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GMOs on the Economy and Environment

What are GMOs?

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are organisms that have their genetic code altered for a specific purpose. While in the past, scientists have used selective breeding to gain a desired trait within plants and animals, Purdue University describes GMOs as a more targeted method that can even be used on microorganisms.

According to Harvard University, the key processes involved in making a GMO include identifying a trait of interest, isolating the trait, inserting the desired trait into another organism, and then breeding the organism. While practices regularly focus on extracting the desired trait and inserting it into another organism, recent methods have also turned towards directly editing the genome.

The process of creating GMOs through the isolation of a gene and inserting it into the genetic sequence of another organism (Oregon State University).

A Brief History

For hundreds of years, scientists have used selective and cross-breeding techniques to acquire desirable traits. In 1973, Biochemists Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen developed genetic engineering by inserting DNA from one bacteria to another. This discovery served as the basis for the practice of making GMOs. In 1982, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first GMO consumer product which was human insulin to treat diabetes. Towards the 1990s, the use of GMOs in crops began to gain popularity, and the main concern of GMO safety and ethical questions began to arise. As safety was the main concern, the FDA only allowed the first use of GMOs in an animal in 2015, which was the genetically engineered salmon.

What are GMOs used for?

GMOs are most prominently used for agriculture to produce greater crop yields, increase the nutritional value, and make organisms more resistant to diseases. Such advancements have been an effort to increase supply to the growing demand from consumers.

The application of GMOs is most commonly used in crops such as corn, and the product is known as Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) corn. According to the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network, over 80% of the corn grown in Canada is genetically modified. While Genetically modified corn is mostly processed into animal feed, scientists also modify the corn to be a microbial insecticide. Bacillus thuringiensis is a type of bacteria that produces proteins that are toxic to certain insects, and it is used to be added to corn to achieve the desired trait.

A comparison of non-Bt corn on the left and Bt corn on the right (Jason Haegele).

Economic Implications

While GMOs are often used by large commercial agricultural companies, they may be harmful to small farms as they are unable to compete with the larger industries. Although genetically modified seeds are rapidly produced, there is large corporate control over the seeds as NB Media Co-op showcases studies showing that only four companies control 67% of the global seed market. These large companies have also patented their seeds, which means they claim full ownership over the product, making it difficult for others to reproduce the same product. Additionally, corporate farms are able to sell their products at a lower price, whereas smaller farms would not be able to gain a profit if they were to match these prices. This leads to many farms going out of business and has severely harmed diversity within the market.

However, there have been recent ethical concerns with the use of GMOs leading to a movement of consumer resistance towards such practices. According to PubMed, concerns include potential harms to human health, environmental damages, harms to traditional farming, the rise of monopolies, and the unnatural process itself. Although there the discussion of GMOs and biotechnology is still up for debate, the negative perception provides an opportunity for smaller farmers to pursue specialized farms. For instance, the rise in popularity of organic products opens doors for farmers to stay in the agricultural business.

Environmental Implications

While GMOs have allowed society to make large strides towards supporting the growing population, the tradeoff is that the lack of biodiversity and damage to the natural ecosystem it inflicts harms sustainability. According to One Green Planet, GMOs and the chemical herbicides and pesticides used with them is toxic to the environment. While GMOs are designed to be toxic in targetting specific organisms such as parasites, they may also be toxic to non-targetted organisms such as bees and butterflies that help sustain the environment.

Lastly, GMOs put a risk to biodiversity, which is key to the sustainability of all ecosystems. This is because GMOs are typically planted through the method of monocropping, which is the practice of extensively planting a single crop over the same plot of land. The practice of monocropping is unsustainable because if one type of crop was damaged by pests, it is likely the entire field will be affected and lead to fewer yields and drastic fluctuations in the market price. Furthermore, genetically engineered organisms to have desired traits and exposing them to the environment may create harm to the natural ecosystem and decrease biodiversity. Harvard studies have shown that if GMOs are introduced to the natural environment, they have the advantage of being more resilient and may overrun existing organisms. Biodiversity is important as it ensures a higher probability of creating a sustainable ecosystem as opposed to a uniform biological environment.

An example of a farm practicing monoculture (Eagrovision).

Scientists are currently searching for a sustainable method of using GMOs as the benefits it yields cannot be ignored. However, it is important to consider the implications of introducing new technologies to our society, as the long-term effects are still unknown.

Article Author: Rachel Weng

Article Editors: Valerie Shirobokov, Sherilyn Wen