What are GMOs?
Genetically Modified Organisms or GMOs are animals, plants, microorganisms, etc that have had a portion of their genetic material artificially altered using genetic engineering techniques. This cannot occur naturally through two organisms mating and only via human technology. GMOs are usually made to benefit humans help solve food, environmental and/or health-related issues.
Are GMOs safe?
In 1994, the first genetically modified food was introduced to consumers, known as the ‘Flavr Savr Tomato’. It was modified to take much longer to decay than traditional tomatoes, increasing shelf life and reducing food waste. To begin with, it was seen as revolutionary and a step in the right direction. However, not long after it brought huge protests and anger from the public over health concerns. Today, GMOs are continuously seen as a risk to human health and something that should be banished from society. Although, are GMOs actually dangerous?
Currently, 92% of corn, 94% of soybeans and 94% of cotton are all genetically modified in the United States with over 88% of scientists claiming that genetically modified organisms do not pose a threat to human health or the environment. Even organisations such as the WHO (World Health Organisation) have commented “no effects on human health have been shown as a result of consuming GM foods”.
According to a plant pathologist, Pamela Ronald, she and others have been genetically modifying many different plants and medicines for over 40 years and today, they still lack a single case from their research that suggests this poses a threat to human health or the health of the environment.
A paper written back in 2016 by The National Academies Press said that the genetic modification of crops, such as corn, has actually benefited the health of humans and the environment. The paper stated, “GE insect-resistant crops have had benefits to human health by reducing insecticide poisoning”. This is because certain crops have been genetically altered, by introducing a bacteria known as ‘Bacillus thuringiensis’ into the plants’ genetic makeup. This bacteria poses no risk to mammals making the food safe to consume while eliminating insect infestation.
How GMOs may benefit the health of humans and the environment:
Land usage – Pesticides – Vitamin A deficiency – Water usage – Fast food – Mental health:
Land usage could drastically decline with more genetically modified crops. But how? Genetic modification can provide organisms with far more desirable traits. An example of reducing land usage would be to modify crops to produce more per every acre/hectare of land. Today, we have the technology to make crops produce more food with genetic modification, such as strawberry plants, which can be altered to produce more flowers. In the United States of America in 2014, genetically modified crops saved farmers over 51 million acres of land, the equivalent of all farmland in Iowa and Missouri!
If genetically modified crops weren’t used in 2014, an additional 22 million acres of corn, 19 million acres of soybean, 9 million acres of cotton and 1.5 million acres of canola crops would have been required to produce the same yield. According to another paper, from 1994 to 2014 GMOs have been responsible for increasing global production of soybeans by nearly 175 million tons, cotton by 27 million tons, canola by 10 million tons and corn by almost 355 million tons. Farmers growing genetically modified crops have received a 22% increase in crop yields on average.
By saving millions of acres/hectares of land, imagine how much land could be available for reforestation or saved from deforestation every year.
As previously mentioned, pesticide usage has declined in many farms where genetically modified crops are grown due to low insect infestation.
Over the last 20 years, pesticide usage has declined by a little over 8% worldwide, as a greater amount of genetically modified crops are planted annually. Today, genetically modified corn crops alone have reduced herbicide usage by more than 226 million kilograms from 1996. Due to the reduction in exposure to these dangerous chemicals, farms have seen far greater moisture retention, decreased erosion and far fewer emissions. Currently, pesticides kill over 200,000 people each year according to the United Nations (UN) along with 67 million birds and other animals. If we can eliminate or at least drastically reduce our consumption of pesticides, then millions of lives could be saved and the health of our plants and soil could greatly improve.
