Genetically Modified Plants
Genetically Modified Organisms, better known as GMO’s, are plants or animals whose gene code has been altered using genetic information from other living organisms such as bacteria, other plant species, animals, and even humans. Typically, genetic modification of plants involves the addition of genetic sequences coding for specific proteins that result in a desirable heritable trait. These proteins alter the biology of the plant to enhance characteristics that are beneficial to humans. But along with altered or added genes for improving our yield and quality, unwanted traits can be passed along with the desired traits. Both the desired and unintended new traits in our food supply have caused great concern among consumers and scientists. Although the benefits of GMO crops has been clearly demonstrated, the full effect of these new traits is not fully understood. As a result, even while GMO products flood our food chain, many consumers and farmers worldwide worry about the negative impact on human health and the environment that GMOs can cause (Chassy, 2007).
Since the development of agriculture in human history, humans have been altering the genetic makeup of domesticated plants and animals through cross-breeding. But modern technology that has developed since the 1970’s has dramatically altered the pace at which scientists can alter plants and animals to select for and create the desired traits. These traits are meant to to increase and strengthen our food supply. The methods for achieving desired genetic alterations are many, but can include gene editing by deleting and inserting genes between plant species; protoplast fusion, which involves fusing various plant cells together in the laboratory to combine traits; and forced mutagenesis using radiation or chemicals. (6 Different Processes Used to Genetically Modify Crops, 2018).
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Today, 60 to 70 percent of processed foods in grocery stores contain at least some genetically modified plant ingredients. In the US, more than 93 percent of the corn and soy planted is genetically modified in some way (Plumer, 2015).
One of the foremost benefits of introducing GMOs to agriculture is increased resistance of plants to pests. Insect, bacterial, viral, and fungal organisms can all drastically lower crop yield. The total global loss of crops due to pests varied from about 50% in wheat crops to over 80% in cotton yield (Oerke, 2005). The loss of this substantial supply of potential food can result in starvation in less developed countries that depend on those crops to survive. To prevent such crop high losses, farmers are forced to use massive amounts of pesticides to control the pest populations. These pesticides have their own profile of unwanted biological effects and can cause harm to the environment and leach into groundwater. By genetically engineering crops to grow with pesticides inserted into their genetic code, much less external pesticide will need to be applied. The best known example of this is insertion of the B.t. gene (Gassmann & Hutchison, 2012). Bt refers to a protein naturally produced by the soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis, which produces a protein that kills Lepidoptera larvae, commonly known as the European corn borer. This Bt gene has been genetically inserted into corn seeds and sold to farmer to produce a crop that requires a substantially lower amount of external pesticides, resulting in lowered impact to the surrounding environments and lower cost to the farmer in protecting the crops from destruction (Vries, 2000).
In addition, plant crops can be protected from weeds that choke crop yields in much the same way as insect pests. Weeds compete with crops for water, nutrients, and light and can result in large losses in crop yield, in particular early in the growing season. Heavily affected crops include corn, soybeans, and wheat (Hartzler, 1997). Farmers are therefore forced to protect their crops from yield by spraying large amounts of herbicides to act as weed killers. These herbicides are frequently also injurious to the crop plant itself. By genetically modifying crop plants to be tolerant of a commercial herbicide in a way that the weeds are not, crops can grow in the presence of powerful herbicides while the weeds are eliminated. For example, probably the best known herbicide in use is Round-Up (glyphospate), a product developed by Monsanto. Monsanto will sell this product to farmers, and also will sell patented seeds that grow crop plants resistant to their own herbicide. This results in reduced overall use of herbicides and increased protection of the surrounding environment and water supply (Ronald, 2017). This can also save the farmer money in terms of the quantity of the herbicide that must be purchased. However as will be discussed later, farmers then must buy both the patented herbicide and patented seed from a single source (e.g. Monsanto), rendering them vulnerable to a corporate monopoly (Dorothy, 2012).
In addition to protection of crops from insect pests and weeds, plant crops are vulnerable to diseases caused by viruses, bacteria, and fungi. Viruses can kill off entire harvests year after year, and often there is no cure. An interesting example of this kind of deadly virus is the papaya ringspot virus. In Hawaii farmers were losing millions of dollars annually due to papaya crops infected with the ringspot virus because the virally infected fruits were inedible. There was no known cure. But in 1992, a scientist at Cornell University named Dennis Gonsalves inserted a gene from the ringspot virus into the papaya plant’s genetic code, creating a papaya plant that was genetically resistant to ring spot (Gonsalves, Ferreira, & Fitch, 2004). This GMO development all but eliminated the papaya ringspot virus problem and now nearly all papaya exported from Hawaii into the food supply is derived from this same GMO plant (Brodwin, 2017). GMO crops can also be produced that can grow successfully in areas formerly unusable for agriculture. Plants resistant to drought, salinity, and frost have been developed. For example. Plant biologists have placed a so-called antifreeze gene from some species of cold water fish such as flounder into plants such as tomatoes or tobacco. With this gene, these GM plants could potentially produce the same proteins and fish that prevent freezing and protect the seedlings from destruction by freezing and ice crystal accumulation. This controversial technique has not yet been entirely successful, but such research illustrates the possibilities and scope of GMO agriculture potential (The Monsanto GMO Story, 2000).
