For thousands of years, human beings have modified nature's organisms for usage in agriculture. New technology has furthered this trend: recombinant DNA technology allows biotechnology firms to insert DNAs into plant genomes, thereby creating plants that express the desired traits. Use of such genetically modified organisms (GMOs) has prompted controversy, especially for its role in ensuring food security. As such, the use of transgenics merits a serious discussion regarding its relevance to food security.
This piece discusses the purported benefits and costs of utilizing GMOs, as well as the benefits they have brought – saving land, reducing pesticide use, and promising to alleviate third world hunger. Then we provide an in-depth analysis of the health, ecological, and socio-economic impact of transgenic organisms. Our ultimate stance on this issue is to wait for greater availability of biotech organisms unassociated with large agricultural corporations, and for additional scientific data. Any reference to genetically modified (GM) organisms in this piece are exclusively pointed at transgenic organisms. We will also be examining in depth the two most widespread types of transgenic organisms: herbicide-tolerant crops and insecticide-producing plants.
Arguments for GMOs:
GMOs increase crop yields and promote efficient land use.
Food production uses a significant quantity of arable land and natural resources, and GMOs hold promise to alleviate this burden on the Earth. The efficiency of land use is a significant issue: by 2050, the global population is expected to rise above 9 billion, and the existing amount of arable land is expected to decrease significantly due to anthropogenic climate change and urbanization (FAO). If everyone in the world used as much land per person as the average United States citizen, we “would need four Earths” to sustain ourselves (Cribb). The projected population expansion and rise of food consumption per person in China and India makes efficient land use essential to food security in the next 100 years (Cribb). Consequently, conserving land to produce more food is a necessity for any long term plan. Biotechnology firms claim that transgenic crops promise more food with less land. GMO crops have been found to increase yields, with a 10 percent change to a genetically modified herbicide tolerant crop yielding a roughly 1.7 percent increase in productivity (USDA). Biotechnology companies state that such varieties of crops will improve the livelihood of farmers around the world (Cummins).
GMOs reduce the use of synthetic chemical pesticides that are harmful to the environment.
Use of transgenic plants increases yields and decreases the need for pesticide use, thereby preventing significant ecological damage. GM pesticide-producing crops are engineered to produce Bt toxins, a crystal protein naturally synthesized by the bacterium bacillus thuringiensis. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has found that these toxins do not activate in the human gut, and pose no risk to human health (EPA). The endotoxins are insecticidal and exhibit low environmental persistence (meaning they degrade quickly), making them ideal for expression in crops (Sharma, 2010). Although Bt is lethal to many insects, multiple scientific studies have found them to be harmless to wild mammals, birds, pets, and humans; Bt endotoxins may as well be considered “biopesticides” (Sharma, 2010). Herbicide-resistant crops are engineered to be resistant to glyphosate, an herbicide with relatively low toxicity levels, which allows for the spraying of glyphosate on crops to kill weeds. An example of such a plant is the Roundup Ready soybean produced by Monsanto, and the EPA has labeled glyphosate with a “low toxicity” rating (EPA).
The European corn borer, a widespread crop pest, claims 7 percent of the world's corn supply each year. Use of Bt corn has saved US farmers in Iowa and Nebraska alone up to 1.7 billion dollars in fighting this pest over the past 14 years, when compared to non-Bt variants (Hutchinson). Spanish farmers who have implemented Bt maize have found a 10 percent increase in yields, with up to 20 percent increases in borer-infested areas (Europa). Along with increasing yields, Bt crops also decrease pesticide usage. Some estimates indicate that if “50% of maize, oil seed rape, sugar beet, and cotton grown in the EU were GM varieties, pesticide in the EU/year would decrease by 14.5 million kg of formulated product”, and “there would be a reduction of 7.5 million hectares sprayed, which would save 20.5 million liters of diesel and result in a reduction of approximately 73,000 tons of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere” (Phipps). A reduction of 13 million kg of pesticide in the United States has been recorded in soybean and corn fields in between 1997 and 2009, after the introduction of genetically modified crops (Phipps). Pesticide usage is reduced by a projected 2.5 million pounds a year in the US alone due to introduction of Bt crops (USDA). It is projected that the introduction of Bt resistant sugar beet in Europe would decrease pesticide usage in kilograms per year by 2,208 kg and increase yield by 5,050 kg per year (Gianessi). Europe, a place where transgenic plants are marginally utilized, uses roughly 3 kg of pesticide per hectare, compared to the United States' 2.5 (Goodplanet).
Overall, we believe that biotechnology has great potential to bring about many benefits to provide for food security, especially in the third world. These benefits include, but are not limited to, the reduction of crop loss to environmental stress, the prevention of vitamin deficiency through more nutritious crops, the prevention of food spoilage before it is brought to market, the alleviation of soil degradation in the Third World, the potential use in agroforestry systems to create more efficient and non-competitive nitrogen fixers, the potential to synthesize more potent biopesticides for organic farming, the potential to create plants built to bioremediate contaminated soils, and the potential to create plants that thrive in rooftop or vertical farms. However, although promising, agricultural technology has not yet delivered on the aforementioned fronts.
Arguments against GMOs:
GM technology remains underdeveloped and unsuited for the regions that need them most.
One problem with biotechnology is that it is not currently built for poorer regions, as most plants are only engineered for herbicide and pesticide tolerance, with the needs of developed countries in mind (GMF). Biotechnology today is largely driven by agricultural corporations such as Monsanto, whose seeds are expensive to poorer farmers (Ho). But GMOs may increase land productivity in Africa, where 49 percent of soil is heavily degraded (Terrafrica). They could be engineered to endure harsher conditions and be less susceptible to climate changes such as drought, a leading cause of food insecurity in Africa. Certain types of native crops may be engineered to increase yields. This all might be done in the future, but it has not been done yet. Additionally, GMOs still represent too many unknowns to be a solid basis for a plan to benefit third world farmers.
