The world faces a growing problem. The rapid growth of the human population has created some very serious issues worldwide including food shortages and malnourishment. However, science and technology offer a solution for the world’s food scarcity in the form of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Through the use genetics, crops can be made resistant to herbicides like Round Up, and can be engineered with natural pesticides. This in turn makes the crops better for the environment and increases their yield. There are some who express concerns about the use and consumption of genetically modified foods. Anti-GMO activists believe that genetically engineered crops are not safe and pose environmental and economic threats. An analysis of the benefits of using genetically modified food and the arguments against their use will show that GMOs are not only safe, but also necessary for the survival of the human race.
According to the United Nations Fund for Population Activities, the population of the world has more than doubled since 1970, and now exceeds 7.2 billion. Despite the fact that the population growth rate is beginning to slow, the world’s total population should reach 8.1 billion by 2025. Much of this growth “is expected to be particularly dramatic in the least developed countries of the world, which are projected to double in size from 898 million inhabitants in 2013 to 1.8 billion in 2050” (“Linking Population, Poverty and Development”). This will exacerbate the already severe problem of food shortages.
In the LiveScience article “What 11 Billion People Mean for Food Security”, Rachael Rettner states that “To feed just 9 billion people (the estimated population in 2050) would require a 60 percent increase in the number of food calories available for human consumption”. That is not including the increase in crop production required to feed livestock. The production rate of crops will have to double to meet the increased demand as the world’s population approaches 9 billion. As food becomes scarcer, more and more people will find themselves without enough food to survive.
Malnutrition is a serious issue particularly in developing nations. Poverty is one of the leading factors contributing to malnourishment. According to the Canadian Medical Association Journal article “Malnutrition and Health in Developing Countries”, “Diets in populations [in developing countries] are frequently deficient in macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates and fat, leading to protein–energy malnutrition), micronutrients (electrolytes, minerals and vitamins, leading to specific micronutrient deficiencies) or both.” Olaf Müller and Michael Krawinkel suggest “a possible future strategy to prevent micronutrient deficiencies is to breed micronutrient-rich crops, through either conventional breeding techniques or genetic modification of existing crops.
“Genetically modified foods (or GM foods) are foods produced from organisms that have had specific changes introduced into their DNA using the methods of genetic engineering” (“Genetically modified food”). People have been modifying food for centuries. Biotechnology began thousands of years ago when people began using yeast and malts for fermentation. “Scientists first discovered that DNA can transfer between organisms in 1946” (“Genetically modified food”). This led to the first genetically modified crop in 1983. Over time, the development and cultivation of genetically modified crops has become more widespread. “Plants are now engineered for insect resistance, fungal resistance, viral resistance, herbicide resistance, changed nutritional content, improved taste, and improved storage” (“Genetically modified food”). These modifications have several important benefits for the world.
Genetically modified crops are beneficial for the environment. Some crops like corn and soybeans have been engineered to be resistant to herbicides. This allows farmers to use less toxic, more effective herbicides to combat weeds in their fields. The use of these less toxic chemicals means less ground and water pollution. Other crops have been modified to produce proteins that are toxic to insects and fungi. Farmers using these GMOs greatly reduce the amount of pesticides needed. Certain genetic modification of crops can increase the plant’s resistance to other environmental factors such as drought. This makes them very desirable to many developing countries that suffer from lack of rainfall or other water sources.
Genetically modified crops have been engineered to contain a higher nutritional value. “Second-generation GM crops involve enhanced quality traits, such as higher nutrient content. ‘Golden Rice,’ one of the very first GM crops, is biofortified to address vitamin A deficiency, a common condition in developing countries that leads to blindness and entails higher rates of child mortality and infectious diseases” (Qaim). Golden rice and other biofortified crops help to improve the health conditions and reduced malnourishment in many developing nations by providing staple foods with increased nutritional value.
Additional benefits of GMOs include economic considerations. For example, genetically modified cotton “produces 82 percent higher incomes for small-farm households compared with conventional cotton” (Qaim). In addition, the use of genetically modified cotton has “increased the aggregate welfare by over $2 billion per year in India alone” (Qaim). This is due in part to the reduction in production costs associated with GM crops. Additional economic implications include the hiring of a large workforce to facilitate the harvesting of GM crops.
