GMO Answers launched its third annual ‘Get to Know GMOs’ month this October to answer consumers’ most pressing questions about GMOs. Throughout the month, GMO Answers will post a series of five articles designated to ‘Get To Know GMOs’ month. This post is our first installment.
One of the biggest misconceptions about genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, is that they’re unnatural—the product of modern science and technology that has gone “too far.” Nothing could be further from the truth.
While mankind was still shivering in caves, awaiting the discovery of fire, nature was busy modifying the genetic structure of plants and animals. Nature has always had its own process of transferring genes from one species to another, in effect, creating GMOs.
What today’s genetic scientists have done is harness nature’s process to bring about specific genetic alteration in a much more controlled way. The technology enables us to modify plants by a process that is more directed and rapid than is possible through traditional plant breeding, important to the environment and our future survival.
Discovery of Nature’s GMO
In the late 1970s, I had the privilege of being part of the team that discovered how useful it could be to know that the Agrobacterium, a microbe that causes galls on plants, is nature’s own genetic engineer. This tiny creature, visible with the assistance of a microscope, delivers a genetic package, called T-DNA, to a plant.
What we figured out is that it was possible to alter this genetic package so that useful genes could be transferred to the plant, improving it in a number of ways. Scientists the past few decades have perfected the technique. We have identified genes that improve the taste and freshness of the foods we eat. Other genes allow for growing higher-yielding crops in harsh conditions where, for instance, water is scarce, the sun blazes hot overhead and invasive insects are abundant.
Those who are used to going to the market and always finding fully stocked shelves overflowing with food may not be aware of the importance of continually improving plant crops. The pests that reduce the yield of our crops are evolving, especially so with global warming changing their environment. It will be an increasing challenge to modify our crops to resist a changing array of bacteria, fungus, insects and nematodes. Sub-Saharan Africa in particular faces a shortage of fresh water, which makes it extremely difficult to produce the food needed to feed its rapidly growing population. One out of every four people there goes to bed hungry.
There will be an increasing need for drought tolerant crops that can grow in the harsh conditions, with less water and less need for pesticides. Growing crops with fewer resources is good for the environment, and even better for farmers struggling with low income and water scarcity.
Crops can also be fortified to improve nutrition. Golden Rice, for instance, is a genetically engineered variety of rice that contains beta carotene, which has the potential to serve as a desperately needed source of vitamin A for the estimated 250 million in Asia and Africa who do not receive enough of the nutrient. Golden Rice, if deployed, could end a disease that needlessly robs an estimated 250,000 children of their eyesight every year.
While many nations enjoy relative abundance in food today, that won’t necessarily be true in the future. The world population is growing at the rate of 200,000 per day. That means within the next few decades we will need to produce enough extra food, on top of what we produce today, to feed another two billion people.