But the abundant crop has various shortcomings. It is composed almost totally of carbohydrates, so it does not provide complete nutrition.

Scientists have developed Fortified Cassava, which could provide a day’s nutrition in a single meal.

 

Genetically Modified (GM) Food Controversies

Several people and authorities are still suspicious over the consumption of foods and other goods acquired from genetically altered crops instead of traditional plants and other utilization of genetic engineering in food generation. The disputes involve consumers, governmental regulators, farmers, biotechnology companies, non-governmental organizations, and scientists.

Specific concerns include;

  • Merging of genetically altered and non-genetically altered products in the food supply (1)
  • The effects of GMOs on the environment (2)(3)
  • The rigor of the regulatory process (4)(5)
  • Consolidation of control of the food supply in companies that make and sell GMOs (6)

Advocacy organizations, such as the Organic Consumers Association, Union of Concerned Scientists, Center for Food Safety, and Greenpeace, say GM foods risks have not been appropriately recognized and managed, and they have challenged the objectivity of regulatory authorities.

 

Potential Concerns of Genetically Modified Foods

The critics of genetic engineering of foods have some concerns, including:

  • Alteration in the nutritional quality of foods
  • Potential toxicity from GM foods
  • Potential allergenicity from GM foods
  • Unintentional gene transfer to wild plants
  • Possible creation of new viruses and toxins
  • The threat to crop genetic diversity
  • Religious/cultural/ethical concerns
  • Concerns for lack of labeling
  • Concerns of organic and traditional farmers
  • Religious/cultural/ethical concerns

 

Final Thoughts

Despite multiple concerns, people and animals have now been consuming GM crops for more than 20 years without apparent harm to their health. Also, there are unlimited scientific consensus[7][8][9][10] that currently available food derived from GM crops poses no greater risk to human health.

There is no question that starvation kills and that food insecurity is a major universal threat. There are unexpected, challenging times ahead. Can we afford to close the effective door on these powerful ways of genetic engineering to protect our food supply?

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