How do GMOs impact our environment? Evaluating the significance of genetic engineering in the world

Since 2013, massive protests[1] against the usage of genetically modified organisms (GMO) have emerged all over the world, sparking intense discussion on its safety on population health and its equivocal effects on the environment. Environmental organisations such as Greenpeace[2] have voiced their concerns while others assert that no detrimental effects have yet to be observed. In this article, we will primarily delve into how exactly GMOs influence our ecosystem in its current form and also in the future.


Why GMOs?


GMOs are organisms whose genetic materials used for growth and reproduction are modified using genetic engineering, most remarkably used in the production of crops. Typically, a gene that codes for a certain characteristic is extracted from another species, possibly from a different kingdom, and then the gene is being injected into plants.


Common traits that have been engineered to crops are richer nutritional content for human consumptions, resistance to pathogenic diseases, and the ability to produce specific proteins lethal to animal pests. Genetic modification is mainly employed in order to reduce the use of chemical insecticides and eventually cut the cost of production[3].


Environmental Concerns of GMO


Despite the positive outcomes derived from genetic modification, sceptics are worried of some of the negative impacts on the environment, which includes:


1. The increased use of herbicides, specifically glyphosate


Weeds have been an absolute nuisance for farmers when it comes to growing crops as they compete with crops for light, space, water, and nutrients. However, traditional herbicides are not selective, meaning that they tend to kill the surrounding crops as well, a notable example being glyphosate, an extremely affordable herbicide preventing most plants from producing proteins[4]. As a result, the use of herbicides had not been popularised until herbicide-resistant GMOs +were introduced.


After the discovery of herbicide-resistant, more specifically glyphosate-resistant genes, the use of herbicides has surged up significantly. In 2014, farmers sprayed enough glyphosate to apply 1.0 kg on every hectare (0.01 km2) of U.S.-cultivated cropland[5]. This allows the target crops to stay intact while poisoning weeds and competing plants. As you might have guessed, the ecosystem on and around the plantation will be heavily disrupted as studies have found that amphibians are particularly sensitive to environmental exposure to glyphosate owing to their dependence on the aquatic habitat[6].


Accordingly, environmental organisations like Greenpeace argue that GMOs “directly promote an industrial and chemical-intensive model of farming harmful to people, the environment, and wildlife” [1].


2. The shrinkage of genetic diversity and biodiversity


Diversified arrangements of gene code for distinct characteristics, resulting in different appearances and phenotypic traits. Variations in genes effectively allow plants to reduce the risk of widespread bacterial infections and herbivore infestations[7].


However, as genetically engineered crops are developed through techniques like backcrossing in order to disperse desirable traits, most GM crops in the same plantation will end up possessing similar genetic material, rendering them less resilient to an outbreak of an epidemic[8]. An example of this throughout history is potatoes in Ireland, which were being widely infected by the oomycete (a.k.a. water mold) Phytophthora infestans in the 1840s, causing widespread famines and starvations all over Europe. The major culprit has later been identified to be the uniformity of potato variety, giving rise to extensive susceptibility to pathogens[9].


Although no outbreak of pathogenic diseases among plants has been proven to be a result of genetically engineered crops, ecologists are aware of the possible danger that GMOs can inflict on genetic diversity[10].


There are numerous non-environmental impacts that anti-GM organisations have remarked, such as transgenic cross-pollination[9], which leads to the contamination of organic crops, and the allergenicity of GM food for human ingestion[3]. However, the environmental benefits of GM engineering are heavily undermined by popular culture. Here are a few:

  • Despite the spike in the use of herbicides, the overall use of inorganic pesticides has reduced by 671.2 million kilograms, lessening carbon footprints associated with harmful pesticides[11].

  • Engineered traits in plants allow plantations to produce a lot more crops with a fixed number of resources.


The Core of the Problem


Currently. genetic modification technologies have been burdened with blame and distrust, but most people seem to take no notice of why GMOs are often portrayed as bad. The answer to this question narrows down to mainly two factors:


1. The irresponsible practices of modern agriculture


Regarding the excessive use of herbicides after the incorporation of GM crops, the problem lies in the nature of current agricultural models. As demand for crops skyrockets, corporations have employed unsustainable techniques and modifications so as to boost production, an epitome being the heedless usage of inorganic fertilizers. Other examples include certain irrigation systems and livestock grazing.


Soil erosion, groundwater contamination and eutrophication (overabundance of nutrients in water bodies) are common outcomes of such practices[12]. As a result, a much more sustainable model for agriculture must be developed in order to minimise its destructive properties on our environment.


2. Fear among the general public


Despite the rapid development of genetic engineering, stringent regulations across the industry and regular testing, strangely the general public seems to be more doubtful than ever. A survey conducted by GMO Answers has garnered thousands of opinions, detecting that only 32% of Americans are comfortable with the use of GMO in food products, even with layers of risk assessments and safety evaluations[13]. This has reflected that public distrust of GM technology has diffused all over the place.


We, as consumers, are often bombarded with labels like “100% natural” and “organic”, but is natural/organic food really better for our health and our environment? Are all unnatural things harmful to us? The answers to both questions are an obvious “no”. The same thing applies to the differentiation between GM and non-GM products. While having choices is good for us consumers, is GM technology being unfairly denounced as a detriment to us and our environment?


The solution to this problem may be active promotion of GM awareness among the public. The U.S. Food and Drug Association has recently launched the Feed Your Mind initiative[14], aiming to educate the general public on GMOs. Similar campaigns have been introduced by governmental departments and also non-governmental organisations.


