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GMOs refers to animals and plants whose genetic makeup has been altered in the laboratory to incorporate the genes from other organisms. Genetic engineering is used to modify the genes of an organism, which generally involve adding a trait that is perceived as beneficial, mainly for production purpose. Transgenic organism is a more distinctly defined type of GMO, which denotes organism whose genes have been altered by adding genetic materials from an unrelated organism. This should not be confused with a typical GMO whose genetic makeup has been changed without adding any genetic material from an unrelated organism.
The first GMO, a mouse, was created in 1974 while the first genetically modified plant was produced in 1983. There has been a debate against GMOs and what risk can be associated with these organisms. Critics have regarded GMOs as posing threats to the environment. For instance, their seeds can travel past the fields where they are grown. Some genes can mutate and yield harmful effect (Damalas, and Eleftherohorinos 1402-1419). Nonetheless, over the years, GMOs have been used in the production of genetically modified foods and many medicines as well as for scientific research that has proved successful. This article will thus argue about the benefits that genetically modified organisms pose in the field of agriculture.
Agricultural Benefits of GMOs
Currently, the world population is approximately seven billion, and according to the United Nation (UN), it is expected to increase up to 11 billion in 2100. This has raised concerns about the provision of an adequate supply of food to this booming population, which at the moment seems to be tremendously challenging. Most companies that deal with GM seeds have pointed out this concern as the rationale for the need to engage in GM crops.
Companies that deals with genetically modified seeds promise that GMO will increase profits and production level for farmers around the globe. These companies expect GM crops to be adopted by farmers since the incorporated traits provide direct operational benefits, which relates to increased production. In addition to increased profitability, proponents of GM crops have argued that the adoption of GM technology can significantly raise resiliency and efficiency. They also note that GM crops can help reduce the use of pesticides, which impacts the sustainability of the cropping system and the farming expenses directly. Some have even claimed that GM crops create a halo impact on the nearby non-GM plants by reducing the pressure of pest within zones that are chiefly sown to GM plants.
There is a widely held expectation by those in agriculture that GMOs (both animals and plants) can increase yield or at least protect the potential of return. Organisms that are resistant to herbicides and pests can significantly reduce cross losses and simplify farm management, resulting in increased yield. According to an article by Mannion & Morse (13-20), genetically modified varieties of cotton, maize, and soybean yielded 15 percent, 7 percent, and 20 percent more produce respectively in comparison to non-GM varieties.
Various institutes that deal with GMO have noted a significant connection between increased adoption of pesticide and herbicide tolerant GM seeds and increased crop yield. For instance, USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) reported a significant increase in yield when farmers adopted Bt cotton and herbicide-tolerant cotton. India, in 2014 was noted to have cultivated 11.6 million hectares of Bt cotton, which was planted by about 7.7 million small farmers. This was an increase from 50,000 hectares in 2002 and represented an unprecedented 230-fold increase within 13 years. This adoption has been accredited to the rise in yield that farmers experience.
The adoption of minimum to no-tillage practice in farming commenced in the 80s. These practices predate the release of the first herbicide-tolerant varieties of soybean and maize in 1996. During this period, farmers in the US who adopted herbicide tolerant crops were much likely to engage in conservation tillage practices and vice versa. During the time of GMO release between 1997 and 2002, there was increased use of herbicide-tolerant crops and conservation tillage in the US. Currently, genetically engineered soybeans with herbicide-tolerant traits are the most adopted GM crops followed by herbicide tolerant cotton variety. Most argue that the adoption of genetically modified varies with herbicide-tolerant traits resulted in farmers’ decision to use conservation tillage. Further, farmers who had employed this form of tillage rapidly adopted GM crops.
The adoption of herbicide-tolerant soybeans has had a positive impact on the use of conservation tillage in the US. Practices and technologies that enhance this type of tillage reduce soil erosion in the long term and significantly promote conservation of soil while reducing carbon and nutritional losses. Further, the introduction of herbicide-tolerant soybeans has been depicted as a significant factor in the increase of tillage practices in Argentina. The adoption of no-tillage practices has also allowed wheat to be double-cropped with soybean in this region that has resulted in a significant increase in farm yield. Canada has noted a considerable growth in no-tillage practices that relate to the use of genetically modified herbicide-tolerant seeds. For instance, in western Canada, the no-tillage canola production rose from 0.8 million to 2.6 million hectares between 1996 and 2005.
The reduction in pesticide and tillage application has similarly had a significant impact on the farming system since this has minimized the use of fossil fuel in farming and as a result, it has caused carbon footprint reduction. The alleviation of soil erosion is essential with concerns to environmental conservation and the sustenance of productivity potential. According to Brookes and Barfoot (65-75), reduction in the use of fuel that can be attributed to GM crop cultivation has led to carbon emission savings by (1215*10^9) kilograms, which corresponds to taking more than 50,000 automobiles off the road. Therefore, the impact of GMOs on the flow of carbon in agriculture can be regarded as a positive effect that results from the use of GM crops on the environment.
Pest Management and Herbicide Tolerance (HT)
Herbicide tolerance in genetically modified crops is attained through novel genes introduction. Weed control through selective herbicide or by physical means has been regarded as an expensive and time-consuming practice. The most broadly cultivated herbicide-tolerant crops are glyphosate tolerant, colloquially referred to as Roundup Ready crops. GM crops that are herbicide tolerant have offered farmers operational advantages. For instance, the main benefits linked to HT canola are better and easier control of weeds. The introduction of genetically modified HT canola varieties has also been associated with an increased gain in canola yield. Moreover, in spite of the weed mitigation approaches pertinent to traditional canola, substantial incentives remained for the HT canola development.