One of the most influential reasons many farmers choose genetically modified crops is the higher yield per acre they produce. The combination of insect and herbicide resistance, drought tolerance, and improved storage create greater yields and returns on investment than conventional crops. Despite these benefits, some farmers and anti-GMO activists have raised concerns over the cultivation and consumption of genetically modified foods.
One of the reasons some farmers choose to plant conventional seeds over GM seeds is nature’s ability to adapt to changes in the environment. As farmers began to use Roundup ready crops, they began to rely almost entirely on glyphosate based herbicides. In his US News article “Herbicide-Resistant ‘Super Weeds’ Increasingly Plaguing Farmers”, Jason Koebler explains that “after years of constant exposure, certain invasive plants have also developed a resistance, leading farmers to use more of the chemical. In some cases, the weeds have grown completely tolerant to the chemical.” The problem lies with the use of the same chemical year after year. Those weeds that manage to survive, are able pass their glyphosate resistance on to new generations of weeds. According to Koebler, “Farmers are turning to more traditional methods of weed management, such as using cover crops, crop rotations, and physically pulling weeds to lessen their reliance on Roundup. But those solutions are time consuming and expensive.” A similar situation is believed to be happening with insects exposed to genetically modified crops. Specifically, rootworms are becoming resistant to Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) crops such as corn and cotton. Many farmers fear that these colonies of Bt resistant rootworms will spread and devastate their crops. In addition to these concerns, many anti-GMO activists have expressed strong opposition genetically engineered foods.
According to Deborah B. Whitman, author of “Genetically Modified Foods: Harmful or Helpful?” states that “most concerns about GM foods fall into three categories: environmental hazards, human health risks, and economic concerns.” Environmental activists believe that there are other serious environmental implications with respect to the use of genetically engineered crops besides the emergence of herbicide resistant Super Weeds and pesticide resistant Super Insects. “Bt toxins kill many species of insect larvae indiscriminately; it is not possible to design a Bt toxin that would only kill crop-damaging pests and remain harmless to all other insects” (Whitman). They also believe that GM crops cause an increase in pollution because farmers that use GM crops actually use more chemicals than conventional crop farmers.
Anti-GMO activists also raise health concerns. Whitman notes that “There is a possibility that introducing a gene into a plant may create a new allergen or cause an allergic reaction in susceptible individuals.” The biggest health concern is “that introducing foreign genes into food plants may have an unexpected and negative impact on human health” (Whitman).
Another concern presented by anti-GMO activists is pricing. Large biotech corporations that create these genetically modified seeds patent their technology in hopes to protect their investment and generate profits. “Consumer advocates are worried that patenting these new plant varieties will raise the price of seeds so high that small farmers and third world countries will not be able to afford seeds for GM crops, thus widening the gap between the wealthy and the poor” (Whitman). These higher priced seeds may also increase the costs of foods for consumers. However, there are strong counter-arguments against the beliefs held by anti-GMO activists.
In his blog post titled “Decimating the Flawed Beliefs of Anti-GMO Activists”, Emil Karlsson provides several arguments the anti-GMO views. For instance, he notes that the scientific community supports the use of genetically modified food. “GM foods are stringently tested, heavily regulated and safe, both for human consumption and the environment” (Karlsson). The fear that the toxic protein produced by Bt crops is harmful to humans is misguided. Karlsson notes that the toxin is harmless to all organisms except those that meet three specific criteria. “The stomach environment needs to be alkaline (humans have acidic) to dissolve the aggregate of inactive precursors, a specific protease needs to be there to cleave the precursor into the active form of the toxin (humans do not have it) and there needs to exist a specific receptor on the stomach lining for the toxin to bind to have its lethal effects (humans lack this receptor)” (Karlsson). While no food is completely safe, GM crops are as safe as the conventional alternative.
GM crops are also better for the environment. Karlsson cites a National Research Council report that shows that “as the adoption of GM corn has increased, the amount of insecticides used has decreased.” The report also concludes that “the increase in acres planted with plants resistant to the herbicide glyphosate has of course increased the use of glyphosate. However, this has decreased the use of other herbicides that are much more toxic.” Another benefit of using herbicide resistant plants is the reduction in the erosion. Farmers using these GM crops no longer have to plow to remove weeds.
