A recent article by an opponent-turned-defender takes a common tack in embracing genetically modified organisms (GMOs). “The motivation behind GMOs is simple,” the author states. “We need a way to provide good nutrition for the world’s population.” This sentiment echoes ads from ten years ago that featured flourishing crops, smiling children, and a prediction that “biotech foods could help end world hunger.”
But from my own experience in speaking about GMOs (and Golden Rice in particular), I know to expect retorts along the lines of “it’s not going to solve world hunger” or it’s “not a silver bullet.” Writer Michael Pollen puts it this way: “I am willing to get behind a GM product that offers the world something great, but I’m not at all sure this is the killer app everyone thinks it is.”
But do GMOs have to be handsome superheroes that can end world hunger in order to be desirable crops?
GMOs should not be held to impossible standards or justified with lofty world-saving promises—their proven, real-world value is enough to judge them by. Millions of farmers have planted millions of acres of genetically modified crops over the past fifteen years. Varieties of corn, soybean and cotton engineered to resist common herbicides or the insects that plague them have resulted in more lush crops that are easier to grow and tend. These have been so popular with American farmers that 90% of all corn and 93% of all soybeans grown in the United States last year were genetically engineered. Since the first commercially grown GMO seeds were pushed into the dirt in 1997, an estimated 3 trillion meals containing biotech ingredients have been eaten.
Varieties of staple crops meant to withstand the myriad of stresses in the field are making a huge positive impact on farmer’s livelihoods across the world. In India, strains of cotton engineered to resist cotton borers single-handedly increased farmers’ bottom lines by $3.2 billion in 2011. Chinese farmers saw an increase of $2.2 billion that year, and together with Indian farmers, they planted a total area of GM cotton that could completely cover the state of Illinois.
When disease attacks, genetic engineering is a tool that plant scientists are reaching for more frequently. In Hawaii, a papaya cleverly borrowing a gene from a devastating virus rejuvenated that state’s papaya industry. A breed of disease-resistant squash has been in the ground in the United States since 2004, and plum-pox resistant plum trees stand ready in case the virus becomes an uncontrollable problem. Scientists are experimenting with GM technology to fortify bananas against a destructive wilt disease and oranges against citrus greening.
Plant geneticist Dr. Channapatna Prakash isn’t lying when he says that bioengineered crops “have become the most rapidly adopted agricultural technology in the history of mankind.” And they did all that in less than two decades.
It’s true that no insect-resistant corn cob, yellow rice grain or disease-free papaya will fly around the world stopping killer asteroids and fighting crime. But that’s okay, I’ll take GMOs without the cape and tights.
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