Genetically Modified Crops: Do we benefit?

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Genetically Modified Crops: Do we benefit?

Miranda Cecil, Staff Writer

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Since humans first began to farm, genetic modification has occurred through processes including selective breeding, hybridization and cross-pollination.

“Man put an ear on a corn plant, and, though that does not fit the slang definition of GMO today, it is a genetic modification,” product stewardship leader at Syngenta Carroll Screen Shot 2016-02-14 at 1.08.29 PMMoseley, PhD said.

Corn grew in the wild as teosinte, a small-seeded ancestor to modern corn, (picture on left). Through the process of selective breeding, wherein genetically desirable plants are bred to produce a more genetically favorable crop, teosinte became the corn plant we know today.

“[Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are crucial for] producing cheap, abundant food in a way that addresses the world’s needs,” regulatory leader at Syngenta Jerry Wells, PhD said.

GMOs are products wherein transgenes (genes from other sources) have been implanted and used to achieve more favorable results for a crop.

In the United States, there are nine GMO crops approved for use, including corn, soy beans and cotton. Extensive research has shown that nutritional benefits and safety of these products are equal to those of non-GMO crops. In some cases, due to less insect damage, GMO crops exhibit a higher quality than their non-GMO counterparts.

GMOs are used to increase water use efficiency, control pests and increase shelf life.

“We are losing farmland every year to urban sprawl,” Syngenta Seedcare product marketing head Palle Pedersen, PhD said. “We’re sacrificing up to 500 thousand acres annually.”

By 2050, some estimate that food production must double to support a population of 9.6 billion. 70% of this food must come from efficiency improving technology, especially as land for agriculture becomes increasingly scarce.

“There’s no more land, so we have to increase our yield on the land we have,” Pedersen said.

In 1950, growers averaged 38.2 bushels of corn per acre. In 2015, they averaged 168.4 bushels per acre. While in 1950 two and a half acres fed two people, it is projected that two and a half acres will feed five people by 2030.

“We have a smaller agricultural footprint with increased yields,” Moseley said.

Because genetically modified organisms can also be engineered to grow in various conditions and environments, they provide an opportunity to reduce poverty and hunger while being grown in potentially climate changing conditions. They also provide an opportunity to produce more crops with less acreage, resulting in a lower environmental impact.

Higher yields also benefit growers, because greater quantity of product corresponds to greater profit for the American farmer.

“[GMOs] encourage farmers with cost efficiency,” Pedersen said.

Genetically modified organisms facilitate greater environmental efficiency by reducing the amount of pesticide that must be sprayed on crops. Since 1996, GMOs have allowed a 1.1 billion pound reduction of pesticides sprayed, as well as a 70% decrease in herbicide runoff, which could potentially contaminate water supplies.

An average of $136 million and 13 years is spent to bring any given genetically modified seed to market. This money and time is used to allow extensive research around the world on the safety and the productivity of technology used. Credible experiments to date lend themselves to proof that GMOs are safe for both humans and the environment.

“We’ve seen instances where people have published damaging results that cannot be duplicated by others. If this information is used as fact, it is an injustice to the agriculture industry, should the information be used as fact,” Moseley said.

The agriculture industry aims to increase food production to combat world hunger with genetically modified organisms, and therefore spends significant resources on ensuring the safety of the food produced.

“The risk [for chemical companies] is too great not to make safe products,” Pedersen said.

If a product is approved for use, or deregulated, in several countries, the product must pass through a variety of regulatory systems before being brought to market. In the US, the USDA-APHIS, the EPA, and the FDA regulate genetically modified organisms. States may also supersede the federal government to regulate on a state-to-state basis.

USDA-APHIS checks that the product is safe to grow, the EPA checks that the product is safe for the environment, and the FDA checks that it is safe to eat.

“Pesticides and GMOs are more tested than anything in our society today,” Pedersen said.

The stigma surrounding genetically modified organisms originates primarily in misinformation from social media and mass media. Even after trillions of meals have been eaten, there are no credible studies or reports to support the idea that GMOs cause a disease or reaction of any sort.

“Driving a car, you are in a lot more danger than when eating a GMO or pesticide treated product,” Moseley said, “as long as the treatment was used according to the label.”

Essentially, the label of a product serves as the legal agreement between the grower and the producer.

“If you don’t follow the label, of course it can cause harm, just as not following a medication’s label might cause harm,” Pedersen said.

For this reason, deregulations are reviewed every 15 years, taking into account new studies, analytical techniques and regulations. Incident reports are reviewed, and up to date risk assessments are created.

“People who aren’t involved in farming likely don’t understand the importance of controlling pests in order to produce food on the scale necessary to feed our growing population,” Wells said, “so they question why pesticides or GMOs are used.”

The regulatory process is developed and complex for the protection of human and environmental health.

“My grandkids eat GMO products,” Moseley said. “Do you think for a second that I’d let them if I thought it was a risk?”

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