Genetic modified organisms (GMOs) have been around for over 30.000 years. Yet, over the past two decades, new technologies have made it possible to advance the genetic modification process. In the 1990s, the distribution of genetically engineered soy beans indicated the first time a major food product was introduced into the market. Advocates of genetic modification stress the major benefits for humans as well as the planet. However, from the start the technological advancement of the genetic modification process has also gone hand in hand with an increasing concern about the marketing of GMOs. Now, you might wonder how crops are genetically modified in the first place. And what exactly are the benefits and downsides of marketing genetically engineered food products? Read on to find out.
The genetic modification of an organism involves making small adjustments to its DNA. As you might know, each cell contains chromosomes, which are basically tightly coiled strings of DNA. Genes, in turn, are small units of DNA that determine certain traits, for example eye or hair colour. To produce a genetically modified organism, new genes are incorporated into a number of cells’ DNA. These cells are then grown into plants. Since cells divide and thereby produce new cells with identical DNA to the original cell, the new plant cells will automatically also contain the DNA that was previously introduced into the originally modified cell. The genetically engineered plant will therefore produce seeds that inherit the new DNA.
The argument for producing GMOs is two-fold. On the one hand, modification of crops that lead them to grow faster can help to feed the growing world population. On the other hand, crops can be genetically modified to create resistance against certain pests and plant diseases, which reduces the need for pesticides and other chemicals in the farming process. Genetic modification thus provides a way to nurture more people without putting an extra burden on the environment.
Pamela Ronald discusses an example of successful modification of a crop in her TED-talkat the TED conference in 2015. She investigated whether it would be possible to create a rice crop that could withstand emergence in water for long periods. In her talk, she stated that more than half the world population relies on rice as a staple food, yet each year rice farmers lose much of their production due to flooded fields. In the context of global warming, this flooding problem has become even more pressing. Regular rice crops can grow in standing water, but flooded fields cause them to die within three days. That is why Ronald, together with a colleague, to examine whether, through genetic modification, they could create a rice crop that would withstand flooding for multiple days. After a long research process, they found that one of the rice crops they had developed stayed alive after 17 days of being emerged in water. This genetically modified crop had the potential to solve the flooding problem many rice farmers encountered. Thus, in this case genetic modification was very successful.
On the other hand, public health should not be compromised through marketing GMOs. Claims have been made stating that consuming a GMO could have negative health implications, however, due to the short time span that genetically modified crops have been marketed, we don’t know if this is actually true. That is why transparency and labelling are important to inform consumers about whether they are buying a genetically modified product. This will allow people to make their own choices about which products they buy and consume. In any case, GMOs certainly have many benefits. But the eventual choice should always lie with the consumer.