Agricultural plants represent some of the most prominent examples of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), offering the benefits of genetic engineering to artificially select for qualities deemed desirable in foods. GMO technology also provides the ability to artificially improve the resilience and fertility of many agricultural plants, which may serve as a powerful tool in combatting global food insecurity.

Our Spring 2017 IMMpress Magazine article ‘What’s the Beef with GMOs?’ discussed the safety of GMOs, exploring the nuances of public distrust and the necessity of proper communication of scientific information to facilitate the relationship between science, media, and the general public. This piece seeks to complement it by analyzing the usefulness of the currently available GMOs.

At their core, the proponents of GMOs argue that this technology may improve food security with little environmental cost. Enhanced nutrient composition, resistance to pests and disease, and a reduced need for pesticides are the major benefits of this artificial selection. The role of GMOs in agricultural endeavours has the potential to meet the ever-persisting need for increased food security. One example of such a crop is sorghum, a heat- and drought-tolerant plant found in arid climates and produced in Western, Central, Eastern, and Southern Africa. Unfortunately, nutrient deficiencies are common in areas where sorghum is relied upon as a diet staple, as the grain is deficient in beta-carotene, iron, and zinc. Biofortification — the process of improving a crop by filling in micronutrient deficiencies — is able to introduce carotenoid biosynthesis genes, co-expressed with an enzyme that extended the molecule’s half-life, thus supplementing the grains nutritional value through genetic editing.

Furthermore, the use of GMOs may help farmers’ crop output and simplify the agricultural process by genetically engineering crops that would otherwise be vulnerable to pests and more susceptible to disease. It may also aid in decreasing

the cost of producing particular crops: Flavr-Savr Tomatoes, the first GM food, reduced the cost of producing canned tomatoes by 20%, thus providing significant economic benefits to farmers. The use of GMO foods may also aid in boosting agricultural contributions to the national GDP, which may be a significant help in countries where the agricultural sector accounts for a sizeable fraction of the GDP.

Flavr-Savr Tomatoes, the first GM food, reduced the cost of producing canned tomatoes by 20%

Additionally, the scientific community has extensively examined the safety and nutritional value of GMO foods. A compilation of EU-funded research from 2001-2010 revealed no significant environmental or health-related risks in several GM foods. In USA, transgenic wheat (Triticum durum L.), corn (Zea mays L.), and tomato (Lycopersicum esculentum Mill.) were assessed for safety and nutritional value, and no significant differences were found between them and their non-transgenic counterparts. Thus, GM foods have great potential in eliminating starvation, though the outcome of such an endeavour will require both political and social co-ordination to overcome its current stigma with the public.

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Tiffany Kong

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