May 21, 2015

Genetic Engineering: A Tool to Strengthen Global Food Security

Next Generation Delegation 2015 Commentary Series

By Megan Fenton, PhD Student in Agronomy - Plant Breeding and Genetics at Purdue University and 2015 Next Generation Delegate
Purdue University President Mitchell E. Daniels delivered the keynote address at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs’ Global Food Security Symposium 2015 in April. The inspiring address explained the role of universities as the foundation for the fight against global hunger. In his conclusion, Daniels touched upon an extremely relevant point that resonated with me, as a 2015 Next Generation Delegate, and with many in the audience, when he said that there continues to be a “degree of disregard for scientific evidence, an anti-science of the most dangerous kind.” Further, Daniels said that this mentality “may be an indulgence that the richest countries can afford,” but when imposed on developing countries struggling to feed themselves, this way of anti-science thinking becomes “senseless, heartless and inhumane.”
Social media posts regularly show prominent fast food chains or television personalities denouncing genetic engineering, which is one of the most profound scientific advances of our time. Daniels’ words serve as a call to action for the scientific community to promote greater science literacy—especially regarding technologies such as genetic engineering. Improved understanding of genetic engineering can facilitate greater application of this technology as one of the many vital tools for achieving global food security. 
In discussing genetic engineering, it is helpful to explain the science behind the terminology. Genetics is the branch of biology focused on the study of the origin, transmission and expression of genetic information. The primary carrier of genetic information is DNA. Genetic engineering is a collection of techniques that alter the genetic constitution of cells by the selection, removal, insertion or modification of genes or sets of genes. A gene is a DNA sequence that encodes for chain of polypeptides. Proteins are made up of one or more polypeptide molecules. A genetically modified organism (GMO) is a plant or animal in which the genome that carries a gene is transferred from another species by recombinant DNA technology. Recombinant DNA technology is a collection of methods used to create DNA molecules from in vitro ligation of DNA from two different organisms, as well as the replication and recovery of such recombinant DNA molecules. The future of genetic engineering is genome editing, where DNA is inserted or removed from a genome using artificially engineered nucleases and does not involve taking DNA from other species.
This wealth of information can seem overwhelming, but it serves to reinforce that the production of GMOs is not simple and has taken decades of research to understand and achieve this technology. Despite their complexity, the products of genetic engineering are in fact everywhere in our society.
As early as 1977, scientists at Genentech, a biotechnology company in San Francisco, isolated and cloned a gene for insulin and expressed it in bacteria. The insulin produced by this GMO was marketed as Humulin and was licensed for therapeutic use in 1982 by the US Food and Drug Administration. Prior to the development of Humulin, diabetics used insulin isolated from pig and cow pancreases. Humulin was the first human gene product manufactured by recombinant DNA technology and is still used today.
Aside from human medicine, recombinant DNA technology has provided powerful new tools for altering the genetic constitution of agriculturally important crops. These are known as GMOs or transgenic crops. A transgenic crop or transgenic organism is an organism in which the genome has been modified by the introduction of external DNA sequences. The main reasons for producing transgenic crops are to improve crop yield, enhance nutritional quality, and to provide the crop resistance to pests, diseases, and herbicides. Commercial cultivation of transgenic crops started in the early 1990s.
According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, there were nearly 150 million hectares of genetically modified crops planted across 22 different countries in 2010. The number continues to rise, but perhaps not fast enough. Transgenic crops allow agricultural scientists to accelerate traditional plant breeding efforts in order to deliver crops that address issues hindering global food security. Examples of these issues include crop-pest epidemics, a reduction in agricultural labor availability and malnutrition.
Genetic engineering is just one of the many tools available to help achieve global food security. We need to actively secure this profound scientific advancement a place in the global food security toolbox.

Read previous posts in the Next Generation Delegation 2015 Commentary Series:

Edible Insects as an Integrated Component of Sustainable Food Systems, Afton Halloran, GREEiNSECT and Social Science and Humanities Research Council Doctoral Fellow, University of Copenhagen


The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


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