It’s All in the Genes

Genetically modified organisms are a viable—yet controversial—solution to feeding a growing global population in a changing climate, according to sustainability experts

Not all heroes wear capes. Dr. Norman Borlaug, Iowa native, Nobel Peace Prize winner, and father of the “Green Revolution,” presumably suited up in his lab coat and goggles while tirelessly breeding and re-breeding wheat varieties. He was in search of a more resilient variety that could thrive in the lackluster fields of Mexico in the 1940s. At the time, the country was struggling to feed its population. It needed to cultivate wheat at significantly higher yields to sustain its citizens. Hope seemed lost.

That is until Dr. Borlaug implemented crop management techniques and trained Mexican scientists in his wheat breeding practices. Now, they could continue to create wheat crops that were more resistant to disease and able to produce higher yields.

His efforts were so successful that his wheat varieties were also introduced in Asian and Latin American countries who were facing famine and hunger crises. During what is today known as the aforementioned “Green Revolution,” it’s estimated that Dr. Borlaug saved billions of lives by decreasing world hunger.

And he didn’t even have the technology that we have today.

Enter the ‘90s

There’s a big difference between what Dr. Borlaug was doing and what modern plant scientists do when they create genetically modified organisms—a.k.a. GMOs.

“A genetically modified organism is when you introduce DNA from another species into your crops,” says Dr. Jim Gaffney, research fellow at Corteva Agriscience. “So, let’s say a bacteria gene into a corn plant would be a GMO, or a gene from a fern that could protect from insects into a corn plant. It’s DNA from a different species.”

But DNA isn’t just chosen at random to see what unique hybrid crop could be produced. Geneticists pinpoint a favorable trait in one species and use transgenic technology to introduce it into another species that could benefit from said trait. Two of the most commonly sought out characteristics are herbicide resistance and insect resistance.

“The herbicide tolerance system’s [benefit] is that you have the option to spray several different herbicides now on a field, and it won’t hurt the crop but then reduces all the competition from weeds in that field so you’re not using a lot of your resources,” says Nathan Fields, vice president of production and sustainability for the National Corn Growers Association. “You’re going to see increased efficiency and what not. The insecticide [traits]…are huge because it protects the root systems or protects the above ground stalks or what not against insects inherently, so you don’t have to spray [chemicals].”

The first GMOs arrived on the global agricultural scene in the mid-’90s when the premier genetically modified crop seed varieties were commercialized for use by farmers. Borlaug was around for this modern revolution—he died in 2009—but did not use GMOs or GMO technology. Even so, Fields says he worked wonders in creating an understanding of crop genetics and how to accelerate crop performance by utilizing favorable traits. If crops are better equipped to withstand herbicides or insect trauma, yields will be higher—i.e., more crops will make it to harvest and become available for human consumption. Borlaug did that first through countless attempts at breeding wheat to pinpoint the desirable genes, and Fields says GMOs have continued to implement these ideas but with more advanced technology.

The Here and Now

Today, the Environmental Working Group—a nonprofit organization advocating for clean, safe agricultural practices—estimates that Americans on average consume 193 pounds of genetically modified food a year. And most are unaware of it. The U.S. regulations currently don’t require products containing GMOs to be labeled as such.

Today, there are far more genetically modified acres of corn in the U.S. than there are acres of conventionally bred corn.

If they did require such labeling, lots of products would be outed as containing GMOs. Take corn for example. Ninety-two percent of all acres of corn planted in the U.S. are genetically modified, according to the U.S Department of Agriculture. And while the majority of corn goes toward ethanol production or livestock feed, a small percentage makes its way into the foods we eat: corn syrup, sweet corn, corn flakes, etc. It’s impossible to tell how many of these items contain genetically modified ingredients, which is why many American consumers are leery of GMOs.

Many Americans are suspicious of GMOs, despite the majority not knowing exactly what they are.

It’s hard to face the unknown. According to a survey conducted jointly by the University of Wisconsin-Madison life sciences department and the University of Pennsylvania public policy department, 58 percent of Americans admit that they have only a fair or poor understanding of GMOs. The same survey found that only 39 percent of Americans find GMOs to be safe for human consumption, and 82 percent were unaware that there is scientific research published online finding no link to harm in consuming GMOs, including a 2016 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

“There’s tons of tons of tons—scores of research—there’s so much more research evaluations [conducted of GMO] safety, of digestibility, anything, you mention it,” says Dr. Kan Wang, professor of agronomy and co-director of the Crop Bioengineering Center at Iowa State University. “GMO food is the safest in the entire world to eat because there is never such a higher scrutiny applied than to the GMO, ever.”

