Understanding Genetically Modified Crops

By George Hammond

Of all of the potentially beneficial technologies of the world, few stir up as much emotion and controversy as genetically modified crops. While some loudly proclaim the dangers of genetically modified (GM) crops, the proponents of this technology show equally enthusiastic support. Where do you stand on the issue? Do you know what a GM crop is? Do you know the potential dangers of Genetic modification? What have GM crops done to benefit society? What does the future hold for genetically modified plants? In this short article, I hope to help enlighten you to some facts about GM crops that you may not be familiar with. Bear in mind, this is not intended to be a comprehensive overview of GM crops, but hopefully a primer of sorts that will spark some curiosity and send the reader off to further educate themselves on this important issue. Some additional resources will be provided at the end of the article for all those that are interested.

What are GM crops? Genetically modified crops are a sub-group of genetically modified organisms (GMO). A genetically modified organism is any living thing that has been intentionally modified by one of several methods for the purpose of creating desirable traits in future generations of organisms. GM crops then, as you've probably guessed, are any GMO that falls into the vegetable kingdom that are harvested for nutritional or other purposes. There are two ways that are generally recognized as the means of genetically modifying plants. Modification through grafting and selective breeding is one such method, and it has been utilized since before recorded history. Selective breeding is the intentional selection of plants with desirable traits to be bread into future generations of the plant species in question. This can be thought of as evolution by unnatural selection. The techniques of selective plant breeding have been credited with increasing crop yields and nutritional values of certain foods and has been credited with saving over one billion lives throughout the world.

In my research for this article, I found very few opponents to selective breeding of plants for the purpose creating more desirable crops. This is not to say that there are no downsides to selective breeding, but it is important to note that selective breeding is the less controversial grandfather to our next form of GM crops. Genetically engineered (GE) crops have some important similarities as well as differences with plants that have been modified by way of selective breeding. Obviously, both are intentionally modified for beneficial purposes. The key difference between GE plants and selectively bread plants is that a GE plant has genes from another organism (plant or animal) spliced in with its own genes with the intention of producing a similar but superior organism. Some examples of traits that have been engineered into plants include innate pest resistance, increased crop yields, increased range of climate tolerance, and increased nutritional value from the same mass of food. The power of GE plants lies in the ability to quickly and purposefully create an organism with desirable traits, but with this power comes the controversy that looms over modern GM crops.

Before the controversy surrounding GE crops can be understood, I think it is necessary to have a more complete understanding of both selectively bred and GE plants. As was stated earlier, selective breeding has been used to create plant and animal species for thousands of years. The modern era of plant breeding began with such prolific figures as Charles Darwin and Gregor Mendel, who were able to demonstrate hybridization of intraspecific plants within the same species. This involves the breeding of plants that are phenotypically similar so as to produce a new line of plants with a slightly different genetic makeup. In the 1960's, the Cooperative Wheat Research Production Program was created as a joint research effort to produce greater wheat yields in Mexico. The team was able to create a strain of wheat that was disease resistant and had twice the growing season of the original strain of wheat. The team accomplished this through aggressive use of selective and cross breeding techniques. This allowed Mexico to become an exporter of wheat products. These techniques were later exported to Asia and Africa. These breeding techniques are sometimes referred to as “classical breeding” techniques and are not without their critics. Specific criticisms will be addressed later in this article.

Genetically engineered plants are those which have a gene artificially implanted into their genome by way of several techniques. A gene can be taken from any source, such as other plants, animals and bacteria. The production of a GE plant with a desired trait can be accomplished much sooner than with classical breeding. Genetic modification was first demonstrated in 1973 by the creation of an E.coli bacteria that expressed a salmonella gene. The first GM food that was produced for consumption was a breed of tomato that was modified to ripen without hardening. It was introduced in 1994. Some examples of GE plants that are in wide production today include: corn that is insect and herbicide resistant, beta carotene and lycopene enriched tomatoes, caffeine free coffee beans, and iron fortified rice.

The critics of GM foods are numerous, and not without their faults. Most criticisms of GM foods exist in the realm of theory and have not actually been observed, although it cannot be ignored that several instances of adverse outcomes as a result of genetic modification have occurred. One major concern for opponents of GM foods is the danger of introducing a new life form into an environment that is unprepared for it. One instance of damage to an ecosystem that has been observed was the killing of monarch butterflies by wind-blown pollen from a crop of corn that was modified to produce its own insecticide. Studies have shown that any damage to ecosystems by insect-resistant plants has been relatively minor. Nutritional degradation has also been demonstrated in several types of GE foods. The theory behind this problem is that the exploitation of certain traits by way of adding genes can limit other traits of the organism, including its nutritional value. This has been proven in a few varieties of GM foods. There has been one example of a GM food becoming an allergen in humans. In the 1990's, researchers created a GM soybean that had genetic material transplanted from Brazil nuts. The new soybean produced an allergic reaction in those that were allergic to Brazil nuts. The soybean project was canceled before any plants were used in food production.

