By Kruti Bhargav
Have you ever seen the most unusually large tomato ever, or tasted an apple which seemed suspiciously sweeter than normal? Well, these might have been times when you came across genetically modified foods. In 2015, Chipotle announced that they would no longer serve food containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs). But what exactly are GMOs? GMOs are organisms whose genetic material has been artificially altered in a laboratory through genetic engineering. Genes could be introduced, modified, or knocked out. GMOs lead to the creation of plant, animal, bacterial, and virus combinations that are not natural, but are usually desired.
Globally, more than 18 million farmers grow GM crops, so you’re bound to come across at least one genetically modified plant in your lifetime, especially if you buy your veggies from the grocery store. They have become a commodity that we consume every day. However, we often fail to realize their ecological impacts.
Why are GMOs used?
Genetic engineering was developed in the 1970s, and was originally used in the pharmaceutical and agricultural industries. Engineered bacteria were used to produce drugs like Avastin. When papayas in Hawaii were on the brink of extinction due to ringspot virus in the 1990s, genetic modification helped inculcate viral resistance to the plants, saving them.
The main objective of GM crops is to improve yield because these plants can be made resistant to diseases, pesticides, weeds, and extreme weather conditions. With a greater yield, I'm sure the benefits are clear to all of us: farmers and other sellers make more profit. GM crops also often induce less soil erosion and lead to lower prices for consumers.
Ears of non-Bt corn (left) and Bt-corn (right) grown with low nitrogen supply
(Credit: GMO Pundit)
Benefits of GMOs
GMOs have many wonderful benefits, and have been helping humans thrive for a long time. GM plants encourage no-till farming, which preserves moisture in the soil. Additionally, GMOs decrease the use of machinery and thus fuel, reducing the output of greenhouse gases and slowing the gradual heating of our planet. In 2014, atmospheric carbon dioxide emissions were reduced by almost 5.2 million pounds because of the use of GM crops (Answers, 2016). Furthermore, with an increasing human population, there has been an increase in food demand. GMOs help meet this demand by making the most use of available arable land, preserving wildlife habitats. In fact, in 2015, almost 20 million hectares were saved from being used for agricultural purposes (NORERO, 2018).
Harmful effects of GMOs
While GMOs may seem like the ‘wonder food’ that can be the solution to many of our current problems, we cannot ignore some of the dangerous effects of their use. GM plants can cross-pollinate with natural flora if reproductively compatible, which leads to the formation of hybrid plants. These plants often have increased reproduction capability because they contain genes that make them resistant to pests and disease. This eventually causes only the engineered gene to remain in the population, which reduces the diversity of the local wild plants, and leads to the formation of ‘superweeds’ and ‘superbugs.’ The UN Food and Agriculture Organization stated that GM crops contaminate the gene pool of natural plants in the same area or nearby, depending on wind and insects.
More than 80% of GM crops are herbicide tolerant, which leads to an overuse of toxic herbicides such as Roundup. Superbugs and superweeds can only be eliminated by excessive use of toxic herbicides such as 2,4-D. In Argentina, conversion to GM soy production inflicted catastrophic effects on the ecosystem and biodiversity. The weeds around soy are a source of food for wildlife, but also pests. The pesticides that were used were carried by the wind and water into different regions, seriously endangering domestic animals, and contaminating the soil, water bodies, and air.
Moreover, GM crops can also damage populations of animals and insects that are important for the environment and our survival: pollinators such as honeybees and butterflies. Over the past 20 years, monarch butterfly populations in North America have plummeted by 90% (CBAN, 2015). Many monarch caterpillars died from feeding on milkweed leaves coated with Bt-maize pollen (pollen from a GM plant). Because GM plants are resistant to pesticides, large amounts are used, which has been linked to Colony Collapse Disorder: loss of adult bees from the hive. Populations of Bombus affinis, a bumblebee endemic to North America, decreased by 90%, due to neonicotinoids (insecticide) (Gorman, 2017).
Monarch butterflies, one of the several insect pollinators threatened by pesticide overuse
Although there are both benefits and harms of genetically modified plants, what we do with this information is what matters more. There is no right or wrong when it comes to choosing between whether to continue using GMOs or not because most of our lives depend on genetic engineering, from our medications to some of our everyday food. Instead, we must keep in mind the effect we may be having on the environment when we contribute to the use of GMOs, and work towards minimizing this damage. Currently, there’s still a lot of new information being uncovered about GMOs and a lot more yet to be discovered. But for now, let’s make sure we use this ‘wonder food’ only for good!
CBAN. (2015, May). Are GM crops better for the environment? Retrieved June 28, 2020, from https://livingnongmo.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Are-GM-crops-better-for-the-environment_-E-web.pdf
Answers, G. (2016, September 29). How GMOs Help Us Address Climate Change. Retrieved June 28, 2020, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/gmoanswers/2016/09/29/gmos-help-address-climate-change/
NORERO, D. (2018). GMO crops have been increasing yield for 20 years, with more progress ahead. Retrieved June 28, 2020, from https://allianceforscience.cornell.edu/blog/2018/02/gmo-crops-increasing-yield-20-years-progress-ahead/
Gorman, S. (2017, January 11). U.S. Lists a Bumble Bee Species as Endangered for First Time. Retrieved June 28, 2020, from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/u-s-lists-a-bumble-bee-species-as-endangered-for-first-time/