In 2016, 110 Nobel Laureates have urged anti-GMO organisations, with Greenpeace at the forefront, to “recognize the findings of authoritative scientific bodies and regulatory agencies and abandon their campaign against GMOs” [15]. In consideration of how genetic engineering will influence the world in the near future, addressing any misconceptions on genetic engineering will be a crucial task for society.


The environmental significance of GM Technology


Over the years, genetic modification has contributed to mankind in many ways. From insulin production for diabetics to the nutritional fortification of crops, the technology has tackled a number of global issues that have baffled scientists for ages. Besides, GM technologies may also provide a number of approaches to defend environmental crises:

  • Immunization towards pathogenic diseases

Recently, a new outbreak of Panama disease is affecting the world’s supply of bananas all over the world. Fortunately, researchers from the Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia have developed genetically modified bananas from wild species of bananas, which are resistant to Panama disease[16].

  • Development of extreme-weather resistance crops

Extreme climate events have been striking places all over the world due to global warming and rising sea levels. To maintain food supply for the entire population, crops that are able to withstand extreme conditions will be vital.

  • Development of nitrogen-fixing plants

By transferring some bacteria’s nitrogen-fixing properties (capturing nitrogen in the atmosphere) to plants, the use of nitrogen-based chemical fertilisers can be reduced to an environmentally friendly standard[17].


As one can see, genetic modification allows plants, more specifically crops, to accommodate to different climates and conditions. It will be a reliable ally in combating the dreadful consequences of climate change.


The Bottom Line


Undeniably, many GMOs are currently in experimental status and may entail a slight threat to our health and the environment in their current forms. However, through careful regulations and frequent testing by governmental departments, with the assistance of laborious efforts by non-governmental organisations, bias against genetic engineering among the public shall be alleviated, especially considering its environmental value in the near future.




Further Reading

Kurzgesagt - Are GMOs Good or Bad? Genetic Engineering & Our Food

https://youtu.be/7TmcXYp8xu4

TED2015: Pamela Ronald: The case for engineering our food

https://www.ted.com/talks/pamela_ronald_the_case_for_engineering_our_food?language=en

U.S. Food and Drug Association - Science and History of GMOs and Other Food Modification Processes

https://www.fda.gov/food/agricultural-biotechnology/science-and-history-gmos-and-other-food-modification-processes


References

[1] Guardian News and Media. (2015, May 24). Tens of thousands march worldwide against Monsanto and GM crops. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/may/24/tens-of-thousands-march-worldwide-against-monsanto-and-gm-crops.

[2] GMOs & Toxic Pesticides. Greenpeace USA. https://www.greenpeace.org/usa/sustainable-agriculture/issues/gmos/

[3] World Health Organization. (2014, May 1). Food, genetically modified. World Health Organization. https://www.who.int/news-room/q-a-detail/food-genetically-modified.

[4] Henderson, A. M.; Gervais, J. A.; Luukinen, B.; Buhl, K.; Stone, D.; Cross, A.; Jenkins, J. 2010. Glyphosate General Fact Sheet; National Pesticide Information Center, Oregon State University Extension Services. http://npic.orst.edu/factsheets/glyphogen.html.

[5] Benbrook, C.M. Trends in glyphosate herbicide use in the United States and globally. Environ Sci Eur 28, 3 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12302-016-0070-0

[6] Relyea RA. New effects of Roundup on amphibians: predators reduce herbicide mortality; herbicides induce antipredator morphology. Ecol Appl. 2012 Mar;22(2):634-47. doi: 10.1890/11-0189.1. PMID: 22611860. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22611860/

[7] BYJU’S (2020, November 10). Genetic Diversity: Definition, Examples, Importance, Conservation. BYJUS. https://byjus.com/neet/genetic-diversity/.

[8] H. L. (2015, August 12). Challenging Evolution: How GMOs Can Influence Genetic Diversity. Science in the News. http://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2015/challenging-evolution-how-gmos-can-influence-genetic-diversity/

[9] Goodwin, S. B., Cohen, B. A., & Fry, W. E. (1994). Panglobal distribution of a single clonal lineage of the Irish potato famine fungus. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 91(24), 11591–11595. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.91.24.11591

[10] National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2016. Genetically Engineered Crops: Experiences and Prospects. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/23395.

[11] Brookes, G and P Barfoot. 2018. GM crops: Global socio-economic and environmental impacts 1996- 2016. PG Economics Ltd, UK. p 1-204

[12] Anwar, S. (2020, September 21). Modern Agriculture and its impact on the environment. Jagranjosh.com. https://www.jagranjosh.com/general-knowledge/modern-agriculture-and-its-impact-on-the-environment-1518163410-1.

[13] GMO Answers Releases New Survey Showing Most Americans Remain Confused About GMOs Despite Overwhelming Health & Safety Consensus Among Experts. GMO Answers. https://gmoanswers.com/gmo-answers-releases-new-survey-showing-most-americans-remain-confused-about-gmos-despite

[14] Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. (2020, March 4). FDA Launches "Feed Your Mind". U.S. Food and Drug Administration. https://www.fda.gov/food/cfsan-constituent-updates/fda-launches-feed-your-mind-help-consumers-better-understand-science-behind-foods-derived-genetic

[15] Support GMOs and Golden Rice: Support Precision Agriculture. Support GMOs and Golden Rice | Support Precision Agriculture. https://www.supportprecisionagriculture.org/

[16] Dale, J., James, A., Paul, JY. et al. Transgenic Cavendish bananas with resistance to Fusarium wilt tropical race 4. Nat Commun 8, 1496 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-017-01670-6

[17] Symbiosis and Engineering a Solution. ENSA. https://www.ensa.ac.uk/symbiosis/