Redefining GMOs: The Key for Food Security

Illustrated by Lily Xu

Labels constantly surround us. From social identifiers such as race and gender to individuals’ names, these terms allow us to simplify our understanding of the physical world. However, labels are generalizations, and more often than not, they oversimplify a more complicated issue.

A GMO is defined as an organism whose genome has been altered through genetic engineering. Due to the negative connotations tied to the term “GMOs,” the presence of genetically modified organisms in the food and agricultural industry is highly controversial. The misconception lies in the lack of clarity for how a crop is adapted to combat given stressors. In an infamous case, Monsanto is commonly known to produce and modify their seeds for resistance to the herbicide Roundup, the company’s own patent. As a result, farmers then use these GMOs while Monsanto profits from their seeds and chemicals. Such actions endanger both 

individual health and the ecosystems in which these seeds are grown. GMOs created to withstand chemical versus environmental purposes must be distinguished from each other. In contrast, CRISPR technology presents a targeted approach that would be used to implement natural characteristics, such as drought tolerance. But since both methodologies are labelled as “genetic modification,” the same negative assumptions are tied to each.

There is no question that our climate is changing. But while we strive to decrease greenhouse gas emissions and prevent temperatures from increasing, there remains a need to mitigate the effects of these changes, especially beyond WashU’s campus. In regards to the agricultural sector, the production of crops has been negatively affected by higher temperatures and increased length of droughts. As a result, regions that lack modern farming practices needed to alleviate damage from abiotic stresses suffer greatly. Therefore, these communities have low food security and expect to see more dramatic losses in agricultural productivity as a consequence of global climate change (1). However, the ability to institute drought tolerance in major crops may allow such communities to support healthier lifestyles. 

Commonly overlooked, the plants’ genomes present themselves as beneficial tools for solving global issues in the agricultural sector. Resurrection plants are a subspecies of grass able to withstand extreme drought by surviving a loss of over 95% of their cellular water mass and regain all metabolic function upon rehydration. These plants are closely related to drought sensitive crops in the grass family, such as corn, wheat, and rice. While some crops may exhibit drought resistance, this is not synonymous to desiccation tolerance. Drought tolerant organisms maintain regular intracellular water concentrations despite low external water availability. On the other hand, desiccation tolerant organisms can survive despite having an extremely low intracellular water mass. By identifying the genes linked to the desiccation tolerance phenotype and instituting them in crops, both farmers and scientists can improve food production to combat increasing temperatures permanently. 

The complexities that arise when discussing GMOs are twofold: ethical restrictions and the general misconception that all GMOs are harmful limit genetically engineered crops’ ability to benefit the agricultural sector. To resolve this misconception, we must change how we endorse and label produce. There needs to be a divide between organisms modified to cope with natural versus man made stresses, and such circumstances must be properly communicated to the public. 

Secondly, we must ask ourselves the question of whether there are larger ramifications to altering the genetic traits inherent to a living organism. Through evolution, we know that an organism’s genome will change over time to cope with environmental stresses. However, inserting genes with improved characteristics such as drought resistance can lead to a selection advantage to survive external stresses and speed up the process of nature. In the case of resurrection plants, all members of the grass family used to possess the desiccation tolerance phenotype, albeit some have retained the trait while others have not. Does this then justify reviving “lost traits” once exhibited by an organism?

We are at a critical point that mandates a decision between choosing the new wave of modern technology or the past cultural and moral standards. In regards to sustainability, we have the resources and the means to implement clean energy, but our inability to make a complete shift towards such a lifestyle branches from monetary issues and a fear of change. If we have the technology to solve world hunger and improve local and global food security, should ethical parameters be what holds us back? The boundaries we are willing to cross in order to promote healthier communities are those of the past. While we tread onwards through unchartered territory, both in the environmental and technological sense, we must reflect on our actions to better the world around us. Why do we restrain ourselves from exploring modern revelations? Why do we confine ourselves to endorsing recognition through social movements when we can take part in action? 

As temperatures increase, the price of all-natural crops will rise by default due to farmers struggling to keep up with demands. A balance must be struck between organic produce and accessibility. This presents a dilemma as many environmental advocacy groups disprove of genetic alterations on living organisms. Tension arises as genetic engineering can mitigate the effects of climate change, but the bulk of these groups’ argument is based on the relationship between GMOs and pesticides (2). This is, by extension, an issue that stems from mislabelling and a lack of clarity concerning GMOs. As we continue to seek tangible solutions for climate change, understanding how to navigate the politics of biotechnology is a necessary food for thought.

Edited by: Amaan Qazi

Illustrated by: Lily Xu

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