Pros and Cons of GMO Use

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Statement of Issue:

Genetically modified (GM) foods are a hot topic of debate and have been for over two decades. Currently, there are hundreds of millions of people in third world countries suffering from malnourishment. This is due to the fact that our world’s population is growing far too fast and more food is required in order to sustain it [1].

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There are various benefits and potential risks associated with the use of genetically modified organisms, and at times the research is not in clear support of one side over the other. One benefit of GM foods is that they can increase crop yields, resulting in higher food production and potential profits for farmers [2]. However, some experts believe that these claims may be either unsubstantiated or overexaggerated and the use of GM foods alone will not solve world hunger; there are more complicated issues involved [3].

Scientific Introduction and Background:

The US FDA defines genetically modified organisms (GMOs) as “animals or plants created through genetic engineering”, or direct and specific manipulation of the organism’s genome [4]. Traditional crop breeding involves the exchange of genes between two plants to create a new plant that has desired traits from one or both of the parent plants. To make this happen, male pollen is transferred to the female flower organs. This type of breeding is limited in that it can typically only be done between similar or related species. To get desired results, it can take a very long time, and even then the desired genes may not exist in compatible breeders. GM technology is novel because it allows for the artificial transfer of desired genes from one plant to another, regardless of breeding capabilities via biotechnology [2].

There are four key steps involved in the creation of a GMO; identifying what gene is of interest, isolating that gene, inserting DNA of that gene into a new organism, and the finally keeping that organism alive and reproducing. In order to identify a gene of interest, the key is often referring back to nature to see what plants are already capable of surviving in the environment the new organism is slated to survive in. for example, in the case of Roundup Ready plants, a gene was isolated from bacteria able to survive adjacent to a herbicide factory and was subsequently implanted into crops, conferring the resistance seen in the original bacteria [4].

In order to isolate the gene, or find the specific DNA sequence of interest, comparative analysis is used to compare genomes of the plant with the desired trait to the plant without the trait in order to find the portion unique to the plant with the trait. This gene is inserted into new plants in one of two ways. A gene gun can be used to insert metal particles coated in DNA from the gene of interest into the plant, where it gets incorporated into the genome. Alternatively, it is possible to engineer a plasmid containing the gene of interest and induce its uptake by bacteria known to invade the plant of interest; the bacteria can then insert the new DNA into the plant’s genome. From there, the new GM crop needs to genotypically checked to ensure that it is expressing the gene of interest, and carefully grown in controlled chambers [4].

Benefits of GM crops include reduced farming costs, increased profits, higher yields, better quality food, and less environmental harm. More specifically, first generation GM crops can decrease production-associated costs via tolerance to herbicides and insect resistance; second generation crops offer more direct benefits to consumers, such as increased nutritional content, non-bruising fruits, and healthier corn oils [2]. In the case of developing countries, the ability of GM crops to increase food production could potentially be beneficial. Critics of GM use in third world countries state that there must be enough food and that we must distribute it better, but this cant be the sole solution because even countries with surplus food distribute it poorly. GM crops could make it possible to increase their food production in order to not only increase supply, but improve their economies and decrease dependence on other countries [1]. However, a major issue is that the majority of developing countries have other confounding issues such as insufficient scientific capacity, insufficient regulatory capability, and lack of economic expertise [2].

When looking at the safety of GM crops, both human health and environmental risk must be considered. GM food safety is treated differently than traditional foods because the organism’s characteristics may have been modified, for either better or worse. Human health areas of concern include toxicity, allergenicity, stability of the gene transferred and the probability of further gene transfer, and unintended effects. Environmental concerns stem from the potential for genes to enter wild populations, decrease biodiversity or encourage invasive species, and increase the use of pesticides. From the perspective of public opinion, people are concerned about GM foods because up until the early 1990’s most people had little understanding of molecular research. Further, outright benefits to the consumer are few, since the food isn’t cheaper and doesn’t last longer. In Europe specifically, several food scares have made people distrust risk assessments, particularly if there is little information on long-term effects [5].

GM crops currently usually fall into one of 3 categories: resistance to viral infections, resistance to insect damage, or tolerance to herbicides. In the near future, it is likely to see GM foods with increased nutritional content. Scientists are also working on other beneficial traits such as resistance against drought and other enhanced growth characteristics [5]. Around 30 countries produce GM crops, but just 5, including the US and Brazil, are responsible for 90% of the production. Corn, cotton, canola, and soybeans account for 99% of GM crops grown, with soybeans being roughly 50% [6].

In Favor of the Use of GMOs

It would be amiss to not discuss the inherit benefits of GMOs before deciding whether or not their use is appropriate to alleviate world hunger. Benefits include increased crop production, herbicide tolerance and use of tillage systems that is beneficial for the environment, reduced pesticide use, economic prosperity, and the potential for increased human health.

In terms of productivity, GM seeds are designed to increase productivity and profitability because the resultant plants are supposed to be more efficient and resilient [6]. One way this is done is through the introduction of genes that cause resistance against plant diseases or that can increase tolerance to pesticides. One example is the conferral of insect resistance. A gene for toxin production from the bacteria bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) is added to plants. It is a common insecticide and safe for human to consume. When crops produce this toxin they require less pesticide to be protected. The same principle applies to the insertion of viral genes to confer resistance against said viruses [5]. As a result, the need for external pesticide use is reduced, making crops easier to manage, resulting in less loss of yield, and thus making farming more sustainable. In fact, studies done by the USDA have shown a relationship that links the use of herbicide resistant and pesticide tolerant GM crops with increased crop yields. Similar benefits have been seen not only in the United States, but also as far as India, South Africa, and the Philippines [6].

