Genetically Engineered Crops Improvement or Potential Disaster





Genetically Engineered Crops:
Improvement or Potential Disaster?


Worldwide, more than one billion people are plagued by hunger (Zalik). According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications, more than 800 million of those are malnourished. It also predicts that over the next fifty years the total amount of available farm land per person will be halved, meaning that global cereal yield will have to increase by 80% over the 1990 amount to feed the burgeoning population (“Benefits . . .”). Genetically engineered crops offer one solution to this problem, as they can produce bigger harvests with less fertilizer, allow fields to be farmed continuously, and in the future may be able to grow in conditions unsuitable to natural crops. However, food biotechnology has many critics who claim that genetically modified (GM) plants are untested, immoral, unsafe, and therefore should be regulated more strictly or outlawed altogether. While humankind can by no means afford to abandon biotechnology, from this point onward we should proceed with considerable care with these modified plants that could permanently harm the environment.
At least in theory, GM plants can produce more, better, more nutritious food for less money, and they require less fertilizer and pesticides than their natural counterparts. Some of the many beneficial modifications being planned or tested right now are: grains and fruits with more vitamins and minerals, rice with extra Vitamin A to counter blindness, allergen-free rice and peanuts, bananas with oral vaccines for diseases like Hepatitis, and fruits and vegetables that are simply better tasting and stay fresh longer. Many of the problems caused by vitamin deficiencies, which plague developing countries, could be easily solved by making foods such as rice produce more of the needed compounds (“Health . . .”).
Although some disagree, many scientists hold the opinion that genetically engineered crops will also actually benefit the environment in many ways. Even now, Monsanto’s bioengineered potatoes require 40% less chemical insecticide than is possible with normal strains of potatoes (“The Benefits . . .”). Figure 1 in the Appendix, distributed by Monsanto, shows the reduction in fuel and pesticides possible with their new potato. This decrease in insecticide and fungicide use is possible because the genetically engineered potatoes actually produce their own protection from insects and diseases. Other new crops have been designed to draw more nitrogen directly from the soil, thus reducing the amount of fertilizer that needs to be used. Consequently, there is less fertilizer and insecticide to run off, which means that environmental damage is lower than that for traditional crops. Lastly, as genetically engineered crops are more efficient, fewer acres need to be planted; with less crops to tend to, farmers use less fuel, labor, water, and fertilizer (“Environmental . . .”).
United Nations estimates state that the world population could reach 10.7 billion by the year 2050, with 95% of that growth in the poorest regions of the world. Clearly, to feed all these people with the same amount of land available today, the human race needs to find some way to drastically increase crop yields. At this time, it seems that the only solution for this problem within reach is the genetically engineering of plants. In fact, bioengineered plants are already being used in many areas of the world to augment food production. Biotechnology is in use in Nepal to grow disease-resistant potatoes that produce higher yields for lower costs. In the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and India genetically engineered plants are being used to increase legume production. By 2005, researchers at the Rockefeller Foundation’s International Rice Biotechnology Program plan to increase rice yields in Asia by up to 20% (“Benefits . . .”). All of these improvements, and countless others that will doubtlessly follow them, are only possible with genetically engineering.
Despite all the benefits of food biotechnology, many people feel that GM plants should be banned completely, or at least be much more strictly regulated. While some people have religious or moral objections to genetic tampering, most are just upset about the plants’ safety for both humans and the environment. No studies have yet shown conclusive evidence that genetically engineered plants are harmful to either; however, the inherent untestability of GM food products means that even if there were harmful effects they would be