Vitamin A deficiency:
Vitamin A deficiency is a major threat to many developing nations, that often lack varied foods. Continents/areas such as Africa and Southeast Asia are often the hardest hit. Today, around 250 million preschool children in Africa and Southeast Asia combined, suffer from this deficiency due to a lack of carotenoids in their diet. Vitamin A deficiency can lead to blindness and even death in many cases. Around the world, an estimated 500,000 people go blind annually and more than half die due to a lack of vitamin A. To combat this issue, scientists modified rice to contain ‘Beta Carotene’, a compound found within carrots which the body can convert into vitamin A. This rice is known as ‘Golden rice’. According to Pamela Ronald, if many children were to consume simply one cup of Golden rice per day, it could save the lives of thousands annually. The Philippines has become the first country in the world to accept this new rice. Other countries’ governments such as Australia, the United States of America, New Zealand and Canada have all accepted Golden rice to be safe for consumers.
This new type of rice could potentially be the perfect solution to a huge health problem dominating lower-income countries, ultimately saving thousands of lives each year and saving people from potential blindness and misery.
Many areas in the world already experience water scarcity with the problem undoubtedly set to continue and worsen with global warming. Presently, much of the world water their crops with unsustainable amounts, an activity that cannot be continued. Recently, scientists have found a way to genetically modify plants to survive in extreme conditions with very limited water, producing an equivalent yield to plants grown traditionally.
Resurrection plants are the key to creating drought-tolerant crops, but what exactly are resurrection plants and how could they help?
Ressurection plants are plants that tolerate extreme dehydration for months and even years. These plants will often appear dead in hot climates but can completely regenerate, producing new flowers within a short period of time once hydrated with little water!
Jill Forrant, a professor of molecular and cell biology stated,
“these resurrection plants can lose over 95% of their water and survive for years”.
Her research is to examine what allows resurrection plants to survive and copy that into conventional crops. She mentioned “They [GM drought-tolerant crops] will not be able to tolerate such extreme desiccation as losing 95% of their water. But they will be able to tolerate drought for much longer periods than any of the drought-resistant crops currently available”. Jill Forrant has already conducted many experiments and found that these new drought-tolerant crops have copped significantly better when compared to traditional crops.
The human population is set to drastically increase as experts predict a total of 9.9 billion humans by 2050. That’s an increase in population by more than 25% from 2020. This means the demand for food will escalate rapidly. As previously mentioned, scientists can now genetically modify crops to produce more flowers, higher yields and become far more drought-tolerant.
However, what happens to other desirable foods such as fish?
How can we keep pace with demand while ensuring it doesn’t outstrip supply?
Atlantic salmon is popular seafood worldwide yet it only grows in certain seasons, meaning it may become extinct as demand outpaces production. Although, Aquabounty Technologies came up with a solution to this concern back in 1989. We can now genetically modify Atlantic salmon to grow throughout the year by inserting specific hormone genes from a Pacific Chinook salmon, that traditionally grows year-round. This process enables Atlantic Salmon to grow in half the time, generating greater supply. Theoretically, this process could be mimicked for almost all seafood that grows at certain times of the year, thus helping provide the growing population with healthy food while ensuring we keep the marine ecosystem in balance.
This picture shows the difference between the genetically modified Atlantic salmon at the back, compared to the traditional Atlantic Salmon at the front. Both are the exact same age.
GMOs can help create vaccines, lower land and water usage, increase shelf life and much more but how do GMOs affect the mental health of individuals?
Scientists have found that the genetic modification of crops helping provide desirable traits such as greater yields, pest tolerance etc has improved the mental health of farmers by increasing production thus resulting in higher profits. Many low-income countries experiencing droughts and other environmental issues, can lead farmers into depression and anxiety. A report written in India from 2003 to 2016 stated that pest-resistant crops provided farmers with confidence around production, ultimately saving 75,000 Indian farmers from suicide in a single year! This is just one example.
Over 1.3 billion people live on a salary lower than $1.36 AUD ($1 USD) a day, making food increasingly difficult to provide for their families. Food insecurity is responsible for increasing anxiety by 257% and depression by 253%. With genetically modified crops, traits such as greater yields, pest tolerance and fast-growing, could help provide an increased food supply and in a quicker time frame. Greater production often leads to lower prices meaning countries with low incomes that face famine, could soon be capable of placing a sustainable amount of food on their table. The genetic modification of crops could see the end of world hunger and improve the mental health of billions globally.