Whether you are perusing the produce aisle of your local grocer, scrolling through your social media newsfeed or simply browsing the internet, you will likely come across the anxious whispers of people terrorized by the thought of GMOs. It’s a topic that has gained mass public appeal and the world is abuzz in heated debate.
GMOs – Genetically Modified Organisms – even the name conjures up stories rehashing Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, where a wretched monster is created by the zealous ambition of science. Humanity fears the unknown. We lead our lives by example, and when it comes to the abstract notion of genetically modified food, people grab their pitchforks. Society prepares to level fruit stands, raid agricultural labs, and overturn the internet with an updated image of a tomato with four syringes – since anything less just isn’t quite chilling enough. But before we join the riot, let’s learn a little more about GMOs or GM foods:
Genetic modification of food involves the process by which a plant is developed. GMOs are not an ingredient, but a comprisal of methods to modify a plant in a manner to enhance or discourage particular genetic traits. Techniques employed to select for preferred characteristics in food have existed for thousands of years. Native Americans deliberately transformed maize through special cultivation practices. The first ears of corn were only a few inches long with several rows of kernels. The yield of an early crop of corn offered little substance; however, generations of ancestral farmers systematically bred plants better suited for human consumption – larger cobs, increased kernels, richer flavor, shorter growing seasons, and adaptation to changing environments.
Nowadays, similar techniques are applied to improve our farming. Just like early maize crop was unable to provide for a family, our current agricultural practices fail to feed the world demand. According to the UN World Food Programme, nearly 800 million people in the world do not have enough food to lead a healthy active life. Crops are constantly competing with dozens of external forces to survive: changing climates, flooding, soil erosion, pests, weather, disease, etc. The agriculture industry expands into forests to provide for the increasing demand of food and offset those crops lost due to inefficient survival; however, genetic modification offers a less globally intrusive method of rectifying these burdens. We want to help nourish the growing population without further destroying the environment. If those same plants are now able to better manage flooding, endure harsher weather conditions and resist disease, the land we farm will be more efficient and expansion rendered unnecessary. Now imagine we take it a step further: those plants that are able to survive in our changing environment can now yield more fruit and contain higher nutritional content. That plant that originally fed one, can now feed five – slashing world hunger to a fraction of the staggering amount it is today.
In less developed countries, 500,000 children go blind every year due to lack of Vitamin A – more than half will die. To address this devastating issue, scientists supported by the Rockefeller Association engineered a rice variant that could express beta carotene, a precursor to vitamin A which is essential for healthy skin, vision, and our immune system. This golden rice had the potential to save thousands of lives, however Anti-GMO activists destroyed a field test of this budding food solution, an effort that did not strictly hinder science, but preventing a way to provide desperate children with necessary medication and sustenance.
Methods of modifying food:
Selective Breeding – best performing plants in the field are cross-bred to improve next generation of crops (ie. improved produce, more fit plants)
Advanced breeding – plants are screened to identify genes associated with desirable characteristics and this information is used to select which plants to cross for better performing crops (ie. drought tolerance, improved produce, more fit plants)
Plant grafting – tissue from one plant is inserted into tissue of another so that the two sets of vascular tissues may join (ie. improved rooting, hybrid produce)
Genetic Manipulation – genes can be turned on/off or inserted from other sources to introduce a preferential characteristic through electroporation or bacterial/viral carriers (ie. disease prevention, nutritional enhancement, climate management)
While genetically engineering food is viewed as sinister, the systematic selection of choice plants with preferable genetic traits has existed since early civilization. Just as transportation evolved from the limitations of foot to carriage to car to plane to rocket – perhaps new methods of genetic modification of food will accelerate humanity's progression into new agricultural plains.