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Breaking the GMO Stigma

The United Nations (UN), has predicted that by 2050 the global population will rise to 9.8 billion people. Alongside a growing population, grows the need to maintain and ensure food security. However, the agricultural industry is the biggest contributor to the current climate crisis with increasing greenhouse gas emissions, pollution, the reduction of biodiversity, and the destruction of numerous habitats, in turn hindering the growth and maintenance of crops and livestock. A current solution that has been implemented, is the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). However, currently there is a plethora of legislation, coupled with a public stigma against GMOs, informed by fear and misinformation, allowing the proper use of this technology difficult, especially in places like Europe. Although research has supported the notion of the positive and sustainable outcomes that GMOs bring into the agricultural industry, there is still a public misconception surrounding it that ought to be changed.

Original source: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/20/magazine/gmos.html

One of the most common misconceptions regarding GMO’s the perception that considering its unnatural composition, there is a fear attached to it suggesting that its use is in turn wrong. However, this statement is known as a naturalistic fallacy, suggesting that something natural and unnatural is good and bad, respectively. What people don’t know is that non-GMO crops consumed today are all domesticated, as conveyed through the domestication of almonds. Wild almonds contain amygdalin, a compound making almonds bitter and poisonous to humans making them inedible. This adaptation is present in order to detract predators from consuming the almonds. However, 30,000 years ago, humans identified a mutated almond tree that didn’t contain amygdalin, whereby the almonds that were sweet and edible. These mutated trees were bred with other almonds in order to mass produce sweet almonds for consumption. This is also known as “selective breeding”, a type of genetic modification. Another example is pea pods; wild peas pods, when matured, actually “pop” or break open allowing the seeds to disperse and begin germination. However, humans selectively bred peas that contained the mutation that limited the crop from “popping” rather than just encapsulating the peas inside the pod constantly. These selected traits are maladaptive and are actually unnatural since these domesticated crops would not be able to survive in the wild yet humans still consistently mass produce and consume these products. However, could we blame the public for thinking GMOs are “bad” when the same industry has produced pesticides and other technologies for increased productivity that have negatively impacted our environment?

Furthermore, the second misconception is the notion that GMO’s are harmful towards the environment. Research has illustrated that GMOs are an alternative in tackling the environmental issues raised from the agricultural industry. For example, GMOs have decreased pesticide use by 7.2%, exhibited as the only current solution to be the most effective in decreasing the use of these chemicals, having a positive impact on the environment. Additionally, herbicide tolerant crops reduce tillage increasing soil health. Furthermore, there is a fear of causing ecological damage however there is no conclusive evidence that has supported this notion. GMO crops are formed from already domesticated crops which are maladaptive for the “wild” environment. For example, a GM crop with a glyphosate (herbicide) resistant gene wouldn’t have an advantage in the wild since glyphosate isn’t exposed in the natural environment making it ecologically redundant. Another notable example is the indirect effects on other organisms, namely insects, specifically, the monarch butterflies. Sears et. al. 2001 concluded that bt maize pollen negatively affects monarch butterfly populations, however, overwhelming evidence has disproved these conclusions. One specific study has discovered that the decline in monarch butterflies originated prior to the introduction of GMO crops, with insect resistance, indicating another possible variable that has already affected the decline population of this particular species.


Conclusively, breaking the stigma and hysteria encircling GMOs is extremely important in order to impactfully exhibit change within the agricultural industry, particularly regarding sustainability. In Europe, most countries maintain an “anti-GMO” stance, with only five countries obtaining the ability to grow only a small number of genetically modified crops. The countries maintaining an “anti-GMO” legislation is purely rooted in misinformation as well as poor scientific research, rather than factual evidence. The acknowledgment that GMOs are not harmful or hurtful, but rather impactful and beneficial to the environment, as well as being a suitable sustainable option tackling the crisis of food security is fundamental for effective change. Whilst this article covers numerous arguments countering the hysteria regarding GMOs, as well as presenting arguments in favour of its incorporation, the contents of this work is exhaustive regarding the topic at hand. I urge all readers to read extensively on this topic as it is vital. Next time you buy produce, do not be discouraged or deterred by the phrase “GMO”, rather, think of its sustainable impact, and its spillover effect of encouraging global food security.



References:

Boyle, J.H., Dalgleish, H.J. & Puzey, J.R. (2019) Monarch butterfly and milkweed declines substantially predate the use of genetically modified crops. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 116 (8), 3006–3011. doi:10.1073/pnas.1811437116.


Brookes, G. (2022) Genetically Modified (GM) Crop Use 1996–2020: Environmental Impacts Associated with Pesticide Use Change. GM Crops & Food. 13 (1), 262–289. doi:10.1080/21645698.2022.2118497.


Delplancke, M., Alvarez, N., Benoit, L., Espíndola, A., I Joly, H., Neuenschwander, S. & Arrigo, N. (2013) Evolutionary history of almond tree domestication in the M editerranean basin. Molecular Ecology. 22 (4), 1092–1104. doi:10.1111/mec.12129.


Icoz, I. & Stotzky, G. (2008) Fate and effects of insect-resistant Bt crops in soil ecosystems. Soil Biology and Biochemistry. 40 (3), 559–586. doi:10.1016/j.soilbio.2007.11.002.


Sears, M.K., Hellmich, R.L., Stanley-Horn, D.E., Oberhauser, K.S., Pleasants, J.M., Mattila, H.R., Siegfried, B.D. & Dively, G.P. (2001) Impact of Bt corn pollen on monarch butterfly populations: A risk assessment. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 98 (21), 11937–11942. doi:10.1073/pnas.211329998.


Tagliabue, G. (2017) The EU legislation on “GMOs” between nonsense and protectionism: An ongoing Schumpeterian chain of public choices. GM Crops & Food. 8 (1), 57–73. doi:10.1080/21645698.2016.1270488.


UN (2023) Home Page | Data Portal. 2023. Population Division Data Portal. https://population.un.org/dataportal/.


Weeden, N.F. (2018) Domestication of Pea (Pisum sativum L.): The Case of the Abyssinian Pea. Frontiers in Plant Science. 9, 515. doi:10.3389/fpls.2018.00515.



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