Essay: GM plants and crops

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  • GM plants and crops
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A Genetically Modified (GM) or transgenic crop is a plant that has a novel combination of genetic material obtained through the use of modern biotechnology. For example, a GM crop can contain a gene(s) that has been artificially inserted instead of the plant acquiring it through pollination (Pocket K No. 1: Q and A About Genetically Modified Crops, 2017 ). In truth, humankind has been using a form of genetic modification long time ago, in the form of selective breeding and domestication of plants. The Flavr Savr tomato was the first genetically engineered crop product to be commercialized. It was approved by the United Sates Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1994. The tomato is more resistant to rotting and ripened slowly. However, production ceased in 1997 due to high production costs mixed with the company’s (Calgene) inexperience in tomato growing, handling, and transport. Today, in the US in particular, more than 90% of all soybean cotton and corn acreage are genetically engineered crops. Other popular and approved food crops include sugar beets, alfalfa, canola, papaya and summer squash. (Johnson & O’Connor, 2015).
 
Key Points

After careful considerations and readings from multiple sources about GM plants or crops, I personally think the advantages of GM plants outweigh the disadvantages and therefore GM crops should be welcomed, and not hindered away. In fact, Malaysia has approved GM soybeans and corn for human consumption (Nijar, 2017). Plant biotechnology has made tremendous progress in recent years and has ‘enjoyed’ a previously unknown level of public awareness. However, the risen awareness was due to negative publicity and debates surrounding GM crops usually were misinformed. Therefore, it is important to state the advantage and disadvantage of GM crops in food production and ways to overcome it.

Advantage of using GM crops in food production

1. Herbicide and Pest resistance

Weeds have a significant effect on the yield and quality of crops. Harvested crops will face competition with weeds for light and nutrients. Furthermore, weeds harbour pests and diseases. Therefore, modern agriculture has developed a range of effective herbicides to tackle the issue. The development of herbicide-resistant crops offers the chance to spray crops at the most effective way to kill weed species without damaging the crop plants. Plants such as soybeans, corn, sugar beets, cotton, alfalfa and canola are engineered to resist the herbicide brand known as RoundUp. RoundUp active ingredients include glyphosate, which proofed effectively against 76 of the world’s worst 78 weeds (Slater, Scott, & Fowler, 2003). Monsanto, who produced Roundup, developed crops in the early 1990s that were resistant to glyphosate by transfer bacteria genes which are unaffected by glyphosate to food plants. Overexpression and mutation of the target protein and enhanced plant detoxification are also ways to engineer herbicide resistance crops.

Meanwhile, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United States (FAO) estimated 20% of global crop yields are reduced each year due to the damage wrought by plant pests (Keeping plant pests and diseases at bay: experts focus on global measures, n.d.). The major classes of insect that cause crop damage are the orders Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths), Diptera (flies and mosquitoes), Orthoptera (grasshoppers, crickets), Homoptera (aphids) and Coleoptera (beetles) (Slater, Scott, & Fowler, 2003). One common approach to counteract this problem is the use of bacterial insecticidal genes such as the cry endotoxin genes from Bacillus thuringiensis to provide protection from pest damage. Bacillus Thuringiensis (Bt) makes toxins that target insect larvae when eaten. Then, it will break down their gut which cause the insects to die of infection and starvation (Bacillus Thuringiensis: General fact sheet, 2015). In Bangladesh, Bt Brinjal, which have been altered to contain Bt in order to produce a compound that kills the ‘fruit and shoot borer’, successfully reduces pest damage and lowering the needs for pesticides. 20% to 40% of eggplants were lost to this parasite prior to the introduction of the Bt Brinjal (Boersma, Fountain, & de Vreugd, 2016 ).

2. Plant disease resistance

The global yield loss, for instance, due to herbivorous insects varies between 5% and 30% depending on the crop species, while the estimated worldwide losses due to plant parasitic nematodes are about US $125 billion annually (Chitwood, 2003). In the 1990s, the Papaya ringspot virus (PRSV) attacked the papaya industry in Hawaii. At some point, the virus almost able to wipe out all Hawaiian papayas. Dennis Gonsalves, a Hawaiian-born scientist at Cornell University, developed a genetically modified papaya, known as the Rainbow papaya, designed to be resistant to the virus. They used a strategy that had shown success in other plants whereby the insertion of a single gene from the virus into the plant genome, and production of the encoded protein in plant tissue, protected the plant against the pathogen. Rainbow papaya, along with another GM papaya, SunUp were approved for commercial use by the USDA in 1998. Today, they account for over 80% of papaya production in Puna. Not only they are the first GMO tree fruits to be approved for sale in the US, they recently got approved to export to Japan, a major market for papaya (GMO Case Study: Debate over the GMO Rainbow papaya in Hawaii, 2015).

3. Stress tolerance

Drought is one of the major threats to agricultural production. Transgenic approaches open up new opportunities to improve stress tolerance by incorporating genes involved in stress protection from any source into agriculturally important crop plants. On February 2017, Tanzania undergone a GM maize trial. If the trial is a success, these genetically engineered maize, which not only genetically “stacked” with conventional drought trait, as well as the insect-resistance Bt gene could be a major help for smallholder farmers to combat droughts aggravated by climate change (Lynas, 2017). In recent years, scientists also attempt to develop GM crops which will tolerate other abiotic stresses such as freezing, salinity and flooding. A recently discovered halophytic plant species, Thellungiella halophila (also known as T. salsuginea), has emerged as a new model plant for the molecular elucidation of abiotic stress tolerance.

