Christie NgoNST 114GMOS: Progress and Prospects Maximizing agricultural productivity is essential for economic growth in the U.S. farming and economic sector. With the world population projected to reach 8.6 billion by 2030, there has been an increased urgency to devise strategies for increasing both the quantity and quality of crops and food production. Over the past couple decades, agriculture and technology have been working alongside one another to make advances in the field of genetic engineering. While techniques for breeding and altering organisms have been around for years, genetic engineering provides a revolutionary and highly specific method for maintaining precise control over the genes that are expressed in an organism.
These genetically engineered crops, referred to as genetically modified organisms (GMOs), are produced by isolating the gene of interest within one organism and transferring it to the target organism for expression. Thus, the genetic material (DNA) of the organism has been altered in a way that does not occur through natural breeding or mating, allowing for greater specificity and control over production. While the advent of biotechnology has ushered in a variety of unique benefits and opportunities for advancing the field of agriculture, there still remains a host of controversies and concerns regarding the use and safety of GMOs that require the need for further exploration.
Genetically engineered seed varieties were first introduced in 1996 and have quickly been adopted and widely utilized in agriculture. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) currently estimates that over 90% of the corn, soybean, cotton, canola, and sugar beet crops produced in the U.S.
are a product of genetically engineered seeds, with alfalfa, papaya, and squash making up the rest of the major GM crops available. Before genetic engineering became more commonplace, a variety of different processes were used for genetic modification. Traditional breeding refers to the classic method that farmers historically used for crossing plants and selecting the offspring with the best characteristics to pass on to the next generation. However, continuous application of traditional breeding may lead to a narrowing of the organism’s gene pool, resulting in increased vulnerability to external stressors. A second method called mutagenesis involves exposing seeds to chemicals or radiation in order to create specific changes in DNA and induce random mutations, insertions, or deletions in the plant genome. Due to its applicability in a range of functions for studying mutations and changes in protein activity, mutagenesis is generally considered a quick and reliable technique for genetic modification. RNA interference (RNAi) provides a more specific process of controlling gene expression, in which target genes are switched off or “silenced” due to suppression of transcription or the degradation of RNA into short RNAs that destroy mRNA.
Lastly, transgenics is what is most widely recognized as genetic engineering, involving the use of recombinant DNA methods to insert the desired genes from one species into the chromosomes of another. The use of transgenic organisms has made a substantial impact in generating numerous opportunities for application in agriculture. Due to the potential risk of RNAi-based pesticides and transgenics affecting the genetic makeup and gene expression of nontarget organisms, safety testing is required for RNAi and transgenics. In the early beginnings of genetic engineering, the advantages of growing GMOs were largely appealing.
One of the major initial goals in developing GM crops was to improve crop protection to increase the tolerance of crops towards herbicides and incur resistance against plant diseases caused by pests. GMO additionally provide economic benefits in increasing crop yields while simultaneously reducing the cost of food production and labor for farmers. The ability to enhance the expression of favorable genes via genetic engineering has also allowed the nutrient content and quality of food to be enhanced, paving the way towards higher nutritional benefits and greater food security for the world population. Another advantage of growing GM crops is the reduced need for pesticides and a decrease in the amount of chemical processing that usually goes into normal production. Ongoing technological advances into the field of GMOs have made it increasingly possible to engineer crops that mature faster, grow larger, and become resistant to a growing number of environmental stressors, such as drought or cold. In addition to plants, a number of animals, such as salmon and cattle, have been genetically engineered to decrease their susceptibility to disease and subsequently allow for increased yield.
While the transition to GMO production has provided a multitude of opportunities for economic and agricultural growth, critics argue that there are key concerns that need to be addressed regarding their use. Although the use of genetically engineered crops reduces the need for pesticides and chemical processing, they may still contribute to environmental damage by potentially leaving unwanted residual effects. The long-term effectiveness of GMOs has been another point of contention, as there is evidence of resistance to the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) gene that is of major use in producing GM crops.
