The genetic modification of crops is a technology which involves implanting DNA into the genome of an organism. To produce a genetically modified plant, new DNA is inserted into plant cells, which are then grown in tissue, ultimately growing into plants. The seeds grown from these plants contain the new DNA. To meet the ever-growing demand for food, genetically modified crops are increasingly being used. But there is some apprehension behind genetically modified food about health and environmental impact. What are the perks and downsides of using genetically modified crops?
The growing of genetically modified (GM) crops has expanded significantly since the mid-1990s- in 1996, 1.7 million hectares contained GM crops worldwide which, by 2015, increased to 179.7 million hectares. Examples of GM crops include GM soybean and corn (Bacillus thuringiensis) which is the most farmed in the US and is produced to resist herbicides and develop proteins poisonous to some insects. Another is GM cotton which, besides serving as a reliable source of cotton for the textiles industry, is used to produce cottonseed oil that is used in packaged foods and frying.
Globally, 30 countries grow GM crops, but 5 (US, Brazil, Argentina, Canada and India) are responsible for nearly 90% of GM farming. 4 crops (maize, canola, soybean, and cotton) make up 99% of the world’s GM farming land. Maize is most grown in Asia, Canola is produced the most in Canada, making up 20% of the world’s supply, soybean is mostly farmed in Latin America and GM cotton is mostly farmed in Mexico. GM soybeans are the most grown crops and as a result, 50% of the world’s soybeans are genetically modified. However, there has been wide debate on whether or not GM crops cause more harm than good in terms of both environmental advantages and human health advantages.
The Advantages of Genetically Modified Crops
GM crops emit less greenhouse gases than conventional agriculture; in 2016, farming these crops aided in decreasing carbon dioxide emissions equal to removing 16.7 million cars off roads for a year. Furthermore, GM crops reduce the number of pesticides sprayed, simultaneously increasing the quantity of crops that can be consumed or sold. According to a study, the decline in the use of pesticides can lead to the conservation of insects. Moreover, GM crops do not require tillage and enable conservation tillage practices which decreases soil erosion whilst simultaneously preserving soil moisture which is vital in order to conserve the appropriate amount needed for agriculture.
Additionally, a study argues GM technology is said to improve the efficiency, resiliency and profitability of farming. GM seeds are also said to increase crop yields and GM soybean, cotton and maize delivered 20%, 15% and 7% higher yields than non-GM soybean, cotton and maize in 2006. In 2014, India planted 11.6 million hectares of Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) cotton (genetically modified cotton) by the work of 7.7 smaller farmers as opposed to the 11.0 million hectares planted in 2013. This 95% adoption rate has been associated with the growth of yields farmers in the country faced due to the efficacy of GM seeds and also resulted in increased income from Bt cotton by US$16.7 billion between 2002-2013. Another benefit of GM crops is that they are engineered to be disease and drought resistant, requiring less water and fertilizer.
The reduced use of pesticides in GM crop production means that farm workers do not come into contact with harmful and potentially fatal doses of harmful chemicals. In the last 20 years, the farming of GM crops have decreased the amount of pesticides sprayed by 8.1% and in turn, the environmental impact of pesticide use on crops has reduced by over 18%.
The global population is expected to reach 11 billion by 2100. Companies who produce GM seeds believe that they will meet the “feeding the world” challenge. Moreover, the World Food Program estimates that 821 million people worldwide are undernourished and 1 in 9 people experience hunger. Factors such as population growth, climate change, over-farming and water shortages all play a role in food shortages and as mentioned before, GM crops may be able to fill this gap.
With food shortages come nutritional deficiencies, something which GM seed companies are working to combat. Vitamin A deficiency is the primary cause of blindness amongst children in developing countries. To fight it, genetically modified rice called Golden Rice was first produced in 1999. This crop produces large amounts of beta-carotene, an antioxidant that transforms to Vitamin A. This crop has been argued to combat this problem by its increased development and circulation by approximately 50%.
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The Disadvantages of Genetically Modified Crops
Despite the outlined benefits of GM crops, there are still concerns about their use. Four Asian countries such as Turkey, Kyrgyzstan, Bhutan and Saudi Arabia have prohibited them. Turkey bans them on the grounds that they deem them to be unsafe while Bhutan prohibits them out of fear of negative environmental impacts. Concerns have been expressed that simply inserting new DNA into a plant genome may have unpredictable consequences, but issues of these plants sexually hybridising with non-GM crops or becoming invasive weeds have been contested with lack of evidence. Even now, plant genomes may react unpredictably without being interfered with; some bacteria and viruses insert new genes into the genomes of plants that they infect, while plant genomes contain many so-called “jumping genes” that move around the genome, re-inserting themselves in different places. We also know that gain and loss of genes within species is very common too.
Environmental disadvantages of GM are also prominent. Herbicide-resistant GM crops were produced in 1996 and since then, an epidemic of super-weeds (which now grow in soybean, cotton and corn fields) has built up a resistance to herbicides, leading to these weeds suffocating over 60 million acres of crop and farmland in the US. Consequently, farmers use more herbicides to combat these super-weeds. A herbicide which is often utilised is Glyphosate which was first produced in 1970 and introduced in 1974 in order to help crops grow. However, 42 countries have banned or restricted its utilisation.
The use of Glyphosate can kill pollinating insects and using Glyphosate close to water bodies has the potential to affect local wildlife.
Meanwhile, the use of Roundup (brand name of herbicide that contains Glyphosate) has led to a rise in mortality rates amongst amphibians and scientists have also linked the 90% reduction in the monarchy butterfly population in the US with Roundup. Genetic modified crops leads to the use of the farming system: monocultures which are detrimental to the environment as it disturbs the natural balance of soils. Monocultures are dominant in agriculture and involve the farming of one crop in the majority of the land and is a system used as one crop means only one form of harvesting needs to occur and therefore it is perceived as more efficient.
One of the main worries about GM crops is whether or not it is safe for human consumption and aids in human health. Overall, according to a study, consumers avoid purchasing GM foods as they believe it is damaging to their health, gravitating towards eco-friendly food. Furthermore, scientists are still unaware of the long-term effects of intaking GM crops. However, according to an article, with over two decades of examining the effects of genetically modified organisms by researchers and countries worldwide, they show no toxicity.
It is clear that the farming of genetically modified crops holds both benefits and drawbacks for the environment. Its entirety of its effects on human health is still unknown, in particular to long term impacts and therefore requires further research.