The genetic modification of organisms is a controversial and divisive subject on which not many sit on the fence for. For the saviours of nature and the proponents of science, the topic of biological engineering is another on the list of modern polarising subjects concerning the environment.
Some form of biological engineering has always occurred in the environment. Naturally, evolution produces strong genealogical lines of flora and fauna that is better suited to survival by allowing weaker genes to die out. Humans adopted this when they went into agriculture and animal husbandry by only breeding the cows that produce the most milk, or sowing seeds of the plants that gave the most significant yield. But as humans seem incapable of leaving nature alone, scientific advances have allowed us to expand our god playing parameters.
Genetically modified crops have become increasingly popular over the last couple of decades due to their ability to cut out the lead times of evolution and breeding by delving into the specific genes that have the most desirable qualities. Genes can be transplanted from another plant or entire species that has the ideal attribute, or bad qualities can be altered or ’switched off’. This DNA fiddling can result in plants that have increased pest, disease and chemical resistance, more resilience in harsh environmental conditions like drought and low soil nutrients, and added nutritional value.
The biggest question is, why? Nature has evolved itself over billions of years to the environment and local varieties; is this just ego trying to see how far we can impart the label of human-made? But this may be precisely why they’re needed. Human activity has changed the conditions that flora has evolved to thrive in at a quicker rate than evolution can adapt to. In a time where human-induced climate change has ravaged the earth, with soil erosion, dropping arability of land, and drought scourging what’s left, natures only hope may be for us to interfere once again. Genetic modification is not the ideal choice, but it may be the only one we have.
With over a quarter of the world predicted to be plagued by severe drought and desertification by 2050 and with 3 billion more people on the planet to feed, biologically engineered food could be the only solution viable to prevent widespread starvation. Even today, 24 hectares per minute of arable land is being turned into barren swathes; now and in the future, our climate will not be able to support traditionally evolved crops. Common water-intensive crops like rice, wheat, sugarcane, and cotton will not be able to survive in the extreme conditions. Wheat and barley production is anticipated to drop by 17-30% by the end of the century, and are already over 5% lower than if our temperature were stable. And we will need up to 70% more food to feed the 10 billion people in just over 30 years time.
Farmers around the world have widely adopted genetic modification. Today 185 million hectares of land is occupied by GMOs, over 10% of the world’s cropland. With strict governmental policies of such crops due to being a relatively new technology, there are only a few nations where it is produced, predominantly Brazil, Argentina, India, Canada and the global leader at 75 million hectares is the United States. Like most technologies adopted by companies, GMOs have been involved in massive corruption rows. The infamous Monsanto, who produce over 90% of the crop, have been reported time and time again for employing extreme measures, including suing small-time family farms for stealing their intellectual property when seeds from GMO farms have naturally grown on non-GMO farms via the wind or pollinators.
As with most new inventions without a body of research, such horror stories of conglomerates and a nature-defying technology led to a massive rejection of genetically modified crops. Concerns about rises in allergies due to cross-contamination from allergenic crops to non-allergenic; the transfer of genes from GMO’s into the human body; GMO crops being inadvertently planted in fields of non-GMO crop because of natural conditions, and not being labelled as such; and concern that the same contamination will occur in the wild environment, destroying ecosystems. Much of the theories have since been disproved, with studies actually showing that the dwindling bee count may actually be helped more by GMOs than traditionally produced crops due to the more resistant crops requiring fewer pesticides.
The fight against genetically modified crops in favour of nature needs to take into account the current agricultural systems in place for non-modified crops. While a more traditional farming system relies on the processes of nature for optimal yield and quality, from encouraging the biodiversity of natural predators to deal with pests to crop rotation to share nutrients between different crops, this rosy idea of country farming is not the reality. Beyond organic produce, today’s mass agricultural industry does not reflect such wholesome values. To increase yield and abide by strict supplier contracts with retailers, farmers are pressured to plant one crop along a vast expanse of land, meaning hedgerows and tree outcroppings, one of the primary habitats for the birds and the bees, predators and pollinators, is uprooted in favour of another few feet of cropland. Due to fewer predators, insects flourish, meaning the farmer then has to invest heavily in pesticides that just as readily kills off the local environment, enters our waterways, and has been charged with the mysterious disappearance of the bees. But because GMOs are designed to be resistant to pests and grow in difficult soil conditions, the production of genetically modified crops over not can be less ecologically damaging.
Socially, genetically modified crops can also reap more benefits. Climate change, like many of the impacts the Global North has enforced on their neighbours, will disproportionately affect the poorest people. The land in developing countries will be the most devastated, with arable land expected to halve by 2050, in the next decade Africa will lose up to two-thirds from desertification. With half of the population rise expected to be from African nations alone, this loss of production could wipe swathes of villages. Genetically modified crops can enable farmers in more deprived areas to continue to produce and supply crops for their growing citizens, and in many cases, the higher yield will reap economic growth.
Today, genetically modified crops are still in their infancy, with only 9 types of produce available for agriculture, much of which is for animal feed. Just 5 are available to import to the EU and the UK; oilseed rape, soybean, cotton-seed oil, maize, sugar beet. In the EU, foods must say on their label if they contain or consist of genetically modified organisms, though meat, cheese, and eggs from animals fed on GM feed does not.
Information and research have developed since GMOs first came on the scene in the 90s, and public opinion has become less reactive to new agricultural technologies, opening the door to new innovations. Genetically modified crops in the future could see yields being increased by 40% in the next few years, along with higher nutritional elements, increasing our chances of feeding our ever growing population. Though genetically modified crops are far from the clean, green future that is so idealistically dreamt of, it seems humanities obsession with playing god on the environment needs some more meddling to fix what we have sown.