GENETICALLY MODIFIED (GM) CROPS: SHOULD NATURE BE TAMPERED WITH TO ADDRESS FOOD INSECURITY?

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G M O s ?

“They are organisms whose DNA has been modified in the laboratory in order to favor the expression of desired physiological traits or the production of desired biological products […] genetic technologies have become a part of everyday life, entering into society through agriculture, medicine, research, and environmental management.”

VIsual Explanation: Production of GM Crops (Image Source)
Conventional Breeding Genetic Engineering
  • Limited to exchanges between the same of very closely related species
  • Little or no guarantee of any particular gene combination from the million of crosses generated
  • Undesirable genes can be transferred along with desirable genes
  • Takes a long time to achieve desired results
  • Allows the direct transfer of one or just a few genes, between either closely or distantly related organisms
  • Crop improvement can be achieved in a shorter time compared to conventional breeding
  • Allows plants to be modified by removing or switching off particular genes

 

Throughout history, plant breeding has been developed from spontaneous and hopeful experiments into intricate and definitive processes. Scientists recently introduced transgenic plant varieties of common crops; transgenic crops, also known as GM or GMO crops, involve genetically engineered plants that are developed in laboratories, where scientists identify individual genes controlling particular features, isolate them from the original source and directly inject them into the target plant—hence, the target plant would express an entirely different gene of a distinct organism. This intentional movement of genetic materials among unrelated organisms is made possible by advances in modern biotechnology, which drives the industry from the laboratory to the field. 

Specifically, this presentation will dive into how genetic engineering can modify crops—but first, did you know? In 1994, genetically modified (GM) foods received initial approval for human consumption in the United States, and around 2014-2015 in the US, approximately 90 percent of planted corn, cotton, and soybeans were genetically modified—more than a dozen countries had around 1.8 million square kilometers of land taken up for GM crop cultivation. With this, it can be easily assumed that development in agricultural biotechnology involves many benefits for it to bring such a great demand for modified crops in the majority’s diet today. 

B E N E F I T S

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, due to the continuously increasing global food demand, we need to grow roughly 70 percent more food by 2050 to sustain the entire human population (the estimated population by 2050 is 9.3 billion!). Especially for the hundreds of millions of people in Third World countries, malnourishment, contributing to the constant cycle of poverty, remains an unresolved challenge today. Due to the unanticipated rapid growth of the human population, the main issue that humanity is to face in the next 50 years will be ensuring adequate food production through increasing agricultural productivity on a global scale. 

Another example: as shown in the graph, once India implemented the use of bt crops, due to the toxins of the bacterium (which allows crops to be pest-resistant), cotton yields significantly increased. In 2007, without bt, yields would have been around 400 lbs/acre, but an acute increase to 550 lbs/acre occurred through modified crops.

Many Third World countries, which are the most severely affected by food insecurity, face greater consequences for food insecurity than developed nations due to political instability, war, macroeconomic inequalities to deteriorating climate, greater population density, etc—unsuitable climate conditions is one of the major causes, being the origin of many other mentioned issues. Crop yields are also significantly lower in these countries because of the losses due to pests, plant diseases, unfertile soils exacerbated by climatic conditions, and finally, post-harvest losses due to the absence of adequate storage facilities (causing fungal and insect infestations). Today, pests destroy over half of the world’s food supply, even with attempts to reduce crop losses; insect damage, mostly prevalent in the developing world, is responsible for more than 15% of the destruction of world food production pre-harvest. As a response to this, genetic engineering can be used to alter the DNA sequences of certain crops to withstand difficult growing/storing environments and to become pest/insect-resistant and bacteria/fungi/disease-resistant, ultimately maximizing crop yield and increases target crop production. For example, in crops such as corn, cotton, and soybeans, genetic engineering can be used to place the Bt gene, derived from a naturally occurring bacteria called Bacillus thuringiensis; this gene produces a protein that is detrimental to many pests and insects, which provides a natural resistance in GMO plants and positively affects the environment, as modified crops do not require much exposure to environmentally-harmful pesticides. In fact, an overview of 147 studies in 2014 revealed a 37% decrease in the usage of chemical pesticides and a 22% increase in crop yields with the use of GMO technology! 