4. Improvement of crop yield and quality

GM crop growers benefit from the seeds as their crops have a higher resistance to pests, plant diseases, and herbicides, therefore able to increase the volume of crops. By increasing crop yields, overall income of farmers around the world will increase. Besides, due to large production of crops, the price would go down too which will benefit the consumers. In November 2016, scientists have designed GM crops that use light more efficiently and produced a 20% greater yield. The field trial, which used tobacco plants, is the first to show that GM techniques can be used to boost the basic efficiency of photosynthesis, potentially offering substantial gains across almost all food crops in the future (Devlin, 2016). Furthermore, GM crops now would have additional health and taste benefits. The pigment of a genetically modified purple tomatoes is intended to give tomatoes the same potential health benefits as fruit such as blueberries. The pigment, Anthocyanin, is an antioxidant which studies on animals show could help fight cancer (Shukman, 2014). In addition to that, the FDA also approved Arctic Apples that resist browning and JR Simplot Innates which have been genetically engineered to reduce the formation of black spot bruises and to produce less acrylamide, a suspected carcinogen, when they are fried (Healy, 2015).

Disadvantage of using GM crops in food production

1. Non-GMO food crops from GMO contamination

One of the most common objections to GM crops: gene flow. It means GM crops could mix with traditional crops and introduce unwanted new characteristics into them. It would be a nuisance towards the farmers who initially planted non-GM crops as many countries, Europe in particular, banned food production from GM crops. For example, Spanish farmers cultivating conventional maize for the gluten market lost up to €18 per tonne when their crop and/or harvest was contaminated by GM maize, forcing them to sell it for conventional animal feedstuffs rather than for human consumption (Verriere, 2016). In addition to that, farmers might actually face accusations of seed saving, or the growing of patented plants without a license due to the result of gene flow. Therefore, steps must be taken to prevent contamination from happening. In Malaysia, the Federation of Malaysian Manufacturers has formulated best-practices to prevent non-GMO food crops from GMO contamination; from the selection of the seed for planting until the final crop reaches the consumer. Measures include: making sure only pure seeds are used for planting; sowing machine is clean from any contamination and not co-mingled with GM seeds; maintai
ning an designated distance and buffer zone from fields planted with GM crops in order to avoid wind and insect-borne cross pollination contamination; harvesting equipment must be cleaned; sealing harvested crops to minimizing the risk of contamination; inspecting and cleaning the elevators – its function were to load the grains for storage; ensured the mills used are cleaned; and avoiding contamination at the handling phase of food and feed through careful monitoring by an effective raw material examination (Nijar, 2017).

2. Environment issues

GM crop is always an environment concern for environmentalist. Toxicity is a huge issue encompassing chemical pesticides and herbicides, used commonly with GMOs, in addition to the toxicity inherent to these plants. GMOs may be toxic to non-target organisms, bees and butterflies being the being the most discussed cases in recent times. In the US, a 90% reduction in populations of the Monarch butterfly has been reported to be caused largely due to loss of habitat caused by blanket spraying of RoundUp Ready GM crops (Environmental Risks, 2016). Gene Watch UK listed a few more environmental issues (link: http://www.genewatch.org/sub-532322) which includes the growth of ‘Super-weeds’ which will resist more herbicides and the increase and even reuse of old chemicals which negate the original benefit of GM plant which is the reduction of herbicides. Pests improve in their ability to resist pesticides every time the chemicals are sprayed, creating a vicious cycle of increased spraying and more resistance.

3. Food safety

Anti-GMO activists often describe genetically engineered food as ‘franken food’. They said their claims were justified because FDA in the US never safety tested genetically engineered food and instead, biotech producers will self-determine the safety of products. This indicates GM crops might cause allergic reactions in humans. Research group led by Gilles-Eric Séralini in 2012 showed rats fed for two years with Monsanto’s glyphosate-resistant NK603 maize (corn) developed more tumors and died earlier than controls. It also found that the rats grew tumors when glyphosate (Roundup), the herbicide used with GM maize, was added to their drinking water (Casassus, 2013). However, the study was rebuked and retracted from the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology due to cheery picked data, the small number and type of animals used in the study and a strain of rat that has an 80% chance of developing cancer in its lifespan. Besides, World Health Organization (WHO) also ensured that “GM foods currently available on the international market have passed safety assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health. In addition, no effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved.”

Conclusion

In conclusion, the purpose of GM crops is to create a distinct advantage for the producer and consumer, that would otherwise not have occurred in nature. GM crops should be widely encouraged, as they will be an essential part for the future. Sustainable crops will only be more crucial in the future as the alarming state of climate change and food Production must double by 2050 to meet demand from world’s growing population and GM crops are among the top solutions. The problem is not the GM crops itself, much criticism is actually on the business practice of the huge corporations that control the food supply. Patent ownership and production of seeds are controversial subjects as they are controlled by only a handful of corporation. Monsanto specifically, has sued hundreds of small farmers in the United States as of late in attempts to protect its patent rights on genetically engineered seeds that it delivers and offers (Harris, 2013). Nonetheless, besides patent and environment issues, GM crops are full of potentials and they are safe to consume. Malaysia consumers need not worried about GM plants or crops as Malaysia’s Biosafety Act 2007 well-reflects the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, a protocol which ensure the safe handling, transport and use of living modified organisms (LMOs) resulting from modern biotechnology that may have negative impacts on biological diversity and human health (Biosafety Act 2007). National Biosafety Board and Genetic Modification Advisory Board were too established under the act to oversee the production and development of GM crops.

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