The Benefits of Genetically Modified Food Crops While genetically modified crops have come under much skepticism, GMOs have the potential to benefit food production, world health, the environment, and the economy. by Andy Luttrell
GM Crops Benefit Global Health and EnvironmentGenetically modified (GM) crops have made a tremendous positive impact on the world. A 2004 article titled “GM crops: The global economic and environmental impact—the first nine years 1996-2004,” published in the Journal of Agrobiotechnology Management & Economics by Graham Brookes and Peter Barfoot reports that GM technology has had considerable economic and environmental effects between 1996 and 2004, bringing $27 billion directly to farms, reducing pesticide use by 172 million kg (resulting in a 14% reduction in pesticide-associated environmental footprint), and reducing greenhouse gas emissions by over 10 billion kg (as much as removing five million cars from the earth for a year). This data was only based on the first nine years of widespread GM crop growth; the technology shows even greater promise as more research is conducted and implemented. “GM crops can contribute substantial progress in improving agriculture, in parallel to the (usually slow) changes at the sociopolitical level,” says a 2003 Nuffield Council on Bioethics report titled “The use of genetically modified crops in developing countries: A follow-up discussion paper.” “There is an ethical obligation to explore these potential benefits responsibly, in order to contribute to the reduction of poverty, and to improve food security and profitable agriculture in developing countries.”
How Genetically Modified Crops Benefit Crop Growth As demonstrated by GMO-pioneer Norman Borlaug ("Norman Borlaug," The Nobel Foundation, Nobelprize.org), crops can be modified to facilitate their growth in less-than-ideal circumstances. A particular concern among small-scale farmers in developing countries, but also among large-scale farmers, is the loss of crops to insect pests. One way to combat this problem is to drench fields with pesticides, but this behavior can have negative health effects on farmers, the environment, and the health of consumers.
Instead, biotechnology can be used to increase yields via pest-resistant crops, according to Matin Qaim and David Zilberman’s 2003 paper “Yield effects of genetically modified crops in developing countries” in the journal Science. For example, in Africa (and Kenya, particularly), the sweet potato serves as an important subsistence crop, but viruses and weevils can dramatically decrease output by up to 80%. The Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, however, has developed a genetically modified sweet potato that can increase crop yields by 18-25%.
Biotechnology can also generate crops with genes that resist damage due to unexpected frost and long periods of drought. These GM crops will allow more food to be produced per plot of land, and in regions that suffer from a lack of arable land, these crops will provide food where there once was not.
Economic Benefits of Genetically Modified Crops Use of genetically altered foods can have a positive effect on the economy, especially in less developed countries. Already, implementation of GM crops has led to economic gains in South Africa, according to the 2006 Journal of Development Studies article “The economic impact of genetically modified cotton on South African smallholders” by Richard Bennett, Stephen Morse, and Yousouf Ismael.
The GM sweet potatoes mentioned earlier have been predicted to increase farmer income by up to 30% for virus-resistant potatoes and up to 40% for weevil-resistant potatoes. Because GM crops require fewer pesticides, farmers can save money on both the costs of pesticides and on the labor necessary to administer the treatments. This, combined with higher output, allow the farmer to profit more from his or her product.
How Genetically Modified Plants Benefit the Environment While GM crops’ reduced reliance on pesticides has shown both agricultural and economic benefits, it also has environmental benefits. The United States Department of Agriculture reports in the 2000 document “Genetically engineered crops: Has adoption reduced pesticide use?” that from 1997 to 1998, farmers used 8.2 million fewer pounds of active pesticide ingredients on corn, cotton, and soybeans. This reduction corresponded with an increasing adoption of GM crops, marking the potential for this technology to reduce pest-control chemicals released into the environment. In fact, while not necessarily related to food-related biotechnology, some GM plants have been developed to take care of heavy metal pollution in contaminated soil.
The Effect of Genetically Modified Food on Global Nutrition Given the prevalence of malnutrition throughout the world, the ability to increase the nutritional content of available foods would have dramatic implications. An important example is vitamin A deficiency (VAD). Vitamin A is vital to reproduction, immune system functioning, and vision, but Dr. Nilva Egana, in the 2003 Journal of Nutrition & Environmental Medicine article “Vitamin A Deficiency and Golden Rice” notes that every year, “approximately a quarter of a million children in Southeast Asia go blind because of VAD and many more become susceptible to infectious diseases such as measles.”
In response to this problem, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Institute for Plant Sciences developed “golden rice,” a strain of rice with a higher amount of vitamin A that could be given to countries suffering from malnutrition. While some critics note that the distribution of golden rice will not solve global malnutrition by itself, the potential for GM crops to promote better nutrition in poor countries warrants further research.
How Genetic Engineering Benefits World Health Finally, biotechnology can allow people to receive crucial medicines and vaccines that are difficult to distribute. By putting vaccines into food products, organizations can more easily transport and administer them to people in need. For example, a June 4, 2001 Scientific American piece by Kate Wong, titled “Souped-up Spuds Show Promise for Edible Vaccines,” describes the work of researchers who have developed a transgenic potato that has immunized rats against both rotavirus and E. coli, two potentially deadly stomach diseases. This research demonstrates the potential for GM food to carry vaccines against infections by both bacteria and viruses.