Genetically modified organisms have gained a lot of attention in recent years, and opinions on their safety are varied. Despite the negative attention GMOs get, very few people understand their purpose or how they are created. Furthermore, GMOs provide far more benefits than risks to humanity.
Genetic engineering is nothing new. It has been utilized industrially since scientists first discovered how to mutate DNA in E. coli in the 1950s. The process of genetically engineering plants was first introduced in 1995 to crops like corn, cotton and soybeans in order to combat plant death from herbicide and insecticide poisoning.
For produce, genetic engineering can be as simple as selecting desirable traits in two species and crossing them in order to create offspring containing both traits, which is useful when trying to increase nutrition, flavor or hardiness in a plant.
Corn, which was first grown by indigenous Mexicans 10,000 years ago, is technically a GMO in itself because growers chose which kernels to plant based on which desirable traits certain plants exhibited. This method of selective breeding has increased cob size from mere centimeters long to the large size we’re familiar with today.
For feats more complex than breeding for size, such as combatting herbicide- and insecticide-related problems, gene editing is used. The process may at first seem extreme, but it is not a reason for public outcry. Gene editing is simple: For corn, cotton or soybean crops, genes leading to herbicide susceptibility are either deleted or those that provide herbicide resistance are incorporated.
In order to combat excessive pesticide use, a small gene fragment from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis is incorporated into the genetic makeup of the plant. This gene allows plants to naturally produce a protein toxic to bugs, thus protecting them from insect damage from the inside out. In these ways, gene editing has led to a reduction in chemicals used in the cultivation process, which ultimately makes for safer crops and environments.
Since the introduction of herbicide-resistant and insect-repellant genetically engineered crops in 1996, their adoption into modern farming has steadily increased. The reason is self-explanatory: Farmers don’t waste as much money on bug- or weed-infested crops or on using dangerous chemicals to prevent this from occurring, which increases their profits and allows them to be more eco-friendly.
Today, climate change threatens the production of many crops due to fluctuating temperature, rainfall, invasive species and disease. With the success of GMO crops in increasing herbicide tolerance and insect-resistance, the question of utilizing genetic engineering to select for hardier plants to combat a changing environment hangs on farmers’ shoulders.
These new crops could be obtained by crossing existing plants that adapt well to harsher climates with a desired crop like corn so the offspring would contain the new trait. This process could be done through cross-breeding by farmers, which could take many years, or through the use of genetic marking and incorporation. Both result in the same crop, but one option is much faster and more efficient.
People fear what they do not understand. Genetic engineering sounds daunting, but when one considers the practices actually used in creating them, it’s really not so different than mate selection in humans. The creation of a GMO boils down to selecting desirable traits so that the next generation is better adapted to their environment.
GMOs are not something to fear in food production. Many modern depictions of GMOs on the Internet, such as pictures of fruit being injected with chemicals or being tested by scientists in full-body hazard suits, give the wrong impression of what GMOs really are and how they’re made.
In many ways, GMOs actually protect the environment by reducing the use of harsh chemicals found in herbicides and pesticides. In other ways, they increase food quality in areas such as nutrition through gene complementation. Though they receive unprecedented amounts of scrutiny, there’s no doubt GMOs have revolutionized the modern food industry.