Why GMOs matter

Written by: Andy Funk

Primary Source:   Plants//People

[Andy writes…] There’s a debate raging in some corners of the internet regarding how we should view genetic modification of plants in our world. We can all agree that a healthy food supply and a clean environment are top priorities, but how GMOs fit in is not always clear. Earlier this week I was in the middle of retweeting some commentary on the subject when I was struck mid-click by a question: does anyone even care about this? There are so many causes and arguments and debates in the world, who cares if I support one side or another regarding genetic modification of plants? Maybe this is just another argument in the never-ending cesspool of arguments on the internet. Why do I care? Should anyone else care too?
Then I remembered this:
And this:

The first picture is of sugarcane harvest in Brazil. The fields are burned before harvest to remove “trash” plant matter and make it easier for workers to gather the crop. This creates fine particles in the atmosphere which affect soil nutrition and the seasonal water vapor covering the rainforest, leading to changes in cloud cover and rainfall, which threatens that ecosystem.

The second picture is of a twelve-year-old girl in Ethiopia suffering from blindness caused by vitamin A deficiency. The World Health Organization estimates that between 250,000 and 500,000 children go blind each year from vitamin A deficiency, and half of these children die less than a year after losing their sight.

What do the Amazon rainforest and dying children have to do with GMOs? They are tied together through agriculture, land use, and the unseen consequences of choices we are making as a society.
In the past century the population of the earth has increased by five billion people. These people need to eat, and thankfully agricultural productivity kept pace during that same timeframe. If efficiency doesn’t increase we’ll need more farm land in the future, but the planet isn’t getting any bigger. What can we do?

Remarkably, in some countries the proportion of land dedicated to agriculture has actually decreased over time. How is this feat possible?

In the United States we are growing more food on less land, with less fossil fuels, and with fewer chemicals, by optimizing every component of our agricultural system. New herbicides and pesticides are more effective than the old ones through a combination of chemistry and genetic modification of our crops. We spray less chemicals into the environment and our water is cleaner as a result. Plant varieties yield more grain than before because of our improved understanding of genetics, along with breakthroughs in technology that let us better determine the genetic makeup of plants during development. Combining improved plants with improved growing techniques results in more food per acre, which is good for the world.

Increasing the efficiency of cropland means we don’t have to cut down trees for farmland to feed everybody. We don’t have to shave off the edges of our national parks to grow more grain (and might even give ag land to the parks). We don’t have to dump toxic versions of bug and weed killers into our fields because we figured out how to make plants compatible with safer versions of these treatments.

But all this has come amidst controversy. Recently Hershey Corporation announced that they wouldn’t be using sugar from genetically modified sugar beets due to “consumer preferences”. This means that they will be sourcing more sugar from sugar cane (none of which is genetically modified), which is predominantly grown in regions of South America taken from rainforests (FAOSTAT 2003-2013 avg). Remember those billowing clouds of smoke pictured above? In this instance, choosing “non-GMO” sugar is putting pressure on those growing regions to continue practices with  much greater environmental impact.

What about millions of blind children that have died from vitamin A deficiency over the past decade? Researchers worked for over 20 years to develop rice with increased provitamin A that could be grown in developing countries as a renewable source of the vitamin for at-risk populations. By 2005 a genetically modified “Golden Rice” was available that contained enough additional vitamin A to possibly save the lives of millions of children. I say “possibly” because as of today these rice lines are still not used in developing nations due to the influence of anti-GM activists and the culture of fear that has been created around these crops.

In the future, our ability to control the genetic makeup of food plants will only increase. Simultaneously there is a vocal group of activists and corporations that are waging a war against genetically modified crops. The public is caught in the crossfire, with sophisticated propaganda being pandered left and right. Where evidence and reason point in this debate is a topic for another time, but for now realize this:

Nothing happens in a vacuum. The decision to support or attack genetic modification of our crops is inextricably wrapped up with a number of other decisions that affect human health, land use, the environment, and the world. Would you have given poor children Golden Rice if it might have saved their eyes, or their lives? Are you contributing as a consumer to a backwards step in our water quality or land use by advocating non-GM products in the grocery store? Is your solution to feeding the next 10 billion people on this planet “population control”?

There is room for rational discussion of these topics in our society. In fact, how we handle our food supply, and the environment, are two of the most important questions we face as a species. Whatever your current position is, it’s important that you’re getting all the information possible in order to be a productive participant as we search for the way forward. You are making an impact one way or another even if you don’t realize it. Please let that impact be a good one.

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Andy Funk
Andy is a PhD candidate in Mitch McGrath's lab as part of the Plant Breeding, Genetics, and Biotechnology program at Michigan State University. He studies the genetics of disease resistance in sugar beets and hopes to one day help bridge the gap between science and the public.
Andy Funk

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