Plate-Wise •  5/10/2021

Can GMOs help create a sustainable, food-secure future?

Written By David Pinzon  A drawing of a map of Earth with dirt surrounding the drawing.

The desire for a world where my kids and grandkids can breathe fresh air and enjoy nature is something that I am sure everyone reading this post shares with me.

When I talked with the fourth grade kids in the agriculture class I volunteer at every year, I asked them what we would do if we run out of space on Earth to grow our food. It is pretty common for at least one of them to say that we just would grow our food on Mars. It’s an intriguing idea, but for the foreseeable future, we need solutions that are closer to home. The good news is that our planet gives us all we need to feed generations to come. We must, however, embrace innovation in order to continue enjoying safe and abundant food produced in a sustainable way.

For thousands of years, humans have selected the plants that would allow us to settle and grow our population. This means taking advantage of random changes in the DNA (mutations) that lead to beneficial characteristics in the plant, such as size of a grain, quantity of fruits or drought tolerance. It is often done by planting the next season of seeds from plants exhibiting those beneficial characteristics (i.e., traits).

Most of the food we consume today would not be the way it is without human intervention. DNA is like the blueprints used to build a house. It provides the specific instructions for building every living thing. The DNA of plants, like other living organisms, suffers small random changes with every generation. Most of the time, those changes in the DNA do not represent any change on how the plant looks, tastes or lives.

Sometimes, though, there are random changes that have a positive impact on the ability of the plant to produce food.

Changes like that allowed humanity to be able to grow food. Humans did not have an idea at that time of what was going on in the DNA of those plants — in fact, we did not even know that DNA existed! But we nonetheless mastered the art of selected breeding. For thousands of years, we perfected that ability, until we learned more about genetics in the 1700s. This allowed us to start crossing plants, discovering new avenues to bring more food and more variety.

Now that we understand DNA better, we can take advantage of this to transfer genes (pieces of DNA equivalent to the blueprint to build a house) from one organism to the other to improve plants in a more precise way. This is what we know as GMO (genetically modified organism). There are GMOs to produce medicines, like insulin, and GMOs to improve farming. Decades of data confirm that all of these are as safe as their non-GMO counterpart.

GMOs and sustainability

The combined understanding and application of all these plant breeding technologies allows us to achieve agriculture practices that benefit not only humans but also the environment. Here are a few ways this is helping drive sustainability in agriculture:

  • Maximize potential. To produce more from a plant, farmers have two paths that are often combined: first, nurture the plant, so it grows to its maximum genetic potential; and second, better genetics, so the plant’s potential increases and it can produce more on the same amount of land, using the same or less resources.  
  • Avoid waste. GMOs help us to protect plants from infections, so less food is wasted at the farm level. Papayas are a great example. A virus was causing significant damage to the papaya, affecting the ability of the trees to produce healthy fruits. Scientists created a GMO papaya that contains a piece of the DNA of that virus. When the papaya tree is infected by the virus, it quickly recognizes the virus as something strange and kills it.
  • Reduce inputs. GMOs also help farmers to reduce the inputs on their operations. A GMO corn, Bt corn, allows plants to fight certain insects that chew on their leaves. With this, farmers are able to cut back on the pesticide application to control the pest, saving fuel and water.
  • Erosion prevention. My favorite, however, is this one. While it is usually overlooked, it has transformed the way we grow many crops. To control emerged weeds before planting, farmers usually cultivate the land. Certain plants have been developed to resist herbicides, meaning the crop will stay intact while the herbicide controls all the weeds. This way, there is no need for the farmers to cultivate the land. It prevents soil erosion, keeps humidity in the soil, saves water and keeps the soil where it belongs — in the ground and not in the air. Overall, it disturbs the soil ecosystem as little as possible. I took this picture, which shows how this farmer is controlling weeds by cultivating the soil before planting the crop.

So, while they make at first what seems like unlikely bed fellows, GMOs and sustainability go hand in hand. GMOs are one of many tools that farmers have at their disposal to help increase yields and ensure a healthy, abundant food supply for generations to come.

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Want to learn more about GMOs? Read up on our library of GMO posts here, or read more about our sustainability goals.