GMO in Agriculture - World’s Scientific Breakthrough, Society’s Public Fear

The topic of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) is undeniably one of the most debated issues between the public, various scientific communities, and even as well as legislative institutions. However, whenever a certain point is scrutinized, it is always essential to go back to its roots leading to the origin. Genetic Modification has a long history that started with our ancestors through a process called “selective breeding”. 

The earliest organism known to be artificially selected - that is, selected for traits we humans thought would suit us - is the known Chinese native dogs found in East Asia, which dates back to around 32,000 years ago. However, the year 1973 is deemed to be the birth year of Modern Genetic Modification where Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cogen discovered a method to accurately cut a portion of a gene of an organism and transfer it to another. They did this to make a certain bacteria develop antibiotic resistance. In the following year, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Biology Professor, Rudolf Jaenisch and Genetic Engineer, Beatrice Mintz were successfully able to apply the mentioned procedure to animal vertebrates, wherein they introduced a foreign gene to mouse embryos. These findings were to be known as the foundation of the GMO technology.

With great successes within these areas, come thousands of speculations on its various applications.

Right after the breakthroughs’ development, the media, government officials, and scientists began to raise an eyebrow in terms of the potential harm it may bring to the human and ecosystem.

The disapproval of the public became more accentuated when Genetic Modification entered the cores of the food industry. In 1992, Flavr Savr Tomatoes became the first genetically engineered (GE) food crop introduced and approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The Vitamin A-rich Golden rice followed this in 2000 that is made to counter Vitamin A deficiency, which kills approximately over 500,000 people each year. Inventions like these are mainly for better crop survival, yield, and nutrition to fight significant world problems such as malnutrition. Also, this is seen as a countermeasure to a worsened food crisis predicted by the United Nations wherein in the year 2050, the world will need to produce 70% to 100%  more food to sustain the needs of the growing global population.

The scientific community continuously came together and concluded that eating most GE foods is as safe as consuming traditionally selected crops. However, this conclusion has not stopped nor hindered businesses from further investing in the present fear of GE food. Throughout several years countless controversies regarding GE food have been established. While some objections to the utilization of the mentioned technology are from religious or philosophical bases, many critics’ objections are from health and environmental concerns. 

For example, a 1999 study showed that there are harmful effects on butterfly populations in laboratory tests with Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) toxin, paving the way to strong objections with the use of Bt. But then, follow-up researches in actual farming fields verified and approved the safety of the technology.

Another example is a GMO crop that is made to be resistant to a herbicide named “Monsanto’s Roundup”. It is observed that the longer the crop is exposed in the market, the worse its effects on soil health and long-term plant fecundity. With the given information, a dilemma is brought up that asks the question – Even if it’s not harmful to my kind of species, could it be to others?

To counter the public outcry against GMO, multiple countries have placed restrictions on both its import and cultivation. In a 2013 article in the Nation said that 26 countries had total or partial bans on GMOs, “Including Switzerland, Australia, Austria, China, India, France, Germany, Hungary, Luxembourg, Greece, Bulgaria, Poland, Italy, Mexico and Russia,” and that “significant restrictions on GMOs exist in about sixty other countries.” Moreover, several American groups opposing the technology claim a law that would remove consumer demand in the market for modern GE crops, which is seen to cause a steep increase in food price and resource utilization.

On the other hand, South Africa and Sudan led the African continent in adopting GE technology, where both countries have existing established industries revolving the technology. Aside from alleviating famine and malnutrition in their individual territories, they were able to improve and create more revenues from the cultivation of GMO crops. Currently, South Africa has dedicated 1 million hectares of land for the use of GMO crops, making it one of the countries leading biotech cultivation in Africa. At the same time, Sudan reported an acceptance rate of 98% in its farmers for planting pest-resistant biotech cotton, with an estimated 90,000 farmers cultivating these Bt cotton on farms with an average size of  2.1 hectares. Due to this acceptance, these countries were able to double their agricultural exports over the years. However, while these countries are developing their agricultural sectors via GE technology, other parts of Africa denied the aid of GMO crops mostly brought by their suspicion of the technology’s underlying science. An example of this is in 2016, where Zimbabwe rejected GM maize imports as an aid for the country where 16% of their population at that time wherein need of food aid, mainly caused by its widespread crop failure and food shortages. Among the 47 countries in the continent, only 4 are allowing the cultivation of GMO crops, making a biotechnological border evident in the African continent. 

According to Robert Paarlberg, a professor at Wellesley College and Associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University, the main reason why most African countries made a barrier to the entry of the GM technology to their territories is that Africa followed Europe’s lead in its regulatory approach to this technology.

Stefan Jansson, a professor in Plant Cell- and Molecular Biology at Umeå Plant Science Centre/Umeå University, stressed one of the regulations given by the European Union (EU) in relation with GMO cultivation in a Ted talk. He pointed out that the methods like the usage of Agrobacterium are banned from creating GMOs even though an exact same GMO crop may be produced via radiation that is legal under the given legislation. He stated in his talk – “It does not make sense to have a legislation between identical plants.” and that it may seem to most scientists as “ridiculous” since these methods are interchangeable and will produce equivalents. What may be produced artificially may just as well be produced naturally, via natural selection.

This is seen to be very frustrating to some plant breeders because limiting the options in how to produce GMO crops will restrict the plant varieties they may be able to discover. Another speculation he has made is that CRISPR-Cas9 is not considered to be a method in producing GMOs since products done via this method are not considered to be GMO, as defined in the mentioned legislation. “GMO crops” is defined as – “Adding another piece of DNA to a plant that was not there,” wherein the case of CRISPR-Cas9, a portion is being removed rather than a part is being added. This is deemed to be very important since it showed that the legislation does not completely understand the entirety of GMOs.

Other than the mentioned benefits of GE technology, there are numerous potential uses of the technology in development, such as plants with enhanced disease and drought resistance, animals with better growth properties, and strategies for more effective and efficient pharmaceutical production. However,

if unnecessary legislations are placed to hinder its development, maybe these countless benefits and uses may soon become non-existent.

  • Should countries ban GMOs from food cultivation? 

  • Considering the positive and negative impacts of GMOs, do you think that it is beneficial or harmful overall?

We are more than thrilled to hear your takes in the comments section down below!

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