Genetic modification, also known as “genetic engineering,” is a technologically advanced way to select desirable traits in crops. While selective breeding has existed for thousands of years, modern biotechnology is more efficient and effective because seed developers are able to directly modify the genome of the crop.
Plants that are genetically engineered (GE) have been selectively bred and enhanced with genes to withstand common problems that confront farmers. These include strains of wheat that are more resistant to drought, maize that can survive pesticides, and cassava that is bio fortified with additional nutrients.
Looking at soybeans, some varieties of soybeans have been modified to be herbicide tolerant, allowing farmers to use large doses of herbicides to kill weeds without damaging crops. Other varieties of soybeans have been modified to be drought resistant: useful where there is a lot food insecurity, and a requirement for crops to survive to feed starving populations during drought-stricken areas and seasons. Furthermore, many genetically modified crops are more resilient to climate change. Again, a useful tool.
In addition to resistance-based attributes and bio fortification, some GM crops can produce higher yields from the same planted area. GM crops have the potential to strengthen farming and food security by granting more certainty against the unpredictable factors of nature. These resistances and higher yields hold great promise for the developing world and for global food security. Yet, controversy remains over access to this biotechnology, corporation patents on certain plant strains, and claims regarding the safety and quality of GM foods as compared to non-GM foods.
Genetic modification can protect crops against threats to strong yields, such as diseases, drought, pests, and herbicides used to control weeds, and therefore improve the efficiency of food production. While farmers have been selectively breeding plants for centuries, genetic engineering allows new traits to be developed much more quickly. Utilizing traditional selective breeding can take multiple growing seasons to develop and test a new variety. Genetic engineering is more precise than conventional hybridization and therefore is less likely to produce unexpected results. For example, mutagenic breeding is not considered genetic engineering yet it exposes plant material to radiation or chemicals to create varieties with new traits.
GMOs have actually been in our food supply for nearly 30 years. Farmers have been using hybridization and mutation breeding of crops to improve their resistance to pests or environmental conditions for decades. But scientists began to sufficiently understand the genetic makeup of certain plants to be able to modify genes that would strengthen the plants’ ability to resist new pests or diseases and thus improve yields so that farmers began planting GMO crops in the mid-1990s.
In order to feed a world population that is expected to top 9 billion by 2050 and to do so in ways that do not harm the environment, farmers will need to roughly double current production levels on about the same amount of land. Genetically modified crops are more efficient and therefore use less agricultural inputs to produce the same amount of food. From 1996-2012, without GM crops the world would have needed 123 million more hectares of land for equal crop production.[i] GM technology reduced pesticide use by 8.9% in the period from 1996- 2011. Because genetically modified crops require less ploughing and chemical usage, GM technology can reduce fossil fuel and CO2 emissions. Genetic engineering can therefore help to ameliorate the effects of agriculture on the environment. Farming accounted for 24 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2010 and 70 percent of freshwater use.[iii] Additionally, scientists are developing GM crops that are resistant to flood, drought, and cold, which improves agricultural resistance to climate change. GM crops also allow for greater use of no-till cultivation, which helps with carbon sequestration, soil erosion prevention, and better soil fertility.
Genetic modification can improve the nutritional profile of food and therefore serves as a key element in reducing global rates of malnutrition. For instance, golden rice is enhanced with beta-carotene and therefore provides a dose of vitamin A, a nutrient lacking in many diets around the world. Vitamin A deficiency leads to the death of nearly 700,000 children each year, so golden rice is a crucial initiative in reducing malnutrition. Additionally, in India, using Bt corn led to the consumption of more nutritious foods, including fruits, vegetables, and animal products because of increased incomes. Another study in India showed that each hectare of Bt cotton increased caloric intake by 74 calories per person per day and that 7.93% of households using Bt cotton were food insecure as opposed to 19.94% of those using non-GM cotton.
Soybeans, being so rich in high biological value protein, have a huge role to play in improving nutrient intakes of protein-malnourished populations. The value of producing soybean crops that are resistant to disease and drought outweighs the cost of producing only organic and non-GMO crops (the latter typically being used by more affluent consumers who are often mislead by the media).
From 2003-13, 1,783 studies showed no human or environmental dangers from genetically engineered crops, with a study concluding that “the scientific research conducted thus far has not detected any significant hazard directly connected with the use of GM crops.” The European Commission released a meta-analysis study of 50 research projects and found that “the use of biotechnology and of GE plants per se does not imply higher risks than classical breeding methods or production technologies.” One study in 2013 suggested that consumption of GM foods affected the health of lab animals, but the study’s publication was subsequently pulled and its findings undermined because of digressions from standard scientific research principles.
Many misunderstandings and misconceptions about genetically modified plant crops exist.
Yet there is strong scientific consensus, including statements from organizations such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the U.S.’ National Academy of Sciences, that genetically engineered plants, including soybean crops, are safe to eat.
This article was largely sourced from http://www.thelugarcenter.org.
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