Furthermore, GMO crops could be modified to increase the nutritional value of foods to provide communities struggling to find critical nutrients required for their well-being. For example, the Golden Rice was originally developed in the 1990s, in hopes to tackle the issue of white rice lacking an essential nutrient, beta-carotene, which converts into vitamin A in the body. The rice genome was genetically modified to include a gene from a daffodil and a bacterium, producing enzymes that aid the production of vitamin A. The introduction of these genes allowed beta-carotene to be converted to vitamin A in the human liver, which allowed the rice to contain almost 20 times the beta-carotene than those in white rice, converting to more sources of vitamin A in the human liver. Vitamin A deficiency is still prevalent in some countries, which is the main cause of childhood blindness and deaths from infectious diseases in developing communities. Though vegetables such as spinach or sweet potatoes supply ample amounts of the vitamin, vitamin A deficiency still affects around 21% of children in Bangladesh and major percentages in other countries where rice is a significant part of the diet. Many communities in developing countries do not have access to regular stocks of fresh produce, so increasing the nutrient value in foods could potentially be the answer to malnutrition and food insecurity. This video clarifies the wide misconceptions of modified crops (despite its negative title):

 

R I S K S   &   P R E C A U T I O N S

Watch this video first! (important time stamp—6:19)

Image Source

The real problem with GMOs is not actually GMOs themselves, but the industrial farming system behind them. [..] One of the more popular GM varieties of crops in the  U.S., Monsanto’s Roundup Ready seed, exemplifies this interwoven nature of GMOs and industrial  agriculture. From corn to soybeans to sugarbeats, the Roundup Ready plants are resistant to the herbicide glyphosate, which is commonly referred to as Roundup. This resistance means that farmers can indiscriminately spray over their fields without worrying about damaging their crops. As a result, glyphosate use has skyrocketed in the U.S. toxic runoff from overspraying is causing dead zones throughout U.S. waterways, and Monsanto, which is now owned by the German company Bayer, not only profits off of their roundup ready seeds, but receive bumper profits from the additional  increase in glyphosate demand. To top it off, companies like Bayer patent and restrict seed  saving claiming that the research and development of these seeds takes time and money. This means that not only are the seeds more expensive because one company has a monopoly on them, but also once a farmer has bought seed, they’re not allowed to practice seed saving to cut costs  in the next year. The problem with GMOs then, is that it allows for a system in which  just a few companies hold immense power over our food supply. Through that power these companies perpetuate a food system wherein highly toxic chemical sprays are the only solution to pests and weeds, just a few “perfect” and “uniform” crops trump a variety of  diverse plants, and size is valued over taste.

“Glyphosate is the most widely used herbicide worldwide. It is a broad spectrum herbicide and its agricultural uses increased considerably after the development of glyphosate-resistant genetically modified (GM) varieties. Since glyphosate was introduced in 1974, all regulatory assessments have established that glyphosate has low hazard potential to mammals, however, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) concluded in March 2015 that it is probably carcinogenic.”

