[Guest feature] Do genetically modified crops deserve a second chance?

As the world’s population is growing, resources such as water, land, and energy will be required for food production. Acquiring these resources can put a burden on the environment. Fortunately, genetically modified (GM) crops offer many solutions to improve environmental sustainability and reduce greenhouse emissions. Biotechnology will give us more productive crops with higher yields while using fewer resources; they will be an essential tool for reducing greenhouse emissions and fighting climate change.

Despite their significant role in the future of environmental sustainability, GM plants can be controversial, and not everyone acknowledges their benefits. The internet and social media are filled with misinformation and misconceptions about the safety and utility of such genetic modifications (GMOs). Folks at Believe in GMO (BIG) are on a mission to ease the skepticism revolving GMOs by providing positive and honest information on the benefits in an aesthetically pleasing and accessible manner.

The importance of carbon mitigation

Global warming is caused by multiple contributors, including air pollution and excess CO2. Air pollution is not only an environmental issue but also a healthcare issue. 3.6 million people are killed with direct air pollution from fossil fuels. Research has shown that man creates 37 gigatons of CO2, of which, the majority is absorbed back into nature, but it is estimated that there is a net remaining excess CO2 of 18 gigatons per year. If this critical situation is left alone and unresolved, environmental disasters such as hurricanes, wildfires, droughts, and floods will occur more often in the next decade.

The world is aware of the impact COVID-19 had on the environment (both positive and negative). With less human activity, the air was cleaner, skies were visible, and the water became more transparent, just as the environment ought to be. The bad news is that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has recently issued a suspension on the environmental laws. Now, companies across the United States will not face requirements with unlawful emission of air and water pollution if they can prove that the epidemic impacted their business. This change is alarming. Once the quarantine period is over, countries around the world will be driven to recover the economic recline, which may cause a dramatic increase in air, water, and soil pollution in the near future.

In response to this change in policy, cities in wealthy countries need to actively plan and choose eco-friendly companies that promise less carbon emission and decide to invest in research and projects such as GM plants that promise carbon sequestration.

How GM crops contribute to the environment?

Numerous scientists across the globe are fighting for carbon drawdown in different ways, and here are some of the ways in which GM crops can contribute:

  1. When plants absorb CO2 from the air, they eventually release it back into the atmosphere. It is crucial not only to collect CO2 but also to maintain storage for a successful carbon drawdown. To do this, the Harnessing Plants Initiative at Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, is researching ways to apply specific gene traits to produce crops that will grow a deeper, bigger, and more robust root system. Enhancing the production of suberin found in the root of plants was found to be a potential factor that will absorb and store a larger amount of CO2. These GM crops will not only contribute to carbon mitigation but also enrich the soil and increase crop yields.
  2. In addition to the importance of a deeper root system for the environment, the Land Institute is finding ways to convert annual crops into perennials. Founded in 1976, they are committed to developing food products that sustain the land and soil. The perennial plant benefits the environment because they reduce soil erosion, prevent annual cultivation, and reduce the use of pesticides and herbicides. Traditional breeding methods work occasionally, but sometimes the process is so unpredictable that it takes many decades to develop a plant with the desired traits. Biotechnology can save time and money by providing fast and accurate methods to identify the genes of interest and replicate that in plants.
  3. Although not considered as plants, but categorized under the plant kingdom, Algae are known for their efficient photosynthesis, where CO2 is absorbed, and oxygen released. Currently, companies are developing ways to utilize these organisms for carbon mitigation called Photobioreactor (PBR). Carbon capture and storage (CCS) refers to the collection of CO2 that would otherwise release into the atmosphere. A science article published by Astri Rinanti, states that GM microalgae are needed for CCS so that the organism can tolerate high CO2 concentration and efficiently mitigate through photosynthesis. The PBR system requires high maintenance, but because of its enclosed models, it can be installed in urban areas. The enclosed model also prevents the GM organism from disseminating into the environment.
  4. Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) crops are a transgenic plant that generates proteins called as “cry proteins” which is toxic to pests but has no detrimental effect on humans or environment.

How GM crops contribute to humankind?

Just like any other life-threatening condition, food allergies are also on the rise. Be it peanut allergies or lactose intolerance, the severity of the symptoms varies but its not just the patient but also their loved ones that have to deal with the aftermath and adapt to lifestyle changes. GM crops however, can come to rescue and can be modified whilst targeting the micronutrients to full-fill the deficiencies in our diets. Here are some such use-cases:

  • In a recent interview, Jennie Schmidt, a registered Dietician explained that GM crops are not the source of this surge. In fact, they can in turn be modified in such a way that the protein strains causing the allergies are turned-off.
  • According to Medical News Today, Bok Choy a.k.a. Pak Choy is known to have many health benefits such as anti-cancer properties, antioxidants, and rich vitamin C and magnesium levels. Genes responsible for these factors are being studied to apply to other crops such as tomatoes.
  • Golden rice is a variety of rice (Oryza Sativa) produced through GM to biosynthesize beta-carotene, a precursor of vitamin A, in the edible parts of rice. Golden rice helps people who suffer from vitamin A deficiency, 85% of children with this deficiency consume this rice. 
  • GM cassava could provide up to 50% of the dietary requirement for iron and up to 70% for zinc in children, as well as lactating pregnant women. This product is saving lives in Africa

Food safety standards for GM crops

According to the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), three regulatory agencies are regulating GMO crops under different perspectives in the United States. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates biopesticides used in the crops and verifies if it is non-toxic to the environment. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates GMOs for the safety of human or animal consumption. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulates GM plants through the Plant Protection Act of 2000, which provides regulations to prevent the introduction of plant pests into the United States.

In the past, there have been attempts, but not significant regulations have been made for GMO labeling. But in 2018, USDA passed a final rule to establish the new national mandatory Bioengineered (BE) food disclosure standard. The word bioengineered is used to describe GMOs. This will require food manufacturers, importers and others that label foods for retail sale to disclose information about BE food and BE food ingredients. This ruling was implemented on January 1st, 2020 and will require mandatory compliance by January 1st, 2022. Similarly, there are other similar organizations around the world working diligently to enforce strict food safety measures to safeguard the humans and environment by introducing a safety assessment of the highest possible standards.

Now, time will tell, whether the GM crops are the solution for a sustainable future or natural farming practices like organic farming would be the need of the hour. 

Published by Kshitij Tiwari

Roboticist, martial artist, solo traveler, environmentalist

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