Society and the Environment
April 22, 2014
Genetically Modified Organisms—Harmful or Beneficial?
Genetic engineering in agricultural crops serves as an exciting route in future possibilities of food production. Several benefits result from this technology, where genetically modifying crops has the capacity to improve genes that provide better resistance to stress—whether it be resistance to pests, severe weather such as frost or drought, disease, or from chemical compounds. For example, plants can be genetically engineered to produce their own Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a bacterium that occurs naturally in the soil in which disrupts the digestive systems of insects upon consumption.i An additional benefit is the possibility for farmer’s to use fewer pesticides in treating GM crops. Non-GMO crops are significantly more affected by pests, as traditional crop breeding is limited by the time taken to move resistance traits into crop genetic backgrounds and has limited gene pools in which to search for novel resistance.ii Furthermore, resistance based on single genes does not protect against the full spectrum of pests, weeds, and diseases, and is more likely to break down as pests evolve counter-resistance. GM-based crop protection could substantially reduce the need for farmers to apply pesticides to their crops, for resistance genes can be introduced into the crops to provide multiple resistances and make it more difficult for pests to evolve counter-resistance.iii Because GM techniques greatly facilitate gene transfer, it can provide a possible solution to overcome these constraints within traditional crops that make it more susceptible to pests. GMOs also have the capacity for use in bioremediation, where GMO organisms can restore properties of the soil affected by nutrient depletion, heavy metals or groundwater pollution. Genetic manipulations to organisms such as bacteria could modify enzyme specificity and design a new metabolic pathway in order to decompose specific chemical compounds.iv Innovation GMO technology can provide an alternative solution for wild strains which degrade contaminants slowly or not at all. With the influx of dangerous made-made pollutants such as polychlorinated biphenyls and hydrocarbons, it is necessary to decrease the level of toxic compounds in order to maintain a viable environment.v Genetic engineering also has the capability to breed organisms for restoring depleted soil by reestablishing the nutrient levels otherwise destroyed by agricultural practices.vi However, GMO technology does contain various weaknesses, where there exists a lack of testing and a shroud of public uncertainty concerning the safety of the products. This lack of testing is a huge weakness, as it contributes to a negative and uncertain public perception on GMOs from the lack of any long term testing on the side affects. However, according to a study on rats conducted by Ewen et al., there is proof in the possibility for unhealthy side affects from GM food consumption. The team found that diets containing GM potatoes expressing the lectin Galanthus nivalis agglutinin (a gene to increase pest resistance) had negative effects on parts of the rat gastrointestinal tract.vii The rats fed a GM diet had a significantly greater mucosal thickness of the stomach, as well having a growth-promoting effect in the jejunum, evident in crypt hyperplasia.viii Despite the results, there has been some backlash at the findings, for some argue that the study is not a significant source as the rats were fed in excessive amount without any variety of diet.ix An additional weakness is the possibility of unintended gene transfer by cross-pollination from GMO crops to non-GMO crops. A variety of research exists in observing this phenomenon, where it is proven that gene transfer can occur in most crops, and that transfer is influenced by factors such as pollination mode, genetic stability, fitness and fertility of hybrids, and proximity and size of crop populations.x While the contamination of non-GM crops by GM crops will likely impose costs on producers and consumers, how contamination might manifest across an agricultural landscape is not well understood.xi Policies that enforce a certain spatial distance between GM and non-GM crops have developed, primarily for this risk of consumer dissatisfaction. Again a lack of research contributes to the shroud of uncertainty, representing a key weakness in GMO products. Despite the overwhelming benefits that GMOs provide in the agricultural context, it does propose various threats financially and ecologically. The fate of this innovative food technology is largely based upon the public’s receptiveness to the products, as consumer demand drives the market. A negative public perception towards the genetic engineering of agricultural products would be a major risk in the future of the technology. In one particular study conducted by Chen et al., a specified population was given a survey in order to investigate consumer attitudes towards GM foods. The results indicate that consumer acceptance is affected by a variety of factors including risk perception, environmental impacts, opinions on GM food labeling, and the perceived differences between GM and non-GM foods.xii Among all, the high risk associated with GM foods as perceived by the responders was the biggest deterrent to consumer acceptance of such foods, indicating the necessity to educate the public with a better scientific knowledge of GMOs.xiii The lack of information is a major hindrance to the consumer market, however this can easily change by publishing more data on the possible benefits. GMOs also have several positive implications in regards to future opportunities. Genetic engineering of food has the possibility of creating a sustainable way in which to feed the world. Because genetic engineering can alter the nutritional content in food, developing countries with high starvation rates have the opportunity to increase vitamin intake without changing the amount of food ingested.xiv GM foods provide a solution in equitable food security with the continuing rise in population and consumption rates. By genetically modifying crops to withstand adversities in climate and in environment, GMOs have the opportunity to grow within unfavorable conditions, proving vital as feasible land devoted to agriculture is quickly diminishing from population growth. Genetically engineered crops represent a vital solution that increases agricultural output while also minimizing environmental impact.xv Norman Borlaug, who played a leading role in the first green revolution, has stated, “Genetically engineered crops are playing an increasingly important role in world agriculture…I believe biotechnology will be essential in meeting future food, feed, fibre, and biofuel demand”.xvi With the increased development of GMO crops, this technology has the opportunity to provide a sustainable way to support growing populations with increased nutritional content and the ability to grow in unfavorable conditions.