Genetically modified organisms (GMOs), specifically crops such as corn, wheat, tomatoes and rice, are rising in popularity as the agricultural industry attempts to keep up with the rapidly increasing population. A GMO is the result of a process by which genes from one organism are inserted into another in order to develop a desired trait.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, more than 90% of all soybean cotton and corn acreage in the U.S. is used to grow genetically engineered crops.
As with most new technological developments, people have been debating the use of GMOs and their safety since the ‘80s, when the Food and Drug Administration approved its first GMO, Humulin, insulin produced by genetically engineered E. coli bacteria. A majority of the safety concerns surrounding GMOs comes from a lack of understanding their effects on people and the environment.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are the primary regulating agencies involved in GMO safety.
The FDA is responsible for monitoring the safety of food that humans consume and the USDA monitors and regulates the use of biotechnology in agriculture by studying its effects the environment. The EPA aims to ensure the quality and health of the environment. This comes into play with biotechnology through regulating pest-management methods on crops.
Biotech crops, or GM crops, undergo extensive testing years before they are even planted on a field. In the U.S., genetically modified crops must pass through many regulatory steps, such as tests on allergic potential and likeliness the species will become invasive. This is much more extensive than any conventional crop grown. Traditional crops are not subject to chemical testing and are deemed safe through experience not necessarily scientific fact.
All new ideas or technologies have risks associated with them, but the technologies that last are those whose benefits outweigh their risks. The World Health Organization, the American Medical Association and the British Royal Society, among others, have all concluded that foods containing genetically mutated ingredients are as safe as the same foods containing ingredients from crop plants modified by conventional techniques.
To date, there have been no confirmed adverse health effects from biotech products. The regulatory agencies involved are doing everything they can at the moment to ensure that each product is safe.
Not only are GM crops helpful in meeting population demands in first world nations, but they are also essential in aiding developing countries. Crops that are engineered to produce higher levels of certain vitamins or nutrients save millions of lives. The Golden Rice Project developed vitamin-A enriched rice, which would prevent nearly 500,000 cases of childhood blindness and 2 million deaths from a lack of vitamin-A in third world countries each year. While this project would ideally already be available to consumers, government agencies in the Philippines and Bangladesh have yet to approve the crop for mass consumption, and scientists are still conducting tests in order to ensure the crop effectiveness.
Scientists can also engineer crops to reduce the amounts of herbicides and pesticides needed, since they have a better built-in pest resistance.
According to a German meta-study published in PLoS One, chemical pesticide reduced by 37 percent, crop yields increased by 22 percent and farmer profits increased by 68 percent since the administration of GMOs on average.
Population growth is placing increased pressure on the shoulders of the agricultural industry. Biotechnology can help us create new crop varieties that are more beneficial to the population than conventional crops. Unfortunately, many potentially lifesaving projects are unable to be carried through because of misconceptions from the public regarding GMOs. Through spreading knowledge and encouraging scientific discovery, the GMOs under development in the technologically-advanced world of today will help us tackle the challenges of tomorrow.