One of the many arising concerns of GMOs is the so-called “Super Weeds”, which occurs when genetically modified natural cross-breeding occurs through fertilization between GM crops and a related weed plant, producing stronger, durable species that could potentially harm harvest and farm tools as the resistance to chemicals increase. Monsanto varied a naturally occurring resistance called bt toxins, and though they are aimed to only affect targeted organisms, due to the high concentrations of toxic chemicals, non-targeted organisms are also severely affected. Organisms such as pests and insects also feed on these GM crops, which causes them to become pesticide-resistant as well. When both Super-weeds and Super-pets grow immune to the commonly used herbicides, farmers have no choice but to use even more concentrated, powerful herbicides, to improve their yields; not only does this negatively impact the soil and the irrigation system, it could potentially harm us, humans, as well. One of the many slogans used by Monsanto and other GMO-supporting organizations/companies is that just because food is genetically modified, it does not mean it is unhealthy and could cause potential harm to human health; genetically modified food itself, in fact, is quite safe for consumption. The risky aspect of GMO crops (ex. Corn, soy, sugar beets, and most processed foods), however, is the fact that they contain considerable amounts of the herbicide, particularly Round-Up or Liberty Link. In the United States, most fresh vegetables are coated with herbicides, so washing them before consumption is advised. This is because ingesting herbicides is damaging to the human body, which is essential to consider since GMO fields are sprayed with such powerful herbicides. Round-Up, a type of herbicide common in many US homes to kill weeds, does exactly what it claims to do: destroy vegetation. The use of a chemical named glyphosate would not only eradicate the weeds but even other plants that come into contact from nearby. When ingested by plants, glyphosate becomes AIDS-like, under which the immune system of the plant is destroyed. This makes the plant more susceptible to disease, caused by soil pathogens that are stimulated by the chemical as well—which ultimately kills the plant. So how can enormous fields of maize, soybeans, etc be sprayed with RoundUp and still survive? GMOs, constituting more than 93% of the American diet today, are engineered to resist the damaging effects of the herbicide even after ingesting and storing the glyphosate. Glyphosate, becoming systemic in the plant, is stored instead of residing outside (so that it can be washed off), produced in the plant fruit, and even preserved in the seeds. In other words, it would also be unsafe to consume the next generation of a GM plant that was sprayed with RoundUp; once ingested by humans or animals, the glyphosate persists in the intestine, where many beneficial microbes are annihilated, reducing the immune system by as much as 80% (makes humans or animals more susceptible to disease and even cancer).  According to one of several studies confirming the Round of toxicity, researchers found 13ppm of glyphosate in GM corn, and in the US, in drinkable water, the level of glyphosate can be no more than 0.7 ppm. The EPA thus acknowledges the dangers associated with large doses of glyphosate, from fertility issues to organ injury. Furthermore, regarding risks to human health, there have been other cases of indirect impacts of GMOs on the human body. For instance, many industrial animals are fed with subsidized crops such as corn, which impacts their digestive system. Many people who have consumed such meat have been affected by E.coli poisoning; E.coli is highly prolific but is it also able to transfer its DNA to and from species, meaning a mutated form of E.coli resulting from the cloning process used to genetically modify organisms may enter the gut of a human/animal eating the transgenic plant. Customers are to trust farmers or companies to provide safe and edible food. However, though Monsanto or other GMO-supporting organizations emphasize the safety of GMOs themselves, the severe indirect effects are never acknowledged properly in media or advertisements. Especially since modern technology has only existed for a couple of decades, it is difficult to determine the long-term effects as well—more research is required to ensure its safety, and regarding addressing food insecurity, there are many other environmentally friendly and healthy ways with fewer risks of the unknown that could be potential solutions to poverty and famine. 

Monsanto previously denied these consequences, but as they turn out to be true, the safety of GMOs must be re-evaluated. Normally after a harvest, farmers are to keep their seeds for the next harvest, especially if they were able to see significant yields. However, using modified seeds forces monoculture, which means that seeds are not to be saved for future natural genetic modifications. Industrial agriculture relies on uniform processes, productivity, and exploitation of resources. When fully grown, Genetically Modified plants take up large surface areas and are associated with intensive monoculture systems that exterminate other crops and ecosystems; though the ‘mono-crop’ practice—involving a single crop being cultivated, year after year grown on the same soil—seems effective, eventually, both biodiversity and soil quality ultimately decreases. It also raises insect pests as it enables pests to ‘unlock’ the diversity and destroy all crops within the same species when genetic diversity is limited. Moreover, because of the increasing trend of GM crops, farmers who try to preserve conventional, organic farming begin to lose their jobs, as competing against the incredibly high yields of high-quality crops is almost impossible. The agricultural system is set up for farmers to have no other choice but to concede to using corporate (GMO) seeds—which is referred to as “food sovereignty”, which is when developed countries gain control over the majority of consumers’ purchases while developing countries are left to compensate the loss through different methods, including GMOs. Even after initially purchasing GM seeds, the unjust regulations cause farmers to become easily blacklisted or even face legal consequences for even natural occurrences, such as natural cross-breed pollination caused by wind. This is truly unjust as farmers are unable to defend their stances against a multinational corporation, due to financial insufficiency.