Consumption of GMOs may have yet-unknown effects on human health.
Unknown health consequences are a common objection to GMO organisms. The most condemning research done on such organisms is the work of renowned scientist Arpad Pusztai, who found evidence of intestinal damage caused by genetically modified potatoes (Randerson). His funding was suspended for his publication of preliminary results, and therefore the study was never completed (Randerson). However, numerous later studies found that GM crops that have passed existing safety reviews are not harmful to human health (Academic review, AFNZA).
Many critics are still opposed to GMOs, citing that GM foods are unnatural. On the other hand, “nature does produce GMOs. Swedish researchers discovered an enzyme-producing gene in a meadow grass that naturally crossed into sheep’s fescue about 700,000 years ago.” (Bengtsson, quote from NYT). While conflicting opinions exist within the scientific community, the limited evidence available seems to suggest that existing GMO varieties are not harmful to human health, although further studies are needed to support this claim (Randerson).
The long-term ecological impacts of GMO crops are yet uncertain.
Cross-pollination with the wild type of GM species may lead to genetic contamination of the wild type, which could alter local ecosystems. Genes are difficult to control, and wild types of certain plants have been found to contain transgenic genes. Unapproved genetically engineered grass has been found in Oregon (Pollack). 83 percent of rapeseed varieties in the United States and Canada were found to contain transgenic genes (Pollack). However, cross-pollination can be minimized through measures such as buffer zones between GMO and non-GMO fields, as well as careful field planning (GMO-compass); the problem with cross-pollination may be minimized with proper planning and oversight.
Bt expressed in transgenic organisms is also toxic to a variety of helpful insects, including natural pollinators and pest predators. Monarch butterflies, a chief pollinator in North America, are highly susceptible to Bt poisoning, and will occasionally feed on corn plants (Pimentel).
The introduction of Bt crops has also led to the rise of secondary non-target pests as major scourges. Mealy bugs in India and Pakistan emerged as major pests directly following the introduction of Bt crops in the region. These insects destroyed 50,000 out of 8 million acres of cotton area across Pakistan, and the damage is still increasing. Organic crops have escaped the plague, due to their farmers' use of natural pesticides instead of Bt crops (Ho). Likewise, in China, Mirid bugs, which once did not present a threat to agriculture, have progressively grown in number since the introduction of Bt crops, especially in regions growing Bt cotton (Lu). The decrease in synthetic pesticide use in these regions has contributed to the rise in pests that have never responded to Bt. However, it is possible that integrated management of secondary pests, including techniques that integrate natural predators or parasites, can alleviate the new pestilences (Lu).
Bt crops may still be better than their alternatives in that they represent an overall decrease in ecological damage caused by pesticides. Still, the rise of such insects demonstrates the unknowns involved in shifting over to transgenic crops. Unknown long-term ecological effects make transgenics less palatable, especially in regions with great biodiversity.
The development of herbicide resistant plants has also led to an unexpected increase in the resilience of weeds, which threatens to create a cycle of dependence. The introduction of such herbicide tolerant plants at first decreased herbicide use, but afterwards increased its usage and scope. Weeds have become more and more resistant to herbicides, prompting farmers to use a wider variety and larger quantity of them (Lim). While pesticide use dropped from 22,454 lbs to 15,618 lbs from 2003 to 2008, at a rate of 7000 lbs per acre per year, herbicide use increased from 278,514,000 lbs to 330,422,709 lbs (Cherry). Thus, the sum of herbicide and pesticide usage per hectare in the United States increased 10 percent since 2003 (Cherry). Insects exhibiting Bt resistance have also been documented in the United States, but the scope of such resistance in insects can be minimized by the planting of non-Bt crops near Bt ones (“Pesticide Resistance”, Physorg).
GMOs currently lack sufficient oversight.
Six unapproved GMO types have been found in livestock feed (Melvin). Censoring of scientists such as Pustzai has also generated controversy on the validity of GMO studies (Randerson). All GM crops should undergo safety screening in order to minimize health consequences, environmental pollution, and ecological imbalance (FAO).
The influence of agricultural corporate giants on the availability of GM seeds may lead to farmer exploitation.
Transgenics are expensive, and controlled by corporate agricultural giants. Since alleviating poverty primarily concerns helping poor farmers, pushing them into a cycle of debt to foreign agricultural giants is perilous to food security. In Monsanto vs Schmeiser, Monsanto was guaranteed intellectual property rights over the Roundup Ready soybean seed; the precedent may allow private companies like Monsanto to to exploit farmers. Herein lies our greatest objection to using GM crops: until “fit-for-the-purpose” transgenic seeds are available for distribution to farmers without threatening them with a cycle of debt, transgenic seeds represent a step away from greater food security in the Third World.
However, if a rigorously tested and reliable source of transgenic seeds is found that does not require dependence on large agricultural firms, will permit the farmers' traditional practice of saving their seeds, and is approved by the local government, we are open to providing farmers with the seeds under the condition that existing non-transgenic seeds be saved in a food bank and still be available to local farmers.
Other technologies available have fewer scientific unknowns, less possibility of forming cycles of farmer debt, and have led to equally significant reductions in hunger. Integrated pest management, organic farming, and other improved farming practices may increase yields just as effectively as would introducing transgenic organisms. As such, we will not promote their widespread use until more research has been done on long term health effects, GMO seeds are available outside of corporate agriculture control, the biological effects of gene insertion are better understood, and research confirms that the presence of GMOs will not harm the native species in an ecosystem.
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