Genetically modified (GM) also called transgenic plants are designed to acquire useful quality attributes such as insect resistance, herbicide tolerance, abiotic stress tolerance, disease resistance, high nutritional quality, high yield potential, delayed ripening, enhanced ornamental value, male sterility, and production of edible vaccines (Rastogi, 2013). Genetically modified varieties of crops, notably soybean, maize, rape (canola) and cotton, were first grown commercially in 1996 and by 2010 they occupied 148 million ha in 29 countries, mostly in the Americas and Asia (Mannion and Morse,2012). The potential of genetically modified plants to meet the requirements of a growing population is not being recognized at present because of concerns raised by the public and critics about their applications and release into the environment due health, nutritional, environmental, ecological, socioeconomic, and ethical concerns (Rastogi, 2013). This essay will critically analyse this criticism and determine to what extent it is based on ignorance.
Despite some countries successfully growing genetically modified crops such as cotton, rice and maize, public opinion remains divided. There’s concern that these plants if consumed by humans and animals that they may create health problems or may lead to the development of newer microbial strains that may be pathogenic to even the transgenic plants themselves (Rastogi, 2013). However, this criticism can be countered by the findings drawn from 50 independent scientific assessments carried out by authoritative groups which concludes that there is substantial degree of consensus among the scientists that there is no evidence of effects resulting from the consumption of foods derived from genetically modified crops (ICSU, 2003, cited in FAO, 2004)
There are environmental and ecological concerns of genetically modified plants as Rogers and Parkes, 2008 and Mellon, 2012 cited in Rastogi, 2013) which they refer to as ‘genetic pollution’. However, Rastogi (2013) argues that even conventional agriculture has environmental impacts and that these concerns are not specific for transgenic plants. Furthermore, Mannion and Morse (2012 argue that field and laboratory evidence collected so far indicate that GM crops have not compromised environmental processes or components and that there are many positive impacts including reduced soil/nutrient losses in the field as well as soil and energy conservation.
There are also socioeconomic and ethical concerns on genetically modified crops in developing countries with the public fearing that the biotechnology market is dominated by Western companies whose goal is profits generation (Jordan, 2000 as cited by Rastogi 2013) which can lead to inequalities among and within countries. However, evidence from China (Pray and Huang, 2003), Argentina (Qaim and de Janvry, 2003), Mexico (Traxler et al., 2003) and South Africa (Bennett, Morse and Ismael, 2003 as cited in FAO, 2004) suggest that small-scale farmers have had no more difficulty than larger farmers in adopting the new technologies. In some cases, according to the writers, transgenic crops seem to simplify the management process in ways that favour smaller farmers.
According to Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, over 820 million people suffer from hunger while 670 million adults and 160 million children are suffering from various forms of malnutrition including obesity. Alexandratos and Bruinsma (2012) project that if consumptions patterns do not change, agricultural production will need to increase by 60% relative to 2005 to meet food demand by 2050. There are limitations of agricultural expansion as a solution according to Pinstrup-Andersen and Pandya-Lorch (1999) as cited in Liang and Skinner (2004), and therefore genetically modified crops have the potential of contributing to solving the challenge of feeding a growing population, reducing the widening social and economic disparities within and among countries while safeguarding the environment.
While the debate on genetically modified seems to be far from over, the lack of scientific evidence on their harmful effects should not make regulatory agencies complacent. Partnerships between the private sector and governments is also important in influencing the sustainability of genetically modified crops especially in protecting poor small-scale farmers. It is also important to note that genetically modified crops will not replace the need for infrastructure, extension services, financing, market and favourable policies which are prerequisites for agricultural transformation especially in developing countries. Despite the criticism surrounding genetically modified crops, they are worth pursuing with the current twin challenges of feeding an increasing population under the threat of climate change but also promoting economic development through cultivation of transgenic cash crops. (718 Words)
PS: This is my essay submitted as a formative assignment to the Graduate Institute of International Development, Agriculture and Economics (GIIDAE) at the University of Reading. The question was ‘To what extent is public opposition to GMOs based on ignorance’. The assignment had a word limit of 750 words and a minimum of three references. I would recommend further research on how GM technology saved papaya (pawpaw), BT Cotton and the Golden Rice. Please feel free to comment on the essay.
Image Credit: azfb.org
Alexandratos, N. and J. Bruinsma. 2012. World agriculture towards 2030/2050: the 2012 revision. ESA Working paper No. 12-03. Rome, FAO.
FAO. 2004. The State of Food and Agriculture 2003-04: Agricultural Biotechnology; Meeting the needs of the poor. Rome, FAO. http://www.fao.org/3/Y5160E/Y5160E00.htm [Accessed on 15/10/2019]
Liang G. H. and Skinner D. Z. (2004) Genetically modified crops: their development, uses, and risks. New York, London: Food Products Press pp 1-13
Mannion A.M., Morse S. (2012) Biotechnology in agriculture: agronomic and environmental considerations and reflections based on 15 years of GM crops. Progress in Physical Geography, 36, pp. 747-763
Rastogi Verma S. 2013. Genetically modified plants: public and scientific perceptions. ISRN Biotechnol.; 2013:820671.