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How GMOs Could Help with Sustainable Food Production

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By: Agnes Donko, PhD

World Population estimates from 1800 to 2100

           The world population has exceeded 7.5 billion and by 2050 it is expected to reach 9.7 billion. The challenge of feeding this ever-growing population is exacerbated by global warming, which may lead to more frequent droughts or the melting of Arctic sea and Greenland ice. The year 2016 was the warmest ever recorded, with the average temperature 1.1 °C above the pre-industrial period, and 0.06 °C above the previous record set in 2015. According to the United Nations, the world faces the largest humanitarian crisis in East-Africa since the foundation of the organization in 1945, particularly in Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and Nigeria. In these countries, 20 million people face starvation and famine this year because of drought and regional political instability.

How could genetically modified organisms (GMO) help?

The two main GMO strategies  are the herbicide-tolerant (HT) and insect-resistant crops. HT crops were developed to help crops survive application of specific herbicides (glyphosate) that would otherwise destroy the crop along with the targeted weeds. Insect-resistant crops contain a gene from the soil bacterium Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) that encodes for a protein that is toxic to specific insects, thus protecting the plant. Insect-resistant crops can reduce pesticide use, which decreases the ecological footprint of cultivation in two ways – first by reducing insecticide use, which in turn will reduce the environmental impact of insecticide production, and second by reducing the fuel usage and carbon dioxide (greenhouse gas) emission, by fewer spraying rounds and reduced tillage. Thus, adoption of GM technology by African nations and other populous countries like India could help with sustainable agriculture that can ameliorate the burden of changing climate and growing populations.

In developed nations, especially in the US, GM technology has been widely used since the mid-1990s, mainly in four crops: canola, maize, cotton and soybean. GM crops account for 93 percent of cotton, 94 percent of soybean and 92 percent of corn acreage in the US in 2016. Although the appearance of weed resistance to glyphosate increased herbicide usage, in 2015 the global insecticide savings from using herbicide-tolerant maize and cotton were 7.8 million kg (84% decrease) and 19.3 million kg (53% decrease), respectively, when compared with pesticide usage expected with conventional crops. Globally these savings resulted in more than 2.8 million kg of carbon dioxide, which is equivalent to taking 1.25 million cars off the road for one year.

Another way in which GM crops can help sustainable food production is by reducing food wastage in developed nations. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that one-third of all food produced for human consumption in the world (around 1.3 billion tons) is lost or wasted each year, which includes 45% of all fruits. For example, when an apple is bruised, an enzyme called polyphenol oxidase initiates the degradation of polyphenols that turns the apple’s flesh brown. But nobody wants to buy brown apples, so the bruised apples are simply trashed. In Arctic apples, the level of the enzyme is reduced by gene silencing, thereby preventing browning. The Arctic Apple obtained USDA approval in 2015, and is expected to reach the market in 2017.

In 2015, the FDA approved the first GMO food for animal consumption, a genetically modified Atlantic salmon called AquAdvantage. Conventional salmon farming has terrible effects on the environment. However, AquAdvantage contains a growth hormone regulating transgene, which allows for accelerated growth rates, thus decreasing the farming time from 3 years to 16-18 months. This would dramatically reduce the ecological footprint of fish farming, leading to more sustainable food production. Even though FDA did not find any difference in the nutritional profile between AquAdvantage and its natural counterpart, AquAdvantage will not hit the U.S. market any time soon, because the FDA banned import and sale until the exact guidelines on how this product should be labelled are published.

This FDA action was initiated by bill S. 764 that was signed by former president Barack Obama in 2016. Bill S. 764 requires food companies to disclose GMOs without necessarily using a GMO text label on packaging. They may choose to label GM ingredients with a symbol or a QRC (quick response code) that, when scanned by a smartphone, will lead the consumer to a website with more information on the product. But this requires the consumer to have both a smartphone and access to the internet. The bill also has ‘lax standards and broad definition’. For instance, if the majority of a product contains meat, but some other less significant ingredient is produced from GM crops, then it need not be labelled. Oil extracted from GM soybean, or starch purified from GM corn are exempt from labeling, because they were only derived from GM sources, but no longer contain any genetic material in them. Contrarily, in the European Union (EU), regulations require that the phrase “genetically modified” or “produced from genetically modified [name of the organism]” must appear clearly next to the ingredient list. If the food is not packaged, the same phrase must be on the food display or next to it. The EU also unequivocally determines the level of GMO (below 0.9 %) in conventional food or feed that is exempt from labelling.

Despite its controversial guidelines for GMO labeling, bill S. 764 could end the long-fought battle of Just Label It campaign. The bill was a huge step toward the right to know, which will let individuals decide if they want to consume GM foods or not. GMOs can significantly support sustainable food production and reduce the destructive environmental impact of humanity, but only if we let it.

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

May 12, 2017 at 5:13 pm

One Response

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  1. There’s nothing ‘sustainable’ about the use of genetic engineering in the field of agriculture. The following is a recent article from Never Ending Food in Malawi, Africa refuting the claims that genetic engineering is needed to ‘feed the world’ and ‘improve nutrition’. http://www.neverendingfood.org/achieving-food-and-nutrition-securitywithout-monsanto/

    Kristof Nordin

    May 17, 2017 at 12:41 am


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