Other concerns about environmental damage involve the potential for GMOs to transfer engineered genes into the wild population and the impact they may have on organisms that are not being targeted for pest control. The persistence and stability of the modified gene after the GMO has been harvested poses an additional problem, and the use of genetic modification has been implicated as a threat to crop biodiversity via a reduction in the production of other plants. From a business standpoint, the growing influence of biotechnology brings up concerns of whether there is too much power being granted to the chemical companies that control the seed markets, leading to a reduction in seed varieties and a related decrease in sustainable agriculture as farmers become increasingly reliant on mainly GM crops. As GMO use becomes more commonplace in U.S. agriculture practices, concerns and controversies have emerged in regards to their commercial use and consumption in humans. Human health and safety has continually been a top priority in assessing the effects of GMO consumption. From a food and health standpoint, evaluation has revolved mainly around the possible toxicity, allergenicity, and genetic hazards of GM foods.
Because genetic engineering may involve the transfer of genes from commonly allergenic organisms to other organisms that do not express the allergen, there is concern that new proteins may be expressed and generate unpredictable allergenic effects. Consequently, the risk of allergenicity in GM foods continues to be strictly evaluated by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO), especially for foods that have been genetically engineered using genes from foods associated with common allergies, such as nuts, eggs, and wheat. Similarly, gene transfer carries an additional risk of introducing antibiotic resistance genes, which are generally used as markers in GMO production, into humans and posing a threat to human gut flora. Outcrossing, in which the genes from GM plants migrate into the wild population, may indirectly impact food safety if those crops were not intended for human consumption. As GMOs remain fairly new inventions, the long-term effects of human consumption has yet to be evaluated. Food labeling is one area of controversy, as there is a lack of worldwide consensus in how to address the labeling and traceability of GM foods in marketing to consumers. While there has been progress initiated by the Codex Alimentarius Commission and the U.S.
Federal Drug Administration (FDA) to develop a standardized way of labeling genetically engineered foods, there still remains a ways to go in establishing guidelines that will allow consumers to make informed choices. In 2016, the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard went into effect, requiring the USDA to develop a national standard to classify food products and ingredients that are “bioengineered.” However, the way that governments choose to regulate GM foods varies in other countries, where legislation may not even be present. While much work has gone into providing evidence that GM foods are safe for human consumption, controversy surrounding GMOs continues to exist on several levels.
From a consumer standpoint, there are concerns about scientists “playing God” or “tampering with Mother Nature,” which restricts GMO consumption due to ethical or religious beliefs. Feelings towards cloning, genetic modification, and biotechnology as a whole remain mixed around the world based on personal knowledge and individual interpretation, with GMOs finding major use in the U.S., Argentina, Brazil, and Canada but encountering resistance and rejection in Europe and Asia.
In the meantime, a number of techniques remain in place for evaluating GMO safety. A joint collaboration between the FDA, the USDA, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) oversees the regulation of GE plants and foods produced from GE crops. The FDA is in charge of creating and enforcing food safety laws that must be followed by all foods, including GE plants, while the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) is involved in making sure that genetically engineered organisms to do not pose a threat to agriculture or plant health. The EPA regulates the use of pesticides, both those applied to crops and those that are genetically engineered into crops, to establish a level of safety for human and animal consumption and to prevent environmental damage. Environmental risk assessments involve an evaluation of the characteristics and makeup of the GMO in relation to its effect in the environment, including investigation into any inadvertent consequences related to its production and use. The FDA conducts a similar assessment to test the safety of food produced from crops and organisms that have been genetically engineered for consumption by humans and animals. The assessment involves a comparison of nutrient levels and food composition between traditionally produced foods and genetically modified foods.
As the global population continues to grow, the production and consumption of GMOs is projected to reflect a similar growth. Because scientific evidence regarding the safety and impact of GMO use continues to be shaped by the information that is readily available, there has yet to be definitive information on the pervasiveness of GMOs in health and on the environment. However, it is indisputable that GM foods have the potential to combat world hunger and malnutrition and play an influential role in increasing food production while reducing the need for pesticide and herbicide use. While remaining mindful of safety testing, legislative policies, and food labeling, future development of GMOs is expected to focus on increasing nutritional content while maximizing resistance to environmental stressors such as disease or drought, in addition to exploring the capability of GMOs to be applied to creating human vaccines to combat infectious diseases. As the field progresses forward, there remains a crucial obligation for transparency and sustained efforts to educate consumers about biotechnology and federal activities involving the use of GMOs.References1