Future of Genetically Modified Food
A growing global population and higher standard of living place pressures on the planet’s
natural resources and food systems (Singh, Debarati, & Ghai, 2006) . The population is on an
upward trend, increasing from 1.65 billion to 6 billion persons in the 20 th century alone. Although
the growth rate is decreasing, the latest United Nations Population Division projections indicate
that the world population will reach 10 billion persons in the year 2056 (United Nations, 2015) .
If the population reaches this number, we will face shortages in natural resources – the most
crucial of which is food. Poverty in developing countries has led to shortage of food and poor
nutrition, both of which will continue to be a greater concern as population grows. In order to
sustain the growing population without sacrificing the quality of life, new technologies and
scientific discoveries must be implemented. This paper argues the use of genetically modified
foods as a solution to this problem because they provide longer shelf life, nutritional value and
increased tolerance to environmental pressures.
Genetically Modified Organisms
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are at the fore-front of addressing the population driven
food shortage problem. Since 1992, GMOs have seen growing use around the world (Gilbert,
2013) . They are produced by employing molecular techniques involving insertion and integration
of a short segment of DNA from a variety of plants, microbes and animals into the genome of a
crop (Eastham & Sweet, 2002) . These DNA segments typically code for characteristics which
are beneficial to the survival and growth of the targeted crop such as increased shelf life,
nutritional value, herbicide tolerance, microbial/insect resistance and tolerance to various severe
environmental pressures (Singh, Debarati, & Ghai, 2006) . The combination of these
characteristics has allowed for significant savings and increases in agricultural yield. Genetically
modified crops have emerged as an effective tool in enhancing food supply by increasing crop
yields for direct use, or indirectly by providing cheaper feed for the livestock industry. The net
effect of GMOs has increased agricultural production by more than US$98 billion and saved an
estimated 473 million kilograms of pesticides from being sprayed in the US (Gilbert, 2013) .
In the past, Farmers have practiced plant breeding for altering the genes of crops. However,
genetic modification has advantages over plant breeding in the precision of gene transfer.
Conventional breeding is described as a collection of techniques aimed at bringing together
selected parents in order to generate a better crop in the progeny. The male organs of the flower
are removed in a process called emasculation. Pollen from a selected parent will then be
manually introduced to the female organs of the emasculated plant using a brush. This results in
the crossing of tens of thousands of expressed genes and is therefore not precise. Furthermore,
many undesired genes will also be transferred and identifying these genes can prove very
difficult. This process is also limited by fertility barriers that only allow plants of the same or
closely related species to be crossed (Halford & Shewry, 2000) .
New genetic modification techniques are divided into two stages: DNA delivery and plant
selection and regeneration. In the DNA delivery stage, novel genes are introduced to the genome
of the plant using two methods. The first utilizes the naturally occurring soil bacterium
Agrobacterum tumefaciens, which infects a wound on the target plant and then injects a fragment
of its DNA referred to as T-DNA into the plant. The T-DNA is a contained in a plasmid as a
closed circle of extra-chromosomal DNA rather than the bacterial chromosome. This allows for
the manipulation of the plasmid in order to replace the T-DNA with the desired genes without
affecting the genetic structure of the bacterium. The second method is particle bombardment, in
which DNA is coated onto the surface of microscopic gold particles which are shot into plant
cells using a burst of helium gas. Following the DNA delivery stage, the modified cells
proliferate in a lab environment with the application of plant hormones (Halford & Shewry,
2000) . The seeds are then extracted, and sold to farmers.
The advantages of GMOs include longer shelf life, nutritional value and increased tolerance to
environmental pressures. For example, slow-ripening tomatoes; (find a nutrient rich one)
herbicide tolerant soya; and insect-resistant corn have seen success. These products have a clear
consumer benefit in their lower cost compared to traditional products. Slow-ripening tomatoes
stay fresh for longer reducing the loss of profits from rotten tomatoes and enable the
manufacturers to introduce a lower price point. Herbicide tolerant soya have allowed for the use
of a single, safe, rapidly-degrading herbicide instead of a mix of more expensive, more
poisonous and more persistent herbicides (Halford & Shewry, 2000) . Further, the GM soya have
allowed the farmers to use no-till agriculture, leaving the soil undisturbed over the winter and
thus reducing erosion and loss of groundwater. GM corn was developed by introduction of a
gene that results in the expression of a protein which is toxic to some insects, mainly caterpillars.
This characteristic has increased the yield and GM corn is now widely consumed directly or
indirectly used as livestock feed.
(Assess how the above will help us solve the food problem)
Disadvantages and Limitations
The major disadvantages of GMOs lie in the proliferation of herbicide-resistant weeds and the
ethical concerns of consumers. A current limitation to plant modification is that not all cells in
the target plant are genetically modified. Therefore, it is necessary to kill the unmodified cells
and this requires that the gene of interest be accompanied a selectable marker gene. This is
usually a gene which makes the cells immune to an herbicide. Genetically modified (GM) cotton
produced by Monsanto was designed to show immunity to the herbicide glyphosate. Glyphosate
was then widely adopted by US farmers using the Monsanto seeds. By encouraging the use of
glyphosate, herbicide-resistant amaranth (a type of weed) spreads across cotton fields, causing
significant damage (Gilbert, 2013) . Prior to GM cotton, farmers have employed tilling and
ploughing to control the weeds and slow the development of resistance by using multiple
herbicides (Gilbert, 2013) . The GM cotton allows farmers to rely solely on glyphosate, which
kills a wide range of weeds and reduces the need for ploughing. Most farmers abuse this to
reduce costs and increase production, and plant GM seeds annually. This practice was validated
by GM seed manufacturers whom stated that the risk for resistance was very low. Twenty-four
glyphosate-resistant species of weed have been identified since the use of GM cotton (Gilbert,
(ethical concerns paragraph here)
(assess how the above is not that big of an issue)
While it is true that GM seeds and the faults of their manufacturers have been a cause for
the rise of herbicide resistant weeds, there is another potential point of failure. Transgenes from
GM crops has been found in the genome of non-GM crops in Mexico, where GM crops are
illegal and have not been commercially used (Gilbert, 2013) . This spurred research to figure out
whether transgenes flowing to non-GM crops through cross-breeding can have negative effects.
At this point the research has been inconclusive (Gilbert, 2013) . Moving forward, further studies
on the transgenetic properties of GMOs will provide us a better metric for risk analysis and aid in
determining the viability of GM crops as a solution to our resource problem.
Gilbert, N. (2013). A Hard Look at GM cops. Nature, 24-26.
Singh, O. V., Debarati, P., & Ghai, S. (2006). Genetically modified crops: success, safety assessment,.
Applied Microbiology and Technology, 598-607.