Is it a threat?
Breeders of plants and animals have long been using techniques to modify organisms. Artificial selection of specific traits has resulted in a variety of different organisms, ranging from yeast and bacteria to insects, plants, fish and mammals.
Within the last decades, advances in the biotechnology field have allowed scientists to control and modify the DNA of crop plants, farm animal and soil bacteria – some of the most prominent examples of organisms subject to genetic engineering.
What are GMOs and GM crops?
“GMO” stands for a “genetically modified organism” that is altered using technology which involves the specific modification of DNA, as well as its transfer from one organism to another – scientists call this process genetic engineering.
Modification may include the mutation, elimination or insertion of genes from another species to achieve characteristics that may be more desirable.
Similarly, “GM crops” are engineered to introduce a new trait into the species, aiming to increase resistance to pests, diseases, environmental conditions or to chemical treatments such as herbicides.
Source: The Farmer’s Daughter USA
How does genetic engineering differ from traditional breeding techniques?
The process of modifying the natural characteristics of organisms has been occurring for many decades, and has evolved throughout the years.
The difference between traditional breeding methods and genetic engineering is that, while the former relies on selection by using natural processes of reproduction, the latter consists of inserting genetic material – i.e., DNA – via direct gene introduction or via a specially designed bacterial truck (processes which do not occur in nature).
The main disadvantage of conventional methods is that they can be lasting, and often produce mixed results (with unwanted and desired traits combined). This explains why scientists wanted to develop a method which would specifically target the modification of DNA and allow for more “accurate” results, more quickly.
Source: GMO answers
What are GMOs used for?
Nowadays, GMOs are mostly used in agricultural plants, as they allow for increased crop yields and are resistant to diseases and pests. GM crops mature faster and tolerate environmental stressors, allowing plants to grow in conditions where they would not otherwise flourish.
GM animals are mainly used for research purposes, being used as “models” to study the progression of species and genetic determinants of various diseases. Nonetheless, salmon is an example of a GM animal which is engineered to grow larger and mature faster, and whose production is dedicated to human consumption.
Techniques used to create GMOs are also widely used in scientific research and pharmaceuticals. As a matter of fact, genetic engineering was first used to make human insulin, a hormone which our organisms produce naturally but does not exist in sufficient quantities in diabetic people.
Other applications include: the production of nonprotein and nonindustrial products (bioplastic and ornamental plant); and some GM cotton plants (used to create cotton fibre which makes fabric).
There are many industries which can benefit from GMOs in the future. Products in development include: microorganisms as future clean fuel producers; plants as vaccine components; animals to grow human transplant tissues and organs (xenotransplantation) – amongst others.
What benefits do genetically modified foods bring to the economy, the society and the environment?
As per data available, about 18 million farmers cultivate GMO crops in 28 different countries. 90% of them live in poor conditions, and if it were not for the biotechnological advances, they would not have been able to increase their yields. It is estimated that this has helped alleviate poverty for 16.5 million small farmers. Thus, genetic engineering has had a significant positive impact on farm income due to enhanced productivity and efficiency gains, ultimately contributing to the development of the countries in which these crops are cultivated.
GM crops have helped reduce the footprint of agricultural practices by leading to a smaller use of inputs and enabling the adoption of conservation tillage (which also prevents soil erosion, as farmers can better and less expensively control weeds, compared to conventional cropping systems). These practices have led to a decreased use of tractors and thus require less fuel. As a result, CO2 emissions have dropped by 26.7 billion kg, the equivalent to removing 11.8 million cars from the road for one year.
Pest-resistant crops also help reduce the environmental impact by reducing the need to use pesticides, using less land to produce more and, at the same time, conserving biodiversity.
Moreover, the drought tolerance trait of GMOs helps crops cope with environmental stress factors and still yield when periods of drought occur without the use of additional water from irrigation, helping reduce associated waste.
Finally, GM foods also benefit the final consumer: while the cost of food is impacted by factors such as the price of oil, transportation costs, temperature changes, etc., GMOs allow to keep those prices as low as possible.
What about the public concerns regarding GMOs’ long-term safety?
One of the key preoccupations with GM foods relates to the triggering of allergic reactions: because these foods contain foreign DNA, people worry that they possess genes from others that prompt allergic reactions. However, scientists run various tests to ensure that allergens are not transferred from one food to another, and research has shown that GM foods are no likelier to trigger allergic reactions than the non-GM ones.
Likewise, there is a worry that they aid the development of cancers: because GM foods are caused by DNA mutations, people fear that eating foods with added genes may affect their DNA. Despite this, no study ties GMO intake to an increased or decreased risk of cancer.
Other fears include the possible spreading of the genetically engineered foreign DNA to non-GMO plants and animals.
For all these concerns, though, more long-term studies are needed, despite current research suggesting few risks. Thus, GM foods are constantly subject to regulations and rigorous safety assessments.
Should GM foods be labelled?
The confusion around GM foods is intensified by a lack of information, which in turn causes insufficient trust to consumers. Genetic engineering can be challenging to explain, and when GM foods were first produced, companies wanted to hide GMO labels, hoping that limiting the visibility of this technology would limit public concern, too.
With GMOs hidden from public view, it’s understandable that people still question them, and nowadays, consumers are demanding more information about what is in their food and how it is produced. People have not stopped eating GM foods – they simply are not aware of it, most times. Transparency would have prevented most of the controversy that is behind this topic and would have saved many failed governments’ attempts to find an equilibrium that meets the interests of both consumers and companies who are still against GMO labelling.
Henceforward, GMOs are expected to keep playing an important role in biomedical research. GM foods may provide better nutrition and perhaps even be engineered to contain medicinal compounds that boost human health.
As much divisive this topic may be, data tells us that GM crops have shown to contribute to food security, sustainability, the environment and climate change. With a growing population reaching 9.9 billion people by 2050, food sources must be secured. The benefits that biotechnology has brought to humankind seem to outweigh any disadvantages and concerns, thus representing a good way to improve society’s welfare and contribute to a more sustainable future.
Regulation, coexistence, and risk/value perceptions will determine the future of GMOs, but if long-run research is made, if there is transparency and an increased education on this topic, resistance to these products will most likely diminish.
For some science behind the modification of the DNA:
Should We Be Worried About GMOs?
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