In terms of environmental benefits, the reduced use of pesticides results in reduced water and soil pollution. Herbicide tolerant (HT) crops have been successful at improving methods of weed management. Mixtures of different herbicides can control many different weeds but are not always reliable and are often expensive. Many HT crops allow for the use of a single, nonspecific herbicide for all weeds [6]. By keying in on just a few methods rather than many diverse methods of herbicides, HT crops have made weed control much simpler and has been suggested to have led to an overall decrease in herbicide use [7]. There are many obvious benefits to reduced pesticide use, including less exposure to farms, less residue in food or in feed crops, less chemicals being released into the environment, and increased pollinator diversity [6].

The use of little to no tillage is beneficial for decreasing soil erosion, and while it is a correlation not a causation, studies have shown that farmers who use GM crops are more likely to practice conservation tillage, and those who use less tillage were more likely to use GM seeds [6]. This farming technique conserves soil and moisture, while decreasing carbon dioxide emissions, leading to an overall decreased environmental footprint [8]. In fact, GM crop-associated fuel reduction has decreased carbon dioxide emissions the equivalent of taking 500,000 cars off the road [6].

In regards to human health, reduced exposure to insecticides is always beneficial. Even when insecticides are still used, GM crops usually utilize glyphosate, which is fairly-nontoxic [6]. On top of crop loss, insects can carry diseases harmful to humans. Crops that are pest resistant due to the Bt toxin genes protect against specific insects and are harmless to humans. Bt technology has the capability to reduce levels of mycotoxin contamination that can be found in grain, lowering nutritional quality of food and limits weight gain in farm animals being used for food [9]. All GM foods on the market must pass regulatory approval from the US FDA or the European EFSA. Most interestingly, GM crops can be modified to improve health and nutritional quality. This may lead to a decrease in allergens, or increased protein or nutritional content. This can have applications in developing countries where hunger is prevalent. Finally, when considering the economy, GM crops have value because of operational benefits to farmers, including cost reduction from using less pesticides and increased crop yields [6]. Continued adoption of GM crops has led to economic advantages and farm profitability in both the US and developing countries [8].

All of these benefits must be considered when determining if the use of GM crops is appropriate for third world countries and the amelioration of hunger, both from a safety standpoint in general as well as more specifically and situationally. As mentioned, the world’s population is rapidly growing and is expected to hit 11 billion by 2100 [6]. Some people believe GM seeds can help in feeding this growing population. Even countries that produce surplus amounts of food have a tendency to distribute it poorly, and thus poor countries must find a way to increase their food production. Food production on a global scale requires that crops are able to be grown in more tropical and less temperate climates. These areas are often riddled with pests, plant diseases, and poor-quality soil. Due to the prevalence of insects, post-harvest losses can be extremely high. Further, there are rarely adequate storage conditions, which can lead to further food lost. In these cases, GM foods that are fortified against pest resistance and strengthened for extreme climates can help this problem [1].

Weed management is a massive undertaking. In developed worlds, we have plenty of technology, but in developing countries there is a lot less infrastructure, and long labor hours in the fields are often required. In regardless to the lack of appropriate technology, there is either a lack of resources to adapt new technology, or the technology does not exist because major research companies have no financial incentive to find solutions for weeds that are specific to crops grown in African or Asian countries. As a result, HT or Bt crops play a huge role as they are one of the few labor-light options for superior crop growth [9].

As new novel GM crops are being developing, one with massive potential is drought-tolerant crops. These crops have the potential to increase food production by 35% in dry conditions. This is important because a drought in TX in 2009 led to crop losses that cost over $3.5B. The situation is far worse in developing countries such as Sub-Saharan African where there is little to no rainfall, and little use of irrigation systems. Here, the potential of these crops is enormous [9]. By not finding better solutions, the environment is put at risk in the sense that millions of hectacres of tropical forests are being leveled yearly in the attempt to find better farm land [1].

The majority of farmers in third world countries who live rurally rely on subsistence agriculture, or the production of just enough food to get by. If productivity is increased, they have the potential to not only survive, but to develop a form of income. Most subsistence crops are rice and corn, and thus Bt corn has a role. When farmers are able to financially benefit from the use of these crops the economy can be stimulated. Looking into further impacts, if farm yield is increased, families can profit enough to be able to afford to send their kids to school; easier field management would also mean that women and children are free to get an education [9].

Before the wide-spread use of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers, no one ever considered that world hunger could potentially be eliminated. The introduction of crops that could grow with the use of these chemicals was called the Green Revolution. Some analyses have shown that hunger decreased by 16% during the two subsequent decades, and now people are calling for a new Green Revolution, this time using genetically altered plants [3]. For the reasons previously described, and for ones not yet presented, there may or may not be a place for GMO technology in solving world hunger. But there is no doubt that plant biotechnology can positively affect developing countries in other ways. As malnutrition is a major issue for both women and children, fortification of foods can help. An excellent example of this is the existence of Golden Rice, a crop enriched for Vitamin A, which is needed for both vision and the development of an immune system. Vitamin A Deficiency leads to 2.2 million deaths/year. Finally, plants can be used to produce cheap oral vaccines that are often temperature stable. Through plant biotechnology, vaccines have been developed for Hepatitis B, rabies, and even diarrheal diseases, which is largely significant considering diarrheal diseases account for a huger number of under-5 deaths in developing countries [9].

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