By Dr Kamariah Hasan (Senior Lecturer, QIU School of Biological Sciences)
“There doesn’t seem to be any other way of creating the next green revolution without GMOs” — E.O. Wilson, the father of biodiversity.
Genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, are dreaded by many. It has the ability to stop your average consumer from buying an item once they spot those three letters on the label.
But do we really know what are GMOs? Should they be condemned or are they just misjudged?
DISPELLING THE MYTHS
A GMO is an organism that has had its DNA altered or modified through genetic engineering. This modification is done to improve their properties.
DNA is the blueprint of life; a code that gives us our traits—the colour of our eyes and skin, our height and much more. Each organism’s unique DNA makes them different.
Are GMOs the first example of something with modified DNA? Far from it. Modification of DNA through mutation has been going on for millions of years even before DNA structure was discovered in 1953.
Approximately 10,000 years ago, humans started domesticating crops and livestock to grow their own food. Via natural selection and domestication, edible crops like corn, wheat, bananas and many others were modified to give them more desirable traits. These alterations made them what they are today. Essentially, GMOs are doing the same thing; only with modern scientific techniques.
HOW GMOs HELP
It is estimated that by 2050, the world population will increase to 9 billion. Which means that in less than 30 years, we’ll be faced with a huge challenge to feed everyone.
If that wasn’t enough of a problem, climate change will bring severe weather, drought and rising sea levels—leaving us with less land for agriculture. Add to that new blights and invasive pests that seriously impact food production.
It is imperative more than ever, that we develop more resilient crop varieties that are better suited to survive these changing conditions. The good news is that we’re doing so, and they’re called GMOs.
Scientists and researchers worldwide are working tirelessly to develop more robust crop varieties that deliver real benefits to humans and help us meet the challenges of tomorrow. Here are some examples:
- Insect–resistant crops that incorporate DNA from a bacterium which produces a toxin fatal to insect larvae. This reduces dependency on chemical pesticides. Examples include soy, corn, canola and many more.
- Herbicide-tolerant crops designed to tolerate specific broad-spectrum herbicides, which kill the surrounding weeds but leave the cultivated crop intact.
- Genetic modification can also be used to enhance the flavour and appearance of foods. Arctic apples are genetically modified to prevent browning. Tomatoes are engineered to produce higher levels of nutrients called anthocyanins, which have been shown to be protective against a wide variety of human diseases.
- The Golden Rice Project promises to bring Vitamin A-enriched rice to the market, helping to prevent almost 500,000 cases of childhood blindness and 2 million deaths caused by Vitamin A-deficiency in developing countries each year.
- Impossible meat–a plant-based variety–is now replacing real meat in fast food chains. The meat-free products promise to end factory farming, be more sustainable and address global warming. This will be a welcome alternative to raising livestock which require massive amounts of land, food, energy and water.
Unfortunately, many of these valuable and potentially lifesaving projects are unable to come to market because of public misinterpretations about the possible risks of GMOs.
ARE GMOs ACTUALLY HARMFUL?
While most notable organisations and research suggest that GMO foods are safe and sustainable, some people claim they harm human health and the environment. What these people may not realize is that GMO food products must be comprehensively tested before they can be sold—far more so than traditionally-bred crops.
The testing process can take 7-10 years, and must include evaluations of potential risks to humans and livestock as well as potential risks to wildlife and the environment. More than 1,700 studies have found no evidence that GMO crops produce adverse effects in humans or livestock.
Even the World Health Organization (WHO) has concluded that food containing GM ingredients are as safe as the same food containing ingredients from crop plants modified by traditional techniques. GMO crops also do not have a higher risk of causing allergic reactions compared to conventional crops.
Anti-GMO activists believe that GMO crops may result in more extensive use of herbicides and pesticides. In truth, they actually reduce dependency on chemicals, because they allow more targeted use of pesticide and herbicide. In fact, a meta-analysis performed by Georg-August-University of Goettingen in Germany shows that the introduction of GMO has resulted in a 37% reduction in chemical pesticide use and a 22% crop yield increase. Crucially, farmers get 68% more profit.
More than 30 years have passed since GMO crops were introduced. The scientific community agrees that there are more benefits compared to drawbacks of this technology. Now it’s up to us.
Instead of placing oppressive bans or misleading labels, it is time to give GMO a chance. As Nobel Peace Prize winner, Norman Borlaug put it: “Not one person has suffered from negative effects from innovations like GMOs, yet 25,000 people die every day from malnutrition”.
Dr Kamariah Hasan is the recipient of Malaysian Ministry of Education’s Fundamental Research Grant Scheme and the Japan’s Toray Science Foundation Science and Technology Research Grant. She is a member of the Malaysian Society for Microbiology and the Malaysian Genetic Association.