Although genetically modified seeds cost more than conventional seeds, the reduction in production costs more than make up for it. Some of the production benefits include lower fuel costs from little or no plowing, fewer chemicals such as pesticides and herbicides are needed, and the plants are more resistant to environmental factors like cold and drought. In addition, farmers that do not want to use genetically engineered seeds can still buy “conventional seeds from seed companies, participate in the legal trading of seeds and even save conventional seeds from their harvest. No one is forcing farmers to buy genetically modified seeds” (Karlsson).
In order to determine if genetically modified crops offer a viable solution in the battle against world hunger and malnutrition, an analysis of the potential risks and benefits of GMOs is necessary. Some of the concerns about the cultivation and consumption of GM foods are valid. The evidence of weeds adapting to glyphosate based herbicides is real and needs to be addressed. Some potential solutions include crop rotation, and varying herbicides on a yearly basis. The key to preventing the spread of herbicide resistant weeds is to ensure that weeds treated with any chemical do not survive. A similar solution can be applied to the emergence of super insects like Bt resistant rootworms.
Another legitimate concern associated with GMOs is allergenicity. “There is a possibility that introducing a gene into a plant may create a new allergen or cause an allergic reaction in susceptible individuals” (Whitman: Genetically Modified Foods: Harmful or Helpful?). Extensive testing may be necessary to prevent unexpected allergic reactions. Proper labeling of foods can help reduce the number of allergic reactions to GM foods.
Aside from these concerns, most of the anti-GMO rhetoric is misguided or completely false. There is no evidence that the consumption of genetically modified crops is harmful to humans. On the other hand, rigorous testing and numerous studies have found that these crops are no more harmful than their conventional counterparts. Other studies conclude that the use of GMOs has a positive impact on pollution in the environment.
Cultivating GM crops also has a positive impact on the economy. In addition to the reduction in production costs, farmers also benefit from increased yields. The genetically engineered plants’ resistance to disease, insects, fungus, cold, and drought allow them to survive and produce more reliably than conventional crops. In developing countries, these larger yields directly impact the local community by increasing the number of available jobs. The increase in jobs helps reduce poverty levels and malnutrition.
In conclusion, the benefits that genetically modified foods offer the world far outweigh the potential risks. As the world’s population continues to grow, the demand for food will grow as well. In order to combat food shortages and malnutrition, particularly for those in developing nations, food production must be able to keep up with the growing population. GM crops provide more food per acre than conventional crops. They can be engineered to withstand harsher environments which are unsuitable for non-GM crops. This allows for more land to be used for the production of food. Increased production of staple food sources like corn and wheat are absolutely necessary to secure the world’s food supply. These genetically modified crops can also relieve malnourishment by providing sources of food enriched with essential vitamins and nutrients. Malnutrition is a serious problem that affects millions of people, and will become an even bigger problem as the population in third world countries continues to rise. Genetically engineered crops offer a viable solution to both food shortages and malnourishment. GMOs will continue to improve through advances in science and technology. They are necessary for the survival of the human race, and will become a vital resource for the future of mankind.
“Genetically modified food.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 5 Apr. 2014. Web. 26 Apr. 2014.
Karlsson, Emil. “Decimating the Flawed Beliefs of Anti-GMO Activists.” Debunking Denialism. Debunking Denialism, 25 Aug. 2013. Web. 27 Apr. 2014.
Koebler, Jason. “Herbicide-Resistant ‘Super Weeds’ Increasingly Plaguing Farmers.” US News. U.S.News & World Report, 19 Oct. 2012. Web. 26 Apr. 2014.
“Linking Population, Poverty and Development.” Population Trends: Rapid Growth in Less Developed Regions: Population & Development : UNFPA. United Nations Population Fund, n.d. Web. 26 Apr. 2014.
Müller, Olaf, and Michael Krawinkel. “Malnutrition and Health in Developing Countries.” Canadian Medical Association Journal 173: n. 3. CMAJ. Web. 29 Apr. 2014.
Qaim, Matin. “The Benefits of Genetically Modified Crops-and the Costs of Inefficient Regulation.” Resources for the Future, 10 Apr. 2010. Web. 26 Apr. 2014.
Rettner, Rachael. “What 11 Billion People Mean for Food Security.” LiveScience. TechMedia Network, 19 Nov. 2013. Web. 25 Apr. 2014.
Whitman, Deborah B.. “Genetically Modified Foods: Harmful or Helpful?.” . ProQuest, 1 Apr. 2010. Web. 18 Apr. 2014.