How Can GMO Effect Our Crops?

Crops: Humans have been modifying the genetics of crops plants since ancient times, and have realized that they were since Gregor Mendel's pea experiments. Although those experiments were not appreciated until the 20th Century the earliest case of domestication of plants by humans is a form of genetic modification. With the advancement of technology, humanity has almost got cheat codes when it comes to genetics. We can now insert genes from bacteria into plants in order to get some traits that we like, or on a more mundane level insert genetic code from plants completely unrelated to the base plant. This differs from the old way of selecting and amplifying traits that a plan developed naturally.

Safety First, but What About Later?

Wheat was domesticated thousands of years ago, and the long-term effects of traditional crop varieties are well known. The problem with genetically modified organisms is that if you are altering them in ways that could never have occurred naturally there is no precedent for the knock-on effects. Even if short-term testing proves it is safe, there is no guarantee that the long-term effects will be beneficial. Biology is very complex, and there are plenty of cases with subtle effects that build up over decades. There are also effects that will not affect the individual, but would have consequences for an unborn child. Not knowing has major consequences, but in the quest to learn the effects we are affecting the environment and ecosystems.

One of the most popular modifications is pest resistance. However, the insects are using natural processes to develop their own resistance to these strains. The greater problem is that entire fields of resistant plants are created even if the pests are only a handful. These few, economically meaningless, pests develop a resistance that passes into the population. When circumstances are right to create a massive outbreak of pests there may be no insecticides that could defeat the insects. It is not hard to see the draw behind these techniques. One swarm of pests can destroy the agricultural output of a whole region, driving local farmers into poverty and the regional economy into recession.

"Spider Poison is People Poison"

The artificial weapons that plants are being imbued with to fight their enemies have a wide range. There is a soy plant resistant to herbicides that allow the crop to be sprayed with a specific herbicide to kill weeds. That sounds like a small advancement that should not have too many adverse effects, but the envelope is always being pushed. Monsanto recently created a plant that if eaten causes insect stomachs to explode.

It has to give you a little pause to eat it yourself even if you are different from an insect. Humans are far more complex, which is why we react badly to things designed to kill other creatures or plants. In one episode of The Simpsons, Homer is covered is spiders and sprays his face with a pesticide. He then exclaims, "Spider poison is people poison?" Our complex biology has many benefits, but it does come with an Achilles Heel.

A Careful Balancing Act

There are so many benefits to genetically modified organisms, and it is not hard to appreciate all the benefits. Drought-resistant crops have come to the forefront given the severe drought in 2012 and likely continuing in 2013. Rising food prices can be fixed by increased supply, which would require higher yields per acre. At the same time people want their food to look and taste amazing. Balancing all these things is not easy, and genetic modification is a great tool. Humans have been engaging in some form of genetic modification for thousands of years so the debate really comes down to the methods used to create crops with special features rather than the concept of modification itself.

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