For more information on the negative impacts of herbicides, visit here!

B I O E T H I C A L   S T A N D P O I N T

Four Main Pillars of Bioethics (Image Source)

Autonomy

 

The principle of autonomy assumes that rational individuals can make decisions that are best for themselves and therefore should be allowed to do so—when someone is deciding on behalf of someone else, they should be acting in such a way that it best reflects any previously stated wishes of that person.

Though GMO labeling is required in 64 countries today, it is not mandatory for companies to label their products in some countries, including the US. Mandatory labeling of GMO-containing food products is debated, as it concerns consumers’ right to autonomy; for example, in the US, because the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has no significant evidence that concludes that genetically modified foods pose any different or greater safety risks than foods produced through conventional plant breeding methods, labeling of GM products is not mandatory. This may be perceived to go against the principle of autonomy, as consumers have the right to transparency in the production of the foods they are purchasing and eating to make personal informed decisions. In other words, without detailed information of the modifications due to the lack of requirement in mandatory labeling, consumers are unable to distinguish normal produce from the modified ones, and companies can continue to sell GM foods that their consumers cannot identify. In the context of addressing food insecurity, increasing the amount of GMOs would only mean an increase in unknown risks that consumers are not informed of or give consent to.

However, it could be argued that mandatory labeling is unnecessary since, as aforementioned, there is no significant evidence that suggests the potential dangers of GMOs that consumers should be particularly cautious for, which means the argument for consumers’ rights is not applicable here. 

“No food, GM or non-GM, is absolutely safe […] However, it is very close to the universal conclusion of every expert who has evaluated it, that the GM crops we have at the moment are as safe to consume as the standard crops that we have been consuming for years.” —Robert Hollingworth, professor emeritus of the Michigan State University (MSU) Department of Entomology and Institute for Integrative Toxicology. 

Beneficence & Nonmaleficence

The principle of beneficence places the emphasis on providing benefit and advantage for all, and the principle of nonmaleficence states that no action should be taken that will cause harm or suffering to an individual—this involves both acts of commission (actually doing something) and of omission (choosing not to act)

Gene technology allows improved agricultural productivity through pest/insect/bacteria/fungi/disease resistance and the increased nutritional value, granting aid in improving food security and minimizing health disparities. Though there are safety concerns, an important fact to consider is that, for example, once FDA grants approval of a product, it means the agency has established that the product’s benefits outweigh the identified risks for the intended use. In other words, the posed harm of genetically modified products is minimal (nonmaleficence) while it benefits the vast majority, emphasizing utility; as aforementioned, GMO technology would be able to aid in improving food security and minimize health inequalities through increasing nutritional content (Golden Rice) and overall agricultural productivity, highlighting the concept of beneficence.

The FDA itself, however, does not assess whether GM foods are safe for consumptions; the FDA is “confident” about the safety of GMOs, when they, themselves, do not conduct proper safety evaluations to test whether GMOs are safe for consumptions, or if there are any posed long term effects—they do not require independent safety testing, long-term safety testing; they do not have access to a whole database on the safety testing in all industries; they also do not require post-market epidemiological testing, which ultimately means the FDA is not credible in its assessments, statements, and certifications. It is mostly the manufacturer’s duty to ensure the product’s safety, and since they do not require independent pre-market safety evaluations, the agrochemical companies can submit their own studies to the FDA as part of cooperative “consultation”. This means that companies such as Monsanto could claim that their products do not raise issues that would require premarket review or approval by the FDA for commercial purposes—the responsibility to ensure nutritious, wholesome foods sold by Monsanto and to accord with all relevant laws and regulations relies solely on them. Simply because it is FDA-approved, it cannot be concluded that GMOs are necessarily harmless. Instead, even before considering food insecurity, it could place the greater populations’ safety in jeopardy—ultimately causing greater harm than good.

As mentioned in the risks & precautions section, though GMOs do not cause direct harm when consumed, the indirect effects are relevant and do significantly affect human health and even the environment. This means than unlike what many GMO supporters and related companies claim about the safety of GMOs, its impacts are quite severe to simply disregard it—the potentially carcinogenic herbicides, its effect on non-target organisms, and undue mental harm cause on the farmers competing against GMO crops. 

