August 18, 2015

Guest Commentary – GMOs: Where the Science Stands on Nutrition and Agricultural Advancement

Photo Credit: Scottish Government

This post was originally published on The Chicago Policy Review

By Marianne Waas, MPP Candidate, University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy

Genetic modification of our food has become one of the most polarizing issues in the country. Too often, food advocates become mired down in political debates, forgetting to consider the scientific merit of their arguments. This happens frequently in the context of human health or the natural environment. On one side, GMOs find favor with environmentalists wary of heavy pesticide use, as well as nutritionists excited about the possibilities of enriching staple foods to solve world hunger. On the other side are agriculturalists who worry about the escape of genetically modified strains into the wild and skeptics who fear the possibility of allergens being spread, unbeknownst to consumers.

A common argument for genetic modification is its usefulness in the developing world, as touched on in a 2013 study published in Genes and Nutrition. Farmers who use GM seeds often take a surplus of produce to market. Critics point to the relatively high cost of these seeds but tend to ignore the overall benefits like higher yields and reduced need for pesticide. These benefits are compounded by the nutritional value that GM products provide for malnourished populations.

A famous example comes from the development of Golden Rice, produced to combat vitamin A deficiency. The crop was first field-tested in 2004 with no adverse side effects and is created by adding three synthetic beta-carotene genes to the parental strain. As touched upon in a 2013 study published in Biotechnology Advances, one cup of Golden Rice provides up to 50 percent of the daily recommended intake of vitamin A. Another GM success is SmartStax corn, a multivitamin corn crop developed by Monsanto. This crop has fortified pest resistance levels and, as a result, is heartier than natural harvests that are susceptible to damage from the European corn borer. New developments also include bio-fortified maize to combat poor eye health in the elderly, as well as cereal crops infused with polyunsaturated fatty acids for those with low-fish diets.

The previously mentioned study from Genes and Nutrition cites the latter as a good example of the environmental benefits of GM crops. If such a product were approved for distribution, the threats of overfishing could be reduced. Most GM crops are also designed to be herbicide-resistant, which reduces tillage. Reduced-tillage practices require less fossil fuel and lead to better plant health with higher carbon retention.

Those who worry about water contamination from farm runoff should note that a pest-resistance modification reduces the need for spraying of harsh insecticides by an estimated 37 percent. While insect-resistant crops reduce insecticide use, however, in some cases, herbicide-tolerant crops result in increased broad-spectrum herbicide use. As a result of lower cost and greater plant health, these genetic modifications increase farmer profit by about 69 percent and yield by about 21 percent.

Opponents of genetic modification bring up troubling practices in planting, such as widespread clearing of traditionally cultivated land for soybean harvesting in Latin America. There is also concern about implementing proper barriers between GMO and non-GMO crops. The legal concerns surrounding gene contamination are significant, as unknowing farmers with neighboring and vulnerable fields can be sued for having abetted the contamination process or for having GM crops in their fields. Physical barriers are necessary because even small amounts of GM pollen are sufficient to spread genes to other crops, and the wild. Anti-GMO papers have shown that microbial communities essential to plant nutrition and immediately surrounding GM plants tend to change. However, most peer-reviewed studies conclude that the effects of GMOs on microbial communities are lower in magnitude than effects from location, seasonal flux, tillage, or other natural processes.

Genetically modified crops have led to higher yields and profit for farmers, nutrient enhancement vital for the developing world, and a decreased need for insecticide use. Moreover, there is strong scientific consensus that GM foods are safe to eat. Any new technology with the potential to affect human and environmental health should be subjected to intense scrutiny, however. In some places, GM crops have enabled overuse of herbicides, which could be damaging to the environment. Troubling land practices and lawsuits arising from cross-pollination are also the result of GMOs. The pros and cons should not eclipse each other. Rather, they should be separately considered in designing rational policy that protects consumers and the environment.

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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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