In this world of 7.5 billion people, humanity faces a myriad of problems. These range from continuing extreme poverty, curable diseases still causing premature deaths, the destruction of ecosystems that support our existence and much more. At this present moment, we have the most tools and knowledge than we’ve ever had before to tackle these problems. We have already reached many global developmental targets including reduced extreme poverty rates, down to 10% from 36% in 1990. However, this advance is not without its challenges, primarily the continuing expansion of the human population; world population is predicted to reach 9.8 billion by 2050.
The biggest problem with an ever-expanding population is sourcing enough food for everyone. There is limited arable land, decreasing with climate change, and limited amounts of artificial fertiliser to help the crops grow. As it is, many people still suffer from malnutrition and related diseases, so we can assume it will only get worse, unless we can use ingenuity to grow more food on less arable land.
“Yet opponents of genetically-engineered crops see them as a potentially risky and heavy-handed approach to the global food solution. Their weariness is understandable as the main global players in genetically engineered crops have not always had the best interests of farmers or the environment at heart.”
Research into genetics, which has its roots in pea experiments by Gregor Mendel, is a potent force for both understanding and manipulating the natural world. Every living organism has a genetic code, therefore, understanding how the genetic code works gives us an insight into how life-forms develop and function. With that knowledge, we then have the capacity to optimise the living organisms we need to survive, such as a crop plants, through genetic engineering. Genetic engineering of crops has the potential to provide more nutrition, a broader range of tolerated growing conditions, less requirements for pesticides and fungicides, and even self-fertilisation. These are characteristics that could improve the life of farmers and consumers across the globe. Yet opponents of genetically-engineered crops see them as a potentially risky and heavy-handed approach to the global food solution. Their weariness is understandable as the main global players in genetically-engineered crops have not always had the best interests of farmers or the environment at heart. Companies like Monsanto, a company involved in many controversies and high-profile lawsuits, are synonymous with genetically modified organisms (GMO) in many people’s minds. Thus, it is important to draw a distinction between what these companies do and the potential that genetically modified crops could have for global development.
Many of Monsanto’s crop varieties have been designed to be resistant to their own herbicides, such as Round-up, which means that farmers using their seeds will also buy their herbicides. This is a good business model, but not necessarily good for the planet or people. Indeed, the carcinogenic properties of Round-up are currently being investigated by authorities around the world.
The mis-placed association of GMOs and superweeds likely comes from this kind of agricultural system where the high frequency use of herbicides causes selection, leading to herbicide-resistant superweeds. The profit-driven nature of Monsanto is emphasised by their vigorous lobbying of governments around the world and financial exploitation of rural farmers. This mode of GMO use does not serve global development needs and has hindered those trying to use genetically-engineered crops in sustainable, development-orientated ways, due to the fear it has instilled in people.
Despite opposition to GMOs, there have been national and international research projects carried out across the world on developing crops that will either benefit those in poverty or make agricultural systems more sustainable. Perhaps the most famous of these is the Golden Rice project, which successfully created a strain of rice which produces a precursor to Vitamin A, led by a not-for profit organisation in the Philippines.Vitamin A deficiency leads to an estimated 250,000 to 500,000 children becoming blind every year. Half of these children die within 12 months of losing their sight. Golden rice was first produced in 2000, and a second improved strain was released in 2005, but was only approved for use in several countries in 2018, including Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the US. It is hoped that Bangladesh will also grow the rice commercially within the next few months.
The Golden Rice project has not been welcomed by all. Greenpeace are opposed to all patented GMOs, and others argue that Vitamin A deficiency can be solved by other means, including dietary supplements. However, it presents a model for how a developmental problem can be overcome through genetic technology in crop plants; the key properties being not-for-profit research, centered on a development goal and with long-term sustainability in mind.
“The benefit of genetic engineering the blight resistant trait into potatoes, instead of breeding it in conventionally, is that you can maintain all of the other desired traits while gaining the resistance genes.”
Here in Ireland, researchers at Teagasc conducted a study on the environmental impacts of a GM potato which was generated at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. The Dutch publicly-funded research programme used genetic engineering to insert wild potato genes into a European commercial potato variety, var Desiree, that is otherwise highly susceptible to blight disease. Contrary to the increased spraying requirements for Monsanto’s GM crops, these potatoes are designed to require only two sprays of fungicide in a growing season instead of the standard 15-20 which Irish farmers must use to prevent blight in normal potatoes. This is potentially of great benefit to the farmer in health, wellbeing, time, and money, and also for soil microbe biodiversity, which is adversely affected by repeated exposure to fungicides.
The benefit of genetic engineering the blight resistant trait into potatoes, instead of breeding it in conventionally, is that you can maintain all of the other desired traits while gaining the resistance genes. In conventional breeding, some of the desired properties for taste and aesthetics might be lost in breeding with a wild variety. Indeed the GM potato is an excellent model for a GM crop, as the potato does not naturally propagate via pollen so cross-breeding with other varieties is of very low risk. The process of creating a new potato variety is cut from approximately 15 years in conventional breeding, to three to five years using GM technology. In a world facing climate change, perhaps the GM potato will make up for the failures of its past and provide a level of food security that it cannot currently do without sprays.
However, the commercial use of GM crops remains theoretical in many parts of the EU. There are extreme restrictions in place for the introduction of any new GM crop. Recently, a court case ruled that CRISPR/Cas9 precision gene editing will also be considered as GM, and therefore subject to the same highly restrictive laws. This technology is capable of generating mutations in unique sites within the genome, programmed specifically, and has a low error rate in plants. To scientists this interpretation seems baffling, because, as it stands, the EU has not restricted crop production through mutagenesis, a process during which plants will be exposed to mutagens such as x-rays to create multiple, unspecific and random mutations across the whole genome in the hope of generating something desirable.
Caution is admirable in the face of new and unknown technologies, yet one would hope that when the safety of CRISPR/Cas9 technology for precision gene editing is shown in commercial crops, regulatory bodies will reconsider their restrictive approach. Indeed, the understanding, use, and regulation of genetically modified crops requires many nuances. Recent EU bans on harsh pesticides such as neonicotinoids could find more sustainable alternatives in GM technology-managed pest and disease resistance, hopefully finding a balance between farmer and nature. The current binary state of either for all GMOs or against any GMO observed in many regulators and organisations does not fully reflect the multitude of ways in which they can be generated and used.
“GMOs do not have to be linked to multinational corporations who rip off subsistence farmers and they don’t have to be cause for fear.”
There are places in the world which would undoubtedly benefit from a smart GM crop, designed and made by the best science has to offer, built for humanitarian needs and global development. GMOs do not have to be linked to multinational corporations who rip off subsistence farmers, and they don’t have to be cause for fear. What remains to be seen is how countries such as Ireland could channel a path whereby they continue to restrict GMOs that are not sustainable, but make room for the right kind of GMO to be used. One might hope that in the future it could be possible for a GM potato to take pride of place on an Irish supermarket shelf, knowing that Ireland’s soil and biodiversity is healthier because of it.