Yet another possible advantage of use of GMOs is improving human nutrition by increasing the nutrients available in the current food chain. For example, millions of people, especially children, die every year due to chronic Vitamin A deficiency (VAD). VAD is the leading cause of preventable blindness in children globally. Many children who suffer from VAD live in less developed countries (LDC’s) where rice is the main staple food (Reddy, 1981). Plant biologists were able to develop a genetically modified form of rice called Golden RIce which contains higher contents of vitamin A and is so named for its golden color due to the presence of beta carotenoids, a dietary precursor to Vitamin A. In some populations, introducing just a small amount of golden rice daily in place of traditional rice has the potential to provide enough vitamin A to drastically reduce the incidence of VAD blindness, chronic disease, and death due to VAD (Dubock, 2017).
However, the controversies over genetically modified foods are fueled by several potential long term disadvantages in its use. There are several potential hazards, and these may include environmental risks, human health dangers, and increasing economic hardships for farmers and LDC populations.
First, increased use of GMO crops could wreak environmental havok when these genes leak into the natural ecosystem. Although farmers will ideally separate GMO crops from non-GMO crops during cultivation, release of GMO pollen into uncontaminated crops and into the wild is nearly impossible to prevent. These altered and added genes could have devastating effects on the natural ecosystem. Once released into the ecosystem, these biological traits cannot be recalled and there is no long term research on the effects of this genetic leakage (Goyal & Gurtoo, 2011). These genetic traits that then confer unnatural advantages in the wild could result in cross-breeding, creating environmentally robust species that are also resistant to herbicides. The resulting superweeds can quickly become invasive and would be very difficult or impossible to eradicate. The super-weeds could choke naturally occurring species, driving the destruction of the biodiversity wild plant and the animals who depend on those plants. Once these forces are unleashed, it might never be possible to rein them in (Kling, 1996). Currently farmers ae seeing increasing number of superweeds invading their crop fields and devastating their harvests. In Ohio, the weed marestail is choking may kinds of crops meant for human and animal food, and in Kansas, waterhemp weed is destroying millions of acres of soybeans. Both of these weeds are now tolerant to Roundup and other herbicides, and are continuing to spread uncontrolled (Super weeds pose growing threat to U.S. crops, 2011).
In addition, numerous human health concerns have been raised by the rising use of GMOs. Increasing number of children are developing life-threatening allergies to foods, including peanuts, tree nuts, or wheat, By introducing a gene into a plant that codes for specific proteins, that protein might cause a dangerous allergic reaction that would not be caused by a non GMO plant. For example, a gene from the Brazil nut was inserted into the soybean plant to improve its nutritional value. But studies revealed that a severe allergic reaction or sudden death can occur when that protein in the modified soybean is unknowingly consumed by an individual with a Brazil nut allergy. This is a stark example of a life threatening risk of GMO food dispersal into the food supply (Nordlee, Taylor,, Townsend, Thomas, & Bush, 1996). Also many groups who oppose GMO crop production and consumption are concerned not just about food allergies, but about the long term health effects on the human population. There are currently no long term studies available on GMO safety, in part because this technology is so recent. However, in the absence of independent scientific data on long term effects, populations who are exposed to these organisms in the human food supply might be at risk to entirely unknown hazards. Some groups claim that consumers at large are being used as guinea pigs to observe if any long term effects will occur (Bittman, 2015). For example, the recently developed Canadian GM maize SmartStax can contain up to eight different pesticides, and there are to date no long term studies to evaluate its impact on human health. (Claire, 2009)
Those who worry about the effects of GMOs are not only concerned with effects on human health and the environment, but also with the effects on the world economy. Agricultural biotech companies are investing billions into the development and success on GMOs and they want to profit financially on this research as much as possible. New GMO’s are legally patented, and preventing violation of these patents is a huge priority for corporations like Monsanto and Novartis (Zhou, 2015). Much like novel medications brought to market, the prices of seeds during the patent period might be set extremely high to ensure profitability. As a result, farmers in poorer countries might be left unable to purchase the GMO seeds. This will worsen economic disparity between very rich and very poor as only large crop producers will be able to afford the GMO seeds. The poor could be left with a low yield of an inferior crop, while the rich continue to reap the benefits of the modified crops (Benishek, 2014). In addition, to enforce their patents, scientists have introduced self-termination or suicide genes into their protected seeds as a bio-containment strategy. This allows the seed producer to impose a genetic nutrient requirement, so that any farmer who grows these GMO seeds will also need to purchase the nutrient to allow the crop to grow. Typically this nutrient is also patented and sold but the same biotech company that sold the patented seed (Highly safe biocontainment strategy hopes to encourage greater use of GMOs, 2017). This sort of monopoly, if unchecked, could create financial and agricultural devastation for growers in the third world who cannot afford these exclusive and branded seed and growth products (Dorothy, 2012).
It appears that for each benefit of GMO plant introduction into the human food chain, there can be potential risks. It is true that long term studies are lacking to ensure the long term safety of humans who consume GMOs, and that all too often we do not even know when we are consuming GMOs. On the other hand, there are over 300 scientific health studies on the effects of GMOs to date, and so far none have indicated any danger to humans of genetically altered food over traditionally domesticated food crops (Norero, 2018). I believe that the advantages of continued use of GMO food products outweigh the disadvantages. At present, the distribution of global food resources is not sufficient to provide nutrition to the entire human population, especially to the poorest people in LDC’s who need it. These people must be able to develop their land responsibly and successfully, without destroying their local environment, and GMO advances can help make this possible. While the risk of leaving these farmers vulnerable to agrobusiness monopolies is a real one, the possibility of helping starving third world populations to produce higher crop yields with greater nutritional value is even more real. It is true that regulatory agencies around the world must work together to help keep in check the motives of agricultural business, but scientific advancement in GMOs has the potential to simultaneously reduce environmental impact and decrease world hunger. This is too important an impact on our world to be left on the shelf.