Justice

The principle of justice states that the allocation of resources ought to be FAIR—it involves the theory of equity (whoever invests a large amount of input should receive more from the group), equality (regardless of inputs, all group members should be given an equal share of the rewards/costs), power (those with more authority, status, or control over the group should receive more than those in lower-level position), need (those in greatest needs should be provided with the resources needed to meet those needs), and responsibility (group members who have the most should share their resources with those who have less).

Regarding GM foods, the principle of justice applies to fair and equitable access to food. In an ideal world, everyone, regardless of his/her status, wealth, race, gender, etc, would have equal access to basic resources such as food (based on the theory of equality). However, because that is not the case in real life, it is important to determine how the distribution of food can be improved. The reality of food distribution relies on the theory of power and equity, where the wealthiest or those with the greatest contributions to society have the greatest access to basic resources. Equity seems to be subjective, as just because in reality, just because one has the greatest input does not necessarily mean he/she receives the most, or not everyone has equal access to those opportunities (like jobs), where they could even attempt to contribute to society. However, GM foods help to increase the overall food supply and food security, which means the accessibility of food (price, allocation, etc) increases (while the price and competition for good food decrease), allowing more people living in areas without sufficient food allocation to have the same access to resources as others.

A N S W E R I N G  T H E   Q U E S T I O N

So, are GMOs truly worth it? Which principle ‘wins’?

In conclusion, the benefits of GMOs seem to be reasonable, as addressing food insecurity and combating global hunger is essential for the benefit of the human population. This can be achieved through a significant increase in agricultural productivity and heightened nutritional value in crops of which humans and animals consume. The first three UN goals—no poverty, zero hunger, good health and well being—seem to even place an emphasis on the gravity of the issue and the urgency to address it. However, from a bioethical perspective, the beneficence and nonmaleficence principles “win” in this case, implying that GMOs cause greater harm than good to the environment, humans, and animals. Food is an essential need, meaning it should not pose any significant issues regarding safety. However, the indirect (and potentially detrimental) risks of GM crops are vividly stated in several medical journals and reports, despite the FDA approval. This means, even if agricultural productivity and nutritional value in food increased through GMOs, due to this risk, engineered food may not be the suitable solution for food insecurity. Moreover, the National Geographic states the following, highlighting that the mere increase in agricultural productivity may not be the issue that needs to be prioritized:

“GM crops may have a role to play in combatting global hunger, but merely increasing crop production or nutritional value (via any method) will not solve the larger problem of inequity in access to food. For example, farmers whose livelihoods depend on production of commercial crops rather than food staples may be able to increase their income by growing GM crops, affording them the financial resources to purchase more or higher-quality food. Moreover, GM crops might better withstand certain natural disasters, such as drought. However, since data shows that political unrest is the primary driver of hunger, it is unclear whether these farmers would be able to sell their products or use their income on nutritional food sources within a country plagued by conflict.”

The path to eradicating global hunger is more complex than any one solution and is in fact far more complex than only addressing food quantity or quality. The United Nations Global Goals for Sustainable Development address world hunger in Goal 2: Zero Hunger, which aims to “end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.” This goal lays the foundation to combating world hunger via a multi pronged approach, including political action and reduction of violence, agricultural and technical innovations, efforts to end poverty, and educational initiatives. Luckily, with allies such as the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the World Food Programme, this grand challenge may be achievable—and maybe GM foods will play a role, but they cannot be relied upon as a magical solution.

Potential Alternatives?

The replacement of GMOs involves a varietal of processes and approaches—seeking new, or, in some situations, very old—to reverse the negative consequences of monoculture and monopolization that follows GMO use. Choosing to enter the non-GMO route means you are promoting a diverse and comprehensive approach to food production, which supports farmers’ rights to store and cultivate crops of their own choice.

