Though some may consider genetic engineering a recent development, humanity has been altering the DNA of our crops for millennia. As farmers historically chose plants with the highest yields and the largest fruits, those phenotypes were propagated during the next planting season. Over time, this has led to the drastically domesticated crops we rely on today.
However, the recent introduction of new technologies has allowed scientists to replicate this selection much more quickly than before, creating favorable hybrids and crops with specific traits. We call these offshoots Genetically Modified Crops, or GMCs, and they have distinct advantages and drawbacks.
Because they can be genetically configured to include many positive traits, GMCs are a potential boon for small farmers, infrastructure in developing nations, and major agricultural groups.1 Scientific analysis of yields and growth rates has indicated that genetically modified plants can substantially increase not only harvest size, but also farmer profits.2 Further implementation of these crops could help alleviate the massive global demand for food in an overpopulated planet, as well as free up resources for countries to invest in other fields. Other studies have further explored the benefits of GMCs. Not only can harvest size be increased, but crops can actually be stimulated to undergo changes they otherwise wouldn't.3 For example, tomatoes can be genetically altered to delay the ripening process, resulting in fresh fruit that can be stored for longer without the need for artificial preservatives. There are potential industrial uses, too; the cultivation of potatoes with abnormally high starch content could be used as a significant source of industrial starch.4 The prospective gains from introducing GMCs could mean big changes in the United States and elsewhere, but also have profound potential for developing countries. In areas lacking the established agricultural infrastructure of a first-world country, producing enough food to ensure a healthy population can be difficult. By capitalizing on the larger harvests and other advantages of GMCs, entire nations could stand to benefit.
However, genetically modified crops might not be the miraculous solution they initially appear to be. Many farmers and governments are wary of the environmental dangers of employing such tools. While the specific characteristics of GMCs can be controlled in a lab, what might happen if the crops spread into surrounding ecosystems? Their impacts on natural plant populations and the potential for hybridization remain relatively unknown, and the difficulty involved in preventing the spread of GMCs only exacerbates the problem. To respond to these challenges, scientists have worked to develop a system of nutrition controls for GMCs. Essentially, this means that the crops will rely on one or more rare nutrients, and would therefore be limited to growing only where the farmer fertilizes.5 Many critics of genetically modified foods have also voiced concerns regarding unintentional side effects of genetic engineering. A major worry is that GMCs will introduce new allergenic reactions to our food and endanger our health, though no evidence of this has been found to date.3 The most convincing and popular criticism of genetically modified foods is that inadequate research has been conducted into possible health detriments and drawbacks. If GMCs are to be successfully implemented, scientists will need to gain the public's trust by proving that engineered crops carry less risk than preexisting foods. This will take time and resources, but could pay off in the end.
Genetically modified crops have been contentious since 1980, but a plethora of recent developments have provided more evidence than ever before of their potential. Ghana recently led a national conference to examine the risks and rewards of implementing GMCs into their economy. Though several pros and cons were identified, more work needs to be done to shed light on how GMCs should be used in the future.6 Below is a helpful graph illustrating relatively recent use of genetically modified crops in different countries throughout the world. Now that you're up to speed on some of the older arguments as well as recent developments, carefully consider whether you'd want to rely on genetically modified food in the future.
1Hossein Azadi, Atry Samiee, et al. "Genetically modified crops and small-scale farmers: main opportunities and challenges," Informa Healthcare (2015). Accessed March 11, 2015. doi:10.3109/07388551.2014.990413
2Wilhelm Klümper, Matin Qaim. "A meta-analysis of the impacts of genetically modified crops," PLoS One 9 (2014). Accessed March 11, 2015. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0111629
3Geoffery Barrows, Steven Sexton, David Zilberman. "Agricultral biotechnology: the promise and prospects of genetically modified crops," The Journal of Economic Perspectives 28 (2014): 99-119. Accessed March 11, 2015. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1257/jep.28.1.99.
4Nigel Halford, Elizabeth Hudson, et al. "Safety assessment of genetically modified plants with deliberately altered composition," Wiley Online Library 12 (2014): 651-654. Accessed March 11, 2015. doi:10.1111/pbi.12194.
5Daniel J. Mandell, Marc J. Lajoie, et al. "Biocontainment of genetically modified organisms by synthetic protein design," Nature 518 (2015): 55-60. Accessed March 11, 2015. doi:10.1038/nature14121.
6Ghana Public Health Association. "Recommendations from a meeting on health implications of genetically modified organisms," Ghana Medical Journal 48 (2014): 117-119. Accessed March 11, 2015. doi:/dx.doi.org/10.4314/gmj.v48i2.11.