Ever since humanity began farming, they have been practicing a form of selective genetic engineering. Everything grown today has been affected by this millennia-long program of modification. Simply by selective breeding, by keeping the best-performing seeds from every crop, the plants we eat have changed.
Further efforts in hybridization ushered in the Green Revolution of the mid- to late- 20th century, with the yields from some crops doubling. These grain and cereal crops at the heart of the Green Revolution are not varieties found in nature. They are wholly the product of human ingenuity. At the same time, though, hybridized wheat is still, essentially, wheat. It is not some sort of chimera of strawberry and flounder.
Genetically Modified (GM) food and organisms go beyond the selective breeding practiced since the dawn of agriculture. They are transgenic organisms, where genetic material from one organism is inserted into the genetic makeup of another organism. The idea is to transplant favorable characteristics from one to another.
Some examples of genetically-modified foods include soybean modified for herbicide resistance, corn modified for herbicide and pest resistance, cotton modified for pest resistance, and many others.
According to the manufacturers of these GM crops, using theses seeds will yield a number of benefits, including increased yields and decreased costs. They push GM crops as a second “Green Revolution”, in a world with billions of hungry mouths to feed.
There are definite benefits from GM crops. Varieties have been bred that are pest-resistant, in fact to be toxic to defined pests. Some other types are resistant to certain herbicides, requiring only one or two applications to control a field, rather than 4-6 on conventional crops.
Some are bred to be resistant to disease and bacterial infections. Some, like the aforementioned strawberry and flounder chimera, are more resistant to cold. Some are engineered for drought resistance, while others can tolerate higher salinity.
Some other potential benefits of GM crops are added nutrition, like “Golden Rice” that has high level of beta carotene to provide vitamin A, while a related variety also provides iron.
In the future, researchers hope to be able to provide vaccinations and medicines in genetically modified foods, which can provide medications to people in developing countries more easily. Medications incorporated into food are easier to transport and store than conventional medicines.
With all these benefits, why are some protesting? The European Union has enacted strong regulations regarding identifying products as genetically modified, and indeed has banned many GM foods.
At the core of these concerns is safety. The opponents of GM foods feel that there hasn’t been enough testing of GM foods to ensure that they are safe, for people or for the environment. Studies by the American Food and Drug Administration have some GM foods to be safe for human consumption, however, there are independent studies that indicate otherwise. In the minds of the skeptics, this is ample cause for further testing.
As important as human safety is, environmental safety is critical as well. Simply put, no one knows if the transgenic genes of the GM crops will find their way into wild populations, or even non-wild, but non-GM. Some independent studies suggest that they will, and again, there is ample cause to investigate this. If the genes can spread, then there exists the possibility that they can become widespread, and produce a dangerous vulnerability.
From a social-economic standpoint, GM crops have an added concern. GM foods are considered intellectual property under law, and this restricts access and use. Users of GM crops are often locked into exclusive contracts for seeds and herbicides.
In the green world of the future, GM crops may well have a place, as their ability to resist pests and require less herbicides makes them more attractive. However, they are far from a second Green revolution at the moment, and until they can meet that promise, further testing and research seems very prudent.