Maybe the biggest concern with GM foods is in regard to intellectual property. When it was determined that GMO's were able to be claimed as intellectual property, a volley of potential problems were brought to the forefront of the debate by opponents of GM crops. A very brief summarization of the problem of intellectual property in regard to GMO's is this: The developer of a particular GMO can dictate who can and cannot use the organism that is in question. This may lead to the developer using it's power to leverage social and political issues to its advantage. These are just a few of the concerns that have been brought up by opponents of GM crops. Some would say that these reasons are enough to have GM crops outlawed, but this ignores much of the good that GM crops have done for society. It is of the utmost importance to understand why GM crops are being developed and grown in defiance of criticism. The impact that GM crops have had on world hunger and conservation is immense. The development of plant species that have a longer growing season, higher crop yields, disease resistance, and altered nutritional value has done much to alleviate problems of hunger and malnutrition while simultaneously limiting the acreage needed to grow a given amount of food. I mentioned earlier the importance of GM crops in increasing the food supply through increased crop yields and longer growing seasons. Without these increases in food supply, it can be assumed that millions of people, especially in the third world, would have died or lived in a state of malnutrition. It has been directly observed many times that GM foods can be beneficial to needy populations. It is also important to note that GM and GE crops could possibly bring the cost of growing food down in first-world countries as well. The most abundant GE crops in the world include insect and herbicide resistant cotton, corn, soy, and canola. The benefit of these crops is the decrease in cost associated with less destruction of crops by pests and the ability to keep invading plant species out of growing areas by way of spraying herbicide. These traits have saved farmers millions of dollars in saved labor. The issue of land use and conservation is also of importance in this discussion. The Borlaug hypothesis states that crops with increased yield are able to produce more food per acre than a crop with lower yield. This in turn results in a smaller amount of land needed to produce a given amount of food, which results in less deforestation to create more farm land. Although not all GM foods have been proven to increase crop yields, many have been. It can be implied, then, that certain GM crops can influence the stopping of deforestation to a degree. These are just a few reasons that GM crops should not be dismissed as a technology, but should be treated with cautious respect and optimism for what they can provide.

So what does the future hold for genetically modified crops? The majority of beneficial outcomes produced by GM crops have been attributed to plants that have been modified by selective and cross breeding. Genetically engineered plants, although they have shown their potential, still fall far behind in having produced tangible benefits. This can can be attributed to several factors. It is important to remember that bio-engineering is a relatively young science, and GE crops that are now in use are mostly first generation genetically engineered plants. Second generation crops are just now being tested and completing safety trials for use in large-scale agricultural production. Third and fourth generation organisms are on the horizon. It is normal for any new technology not to be fully utilized initially, but to develop into a useable and useful science as it grows and matures. Some GE plants that are currently in development include: new and and improved fruits, vegetables and grains that have higher nutritional value; “Functional Foods” that include nutrients not normally found in plant life like omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids; non-food related crops that are engineered to produce pharmaceuticals, vaccines, and raw material such as plastic-like compounds; and the continued development of improved food crops that are capable of higher yield, longer growing seasons, and the ability to thrive in extreme conditions. Some of these crops will begin to find their way onto the market relatively soon, while others are still years away from completing development and testing. It is important to remember that before a GE crop is made available to growers and consumers, it is first put under the scrutiny of tests and trials that can take many years and cost great sums of money. This lends to the expectation that the most interesting and beneficial GE plants have yet to be introduced to the market, given the young nature of this science.

Now that you understand a little bit about GM crops, how should you feel about them? It is not my goal to dictate to anybody what they should think or feel, but I would like to nevertheless express some of my own opinions on the matter. The fact that there are groups of people that are so strongly opposed to every kind of GMO as to be borderline militant worries me. It appears that some of the loudest opponents of GM foods and plants have a dogmatic and un-scientific concept of this promising (and in many cases proven) technology. I would hope that any reader of this article weighs the risks and benefits of genetic modification from a logical and scientific perspective before dismissing it outright. One criticism of GM foods that I intentionally omitted earlier is in regard to whether GM foods are truly necessary. The argument goes that the root of the problem of hunger in the world is not related to the amount or quality of food in the world, but instead lies within a broken and/or insufficient infrastructure for distribution of foods. Some people think that the world could be fed by traditional growing methods with an updated system for food growing and distribution. This may or may not be true. I think that people with this point of view are missing out on the big picture. The problems of infrastructure cannot be ignored, but can we not also strive for the utmost in excellence and efficiency that can only be attained by exploiting exciting and new technologies? It is my opinion that GMO's can and should be a part of the future of agriculture, and should be considered for use with a healthy dose of respect for possible risks.

Sources and additional resources
Informative Wikipedia articles:
Genetically modified food: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genetically_modified_food
Genetically modified organisms: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genetically_modified_organism
Norman Borlaug, revolutionary scientist: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norman_Borlaug
World health organization resources on GM foods
Interesting article from UNESCO:
Video of Stewart Brand talking about GM food crops:
Nuffield council on bioethics study resources:
Say no to GMOs! Website
Greenpeace international GMO resources:

Monsanto Corp., the largest producer of GM plant products, has some GMO resources on their website, but it is important to note that they are a private, for-profit corporation when using their resources for informational purposes. For the sake of completeness, I will provide their website here.

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