Genetic modification of organisms (GMO) has recently attracted much public attention. Proponents of biotechnology highlight its beneficial effects on agriculture and food processing industry – cheaper, tastier, more durable, tasty, and nutritious food.
Critics of genetic engineering use such terms as "genetic manipulation" and "Frankenstein food" to stress the unnaturalness of the process, as well as the related dangers like negative impacts on the natural environment and human health.
Undoubtedly, like any technology, genetic modification has both positive and negative effects. This article presents some of the arguments in favor and against biotechnology as applied to agricultural food production. The focus is on the ecological and environmental effects of genetic modification of agricultural crops.
Most biotechnological efforts in agriculture have been focused on developing herbicide tolerant crops or disease and pest resistant crops. One of the major benefits is that it reduces the application rates for herbicides used on herbicide resistant crops (HRCs). It also reduces the overall quantity of herbicide.
Critics argue that there would be a significant increase in the overall quantity of herbicide, but some reports show otherwise. Farmers in the United States treat more than 90% of all corn, soybean, and cotton acreage with herbicides at least once every year. Also, farmers who used the first genetically engineered modified cotton and soya reported an increase in yield and net return with a stable or reduced quantity of herbicides.
Proponents of transgenic crops note that the engineered crops can produce a toxin that kills insect, so farmers do not need to spray much herbicide. Another potential ecological and environmental benefit of genetically modified crops is that farmers in the future may use marginal lands as biotechnology creates crops that can grow on acidic, salty, or dry soils. This would mean reduced deforestation.
There are a number of major ecological and environmental contentions against genetic engineering of agricultural crops. First, there is the danger of crops transferring genes to wild varieties. For example, if herbicide tolerant genes are introduced into crops for fortification purposes, then a transfer of these enhanced genes to the wild type can improve the latter’s fitness.
Second, there is the risk of transferring engineered genes into the soil. Although it is unlikely that the impact will be great, many studies have shown that soil bacteria can absorb the DNA from the modified crops. Third, there is also the risk of insects becoming resistant to herbicides and pesticides.
Lastly, non-target crop species on the wider ecosystem may somewhat be affected. By injecting new genes into existing crops, biotechnologists are making a new variety of the crop, which consequently may affect the larger environment. The risk is that the DNA of the crop flows to other domesticated or wild varieties of the same crop.
Effective public strategy
Overall, the uncertainty about the positive and negative effects of biotechnology on the environment is the reason for the differing opinions about genetic engineering in agriculture. Considering that this process is subject to much R&D and GMOs are already available at a very large scale, it looks unrealistic to strive for a total GMO ban.
An effective public strategy must include several elements:
(1) promotion of communication among industry, science, politicians, NGOs, and consumers;
(2) focusing legislation on the responsibilities of private firms;
(3) development of standards for testing and monitoring ecological, environmental, and health effects of GMOs;
(4) provision of consumer choice between GMO-based products GMO-free products.