It’s the bottom line that got us in this quandary: higher yields + higher quality = happy consumers. Many thought genetically modified organisms (GMO) would be the missing factor to solve the equation. So why are so many people unhappy?
The original plan for GM foods was that it would lead to a greater crop yield and improve quality and nutrition. This in turn would help feed the world with superior quality foods and increase the profits of growers. Naturally, weeds and bugs stand in the way of increased crop yields so biotechnologists used genetic modification to develop seeds that would progress the bottom line.
Some may think this process is just speeding up the breeding process. However, many GM crops are made by mixing different species’ genes in a way that would never occur in nature. For example, GM plants are resistant to bugs because a piece of bacterial DNA, from Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt toxin), is inserted into plant DNA to give it insecticidal properties.
Once again, plants are given bacterial DNA to tolerate herbicides like glyphosate, one of the main ingredients in Round-Up. Unfortunately, the excessive amount of herbicides being used on crops, though they are bred to handle them, is causing problems in the environment and in humans. Glyphosate along with all the other chemical components of pesticides either get into the soil and water or remain on the plant awaiting human consumption. Studies show occupational glyphosate exposure, as well as exposure to individuals in close distance to fields being sprayed, may cause DNA damage and cancer in humans.
Furthermore, the reliance on glyphosate has led to the micro-evolution of resistant weed species. By not practicing better weed and pest management, we are setting the stage for the growth of “super weeds” and “super bugs” that can withstand the heavy pesticide and insecticide usage.
There is, however, another way to influence plant DNA. The developing scientific process of TILLING, targeted induced local lesions in genomes, is faster than traditional crossbreeding yet does not involve genetic engineering. Instead of adding foreign DNA, plants are exposed to physical and chemical agents and then screened for beneficial mutations that cause the plant to withstand the harsh experimental environment. With all the backlash on GMO, this new method may provide another option for improving the bottom line. Nevertheless, there are risks and drawbacks with TILLING along with benefits.
One could argue that no matter what you do, whether it is traditional crossbreeding, genetically modifying, or practicing TILLING, there will always be survival of the fittest. Weeds will respond to beneficial changes in plants (natural or human-induced) and only the strongest will reproduce. That is nature. All we can do is work to stay ahead of it. But we need to get ahead in a smart way—a way that will not negatively impact future plant and human life.
I am not necessarily opposed to biotechnology, but I also do not blindly support it. There are too few studies looking at the long-term effects of GM foods. What I would support is a more environmentally responsible way of doing things. Consider possible repercussions before diving into an idea. For example, do we want to spray chemicals all over the earth to support the crops of biotechnology? Weigh the positives and negatives that would result now and in the future.
If we can modify plant genes in a way that would actually be helpful, not harmful, to mankind, I think there would be more support. If this technology had more to do with improving the nutrition of people (Golden Rice) and bringing fewer burdens on the environment instead of being driven by profit, people would promote it. Until we carry out more research and implement mindful strategies, people will likely continue to be unhappy with GMO.