Conservation Corner

Genetically modified plants

Pauline Lee

Farmers generally plant seeds that will yield the kind of crop they wish to harvest. After centuries of such selection processes, many farm crops have prominent characteristics not at all like their wild ancestors. Yet, we generally accept such farm produce as natural and consume it without hesitation. Now, how did the plants whose seeds were selected come to possess those special traits that were selected for further production? They were the result of interaction of the genetic material with the environment — be it another piece of genetic material within that plant or from another source, or mutation caused by light, radiation or a chemical. Moreover, genetic material transfer between organisms occurs naturally, even before man learned to take advantage of the process to improve plants that they grow. A well-known example of natural translocation of genetic material is bacteria’s ability to develop antibiotic resistance. And in 1875, a hybrid cereal grain was created by crossing wheat and rye.

Selective breeding to enhance unusual traits is slow. Farmers can benefit more from their crops if they can accelerate desired changes in plants that they breed. Thus, in the early 1980s, scientists, using new knowledge and techniques, accelerated genetic modification by regulating changes in targeted genes to produce useful changes in plants, such as resistance to drought and to pests and better yields with less water and fertilizers. Some plants have longer shelf life, more vitamins, good fatty acids and other nutritious element. Because man was involved in providing the environment to cause the genetic modification, the resultant plants have been labeled genetically modified (GM) plants. Although the transformation is brought about in a shorter period than the traditional breeding process, the biochemistry is still the same as could have occurred naturally. However, people worry if such “new varieties” are healthy for consumers and safe for the environment. To ensure the public of such safety, our government has required extensive safety testing prior to the commercialization of each GM plant. For more than 15 years, hundreds of millions of people across the world have consumed foods derived from GM crops with no reported ill effects. Our environment has not been harmed either.

At the present, world food production should support everyone with enough food, but the inefficiencies in harvesting, storage and distribution result in wasting as much as 50% of the production and concomitant malnutrition and starvation in nearly one billion people. To feed the 9.7 billion people predicted in 2050, both the reduction of system inefficiencies and more productive seeds for farmers are needed to feed nearly three billion more people. GM crops can offer higher yields while requiring less water, pesticides, fertilizer and other limited natural resources. Such improved efficiency will also benefit our environment and conserve our natural resources for future generations. Next time, I will discuss the improvement in plants and animal and new cures for diseases by employing a gene-editing method that was started by the simplest living organism.