Nonetheless, opponents to genetic modification often turn to organic products to avoid GMOs. There aren’t a lot of other options, as lack of enforced product labeling in the U.S. makes it difficult to consume a non-organic diet without being aware of what products have been genetically modified. But Corteva’s Gaffney says that organic products have their own issues. Because organic farmers are unable to use most fertilizers or pesticides, a lot more work has to be done in maintaining the crops manually through processes such as tillage, or the preparation of soil. Handling soil in such a way year after year eventually leads to soil degradation and crops that are unable to thrive. And the United States is already losing its farmable land to urbanization.

“As countries become more and more land poor, which we are—every country almost throughout the world is more land poor than it was 40 years ago because of urbanization and soil degradation and what have you—the only alternative to feeding the world is greater productivity on the acres that are already under cultivation,” Gaffney says. “Long term, organic farming is not really a sustainable system and historically, not a very good situation.”

Many sustainability experts recognize Gaffney’s sentiment, but it’s apparent to agricultural giants like Corteva that consumers still require some convincing.

“One of the things I think about is the information [consumers receive],” says Karen Meinders, global sustainability communications lead at Corteva. “Some of the ways that maybe didn’t happen when some of the other technologies came about; we’re starting to correct that and we’re starting to help them really show where food comes from, not just after it comes off the field after it’s harvested but even as seed is developed, even as seed is planted, even as seed is harvested.”

But even with increased focus on consumers, GMO technology faces other obstacles that might not be as easy to surmount. The world is getting hotter, and its growing population is getting hungrier. 

Flashing Forward

The United Nations estimates that 1 billion people around the world are already hungry today, and by 2050, food production will have to double to meet the needs of the growing population.

“Here in the U.S., we don’t really see the impact of global hunger,” Meinders says. “We’re removed from it. Especially here in Iowa, we have very healthy soil and we have a very healthy environment. We’re able to grow very productive corn and soybeans. We sometimes don’t see the other side of the world. Some of the things that are true for us here in Iowa are not true for farmers in Africa or farmers in Asia. They don’t have the ability to take advantage of the innovation; they don’t have access to technology.”

While the U.S. does not strictly regulate GMOs, a couple African countries, such as Zambia and Benin, have an official ban in place on genetically modified products. Europe in its entirety and several prominent Asian countries allow GMOs but enforce mandatory labeling laws. GMOs are not embraced worldwide by farmers in the same way that they are in the U.S.

Gaffney says that times are drastically different from when Dr. Borlaug was able to spread his wealth of knowledge to the world. Countries today are protective of their native crop varieties and any genetics they possess that might be useful to increase crop yields in other countries.

“The [seeds were] moving from country to country: here, to India, to Mexico, different parts of Asia, the Philippines; it was just really a fantastic cooperative effort amongst many organizations and many countries,” Gaffney says. “And we haven’t seen anything like it since.”

Ironically, the world needs harmonization now more than ever, as every country faces a common enemy in the future: climate change.

Geneticists in America have already set their sights on creating GMOs that can withstand unpredictable weather patterns, and Fields says many varieties have already proven successful in tumultuous years such as this one. 

“I think years like 2012 and even years like this year where it was incredibly wet, the crop was getting into the ground very, very late and under really stressed conditions, but because these crop systems have [been bred to have] inherent protection around their root systems, they’re able to grow, thrive, and endure through all of that,” Fields says. “These products are out there really helping the general resilience of the crop and sustainability of production in the U.S.”

On the flip side, Fields says other existing genetically modified varieties are proving successful against draught and climbing temperatures. These genetic traits will be key in producing crops worldwide that are able to produce sustainable yields year after year despite the effects of climate change.

But, again, the world isn’t necessarily open to the idea of sharing. Yet. 

 “To make collaboration happen, you have to have good policies in place for these countries to make sure the technology is enabled, and in so many cases around the world, it’s just not happening,” Gaffney says. “If you really are serious about doing something about climate change, good policy has to be in place to enable technology out of the labs and out of research plots to make sure it reaches farmers. The technology is available; we’re willing to share. … If you get the breeding right, you don’t have to just have fate and climate change kick you in shorts. You can do something about it.”

For now, it’s a waiting game, while experts like Gaffney do their best to advocate for policy changes around the world. The tools and technologies are in place, and breeders following in the footsteps of Dr. Borlaug are ready to change the world one hungry mouth at a time. Many countries and individuals around the world continue to be skeptical of technology interfering with the food they eat, but sustainability experts remain set that GMOs and other gene editing technologies are the key to feeding the world. 

“I think it’s just like all technology,” Iowa State University’s Wang says. “It has pros and cons, and it really depends on a human who will handle the technology with humanity. That’s the bottom line.”

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