  • Non-GMO approach to weed control? The use of herbicides has risen 15-fold ever since the invention of GMOs. Weeds and pests are now resistant to these substances, and 25 years later, the chemicals have brought no benefit but harmful consequences, including devastating beneficial insect populations and reduced biodiversity. Regenerative agriculture could potentially be a solution; cover and diversified crops are planted to suppress weeds and farm animals are welcomed onto the land so that the weeds are unable to root in the fields, while the soil is protected from erosion and nutrient loss—significantly reducing the use of herbicides!
  • Non-GMO approach to insect control? Healthy crops grow from healthy soil. Soil fertility can be found in the uppermost layer of nutrient-rich soil (topsoil), on which the world’s agriculture relies. However, the world’s available topsoil has reduced to 50% in the past 150 years. A host of issues follow degraded and diminished soils: crops are more vulnerable to disease and insect infestations and are becoming less resilient to extreme weather events. Healthy soil holds the water more effectively, which provides protection from droughts. As mentioned above, cover crops can shield coil from erosion, while adding nutrients to the soil they protect. Although major biotechnology companies invest in genetic modification to address agricultural issues, a much more effective and economic approach is right at reach: healthy soil (grows better crops, is more resistant to pests and diseases, and is more hospitable to essential microorganisms)
  • Ban monoculture! GMOs are centered on a limited view of agriculture: inherently reductive and inevitably harmful. They are part of an agricultural industrialized paradigm that has proven to be remarkably inefficient in food production, thus eroding future harvests from natural resources. GMOs also only support a fragile and brittle system, dependent on minor, short-term solutions, while the damage caused is already addressed. Embracing the complexity of the land we share, working with nature’s unlimited diversity rather than against it is the foundation for a balanced, healthy food system—a utilitarian solution that benefits the majority.

 

W H A T   C A N   Y O U   D O ?

 

Thank you for visiting my project! To end, what do you think? Which idea wins, and what is your stance in this debate? Do you believe that tampering with nature’s order through genetic modification can be justified? Is it necessary? Let me know in the comments below!

4 Comments

4 comments

  1. Hi Jiwon, I really love your page as it is very organized and informative — Well done! Many countries worldwide suffer from food insecurity and I feel as though the implementation of GMOs into one’s diet comes with both pros and cons. To answer your question I do believe that tampering with natures order through genetic modification can be justified to a certain extent. First, it can help reduce food insecurity but at the same time, it is not the only way of reducing food insecurity. If we combine this with other options it would be more beneficial for society. The problem isn’t only the lack of food but the lack of access to food. You referred to organizations that help combat this such as WFP so I think we can help these organizations and find different methods of helping resolve the issue rather than simply relying on GMOs. Overall, I do not feel as though it is necessary so I would say that the cons of genetic modification outway the cons.

  2. Hi Jiwon, I really love your page as it is very organized and informative — Well done! Many countries worldwide suffer from food insecurity and I feel as though the implementation of GMOs into one’s diet comes with both pros and cons. To answer your question I do believe that tampering with nature’s order through genetic modification can be justified to a certain extent. First, it can help reduce food insecurity but at the same time, it is not the only way of reducing food insecurity. If we combine this with other options it would be more beneficial for society. The problem isn’t only the lack of food but the lack of access to food. You referred to organizations that help combat this such as WFP so I think we can help these organizations and find different methods of helping resolve the issue rather than simply relying on GMOs. Overall, I do not feel as though it is necessary so I would say that the cons of genetic modification outweigh the cons.

    1. Hey Fatmata! I’m glad you enjoyed my presentation c: I think your stance in this debate is really interesting, as I totally agree with how we shouldn’t solely rely on GMOs to be the solution to world hunger. Do you know what role the WFP plays in this debate? Do they have a specific stance on the use of GMOs?

  3. Hi Jiwon!
    First of all, the extent of your research is so impressive! You really covered a lot. In answer to your question — I wonder if GMO crops could be expanded in countries that really suffer from food insecurity right now while not feeding into the monopolies? I think genetically modifying food is totally justifiable in the abstract, to feed more people and to feed them more nutritious food, but once capitalism gets involved it becomes a little iffier :). Essentially, all of the “cons” seem to be able to be avoided with moderation, but tbh we can’t really count on governments to regulate themselves. I don’t know! Good question. Great presentation!

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