Although a blend of herbicides has been used to control the common perennial and annual weeds in Western Canada, these are costly and not necessarily reliable. Further, some tank-mixtures has resulted in significant yield loss and canola injuries. However, the use of GM HT canola option has aided in mitigating these concerns. Currently, two primary options are broadly employed in Western Canada. The first transgenic crop to be listed in Canada was the canola tolerant to glufosinate, which was shortly followed by the canola tolerant to glyphosate. GM HT canola comes with the possibility of enhanced management of weed in canola through a more extensive spectrum of weed control and high efficacy on weeds. The highest gain has been in the yield of soybeans, which is attributed to the adoption of GM HT in Argentina and the US as well as for the canola in Canada.
The alleviation of pesticides use has therefore been a significant direct benefit related to genetically modified crops. This has also allowed farmers to reduce their exposure to chemical and lessened pesticide residue on feed crops and food. Famers can release less chemical into the environment and potentially promoting on-farm diversity in pollinators and insects. Further, improved management of pest can lessen the level of mycotoxin in feed crops and foods. GM insect resistance is conferred into crops such as maize by adding the genes for toxin creation from Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) bacterium. This toxin occurs naturally and is presently being used as a traditional insecticide in agriculture. It is also perceived as safe for use in feed crops and food. Crops that have been engineered to produce this toxin has been noted to require less to no addition of pesticide even in areas where pest pressure is noticeable.
At the end of the 20th century, genetically modified crops that were resistant to insects were available via three systems (Bt variants). SmartStax maize, developed by Monsanto and Dow AgroSciences, has three pest management traits, including protection against both below-ground and above-ground pests, and herbicide tolerance that enhance the control of weeds. The adoption of Bt maize has reported a significant reduction in pesticide application in Spain, Canada, and South Africa as well as Bt cotton in the US, China, and Australia.
Genetically modified crops may have a positive impact on human health by reducing insecticide exposure and significantly altering the pattern of herbicide use toward glyphosate that is regarded as a relatively benign herbicide in this respect. These claims are however hypothetical rather than factual since they are not based on experimental data. There is a lack of public research on the likely human health impact of consuming feed crops and food derived from GMOs. Any public work that has been put forward has garnered criticism and skepticism. Nonetheless, genetically modified crops that are on commercial pass regulatory approval, that is done by competent institutions including the Food and Drug Administration in the US, as being appropriate for human consumption (Baker et al., 1-5). GM enhancements that may have a direct impact on health such as higher levels of essential amino acids, reduced allergens, essential fatty acids, mineral and vitamins, and superior levels of carbohydrates and protein hold much promise although they are yet to be approved for commercialization.
Malnutrition is also a menace in developing nations where the poor depend heavily on one source of food such as maize in their diets. Such foods do not have sufficient quantities of all the essential nutrients that can reduce malnutrition. GMOs can provide a means of supplying nutritional pros through a single food source, which can not only support the nutrients required but also help mitigate the concerns of malnutrition in these countries. The golden rise is an example of a bio-fortified GM crop. This crop can assist in overcoming the problems that are caused by a lack of vitamin A such as blindness by at least 50 percent at moderate expense. However, its adoption and commercialization have been hindered by activist campaigns.
As noted, the adoption of GM crops can have positive effects on the environment since these crops are linked with reduced application of pesticide and tillage. A reduction in the use of pesticides can result in the protection of beneficial insects and aid in protecting other non-target species. Mitigated tillage can assist in lessening environmental pollution and soil erosion and can lead to indirect ecological advantages such as reduced water pollution through fertilizer and pesticide runoff. Growing Bt maize has been claimed to help in reducing the use of chemical and lowering the production cost to a greater extent. GM crops deregulation procedures involve the assessment of potential risk including unintentional effect, which could occur from the insertion of a new gene.
Genetically modified technology also allows the introduction of genes conferring tolerance to abiotic stressors such as salinity, inundation and drought, extreme cold and heat, and heavy metal. This can allow marginal land to be productive and can ease the soils pollution remediation (Fernandez-Cornejo et al., 231-241). Further, multiplying genetically modified crop varieties carrying various characteristics can raise farmers ability of coping with these and other ecological concerns. Therefore, this technology holds the hope of improving the production of agricultural land with less ecological impact.
Proponents of GMOs have argued that GM crops facilitate sustainable practices and can result in greener agriculture since they can increase farm productivity. For instance, according to Mannion and Morse (13-20), GM crops need less level of energy input, and thus reduce carbon footprint. Some researchers have suggested that the adoption of GMOs may create the potential to reduce inputs such as pesticides and fertilizer, while others have claimed that higher crop yield could offset greenhouse gas emission at levels similar to those accredited to solar and wind energy. The conservation of non-farmed lands can also offset the emission of greenhouse gasses from intensive farming.
Genetic engineering is fascinating since it provides a way of bringing novel traits to a crop. The adoption of GMOs has occurred rapidly in a range of nations around the globe. Up to date, only a limited number of traits have been incorporated in GM crops, which are insect resistance and herbicide tolerance. Nonetheless, those who have cultivated GM crops have benefited from the operational advantages that come with them such as reduced tillage. As noted in this essay, commercialized GM crops are deregulated and deemed as safe to the environment and consumption by competent bodies. However, there remain critics of these practices who points to the lack of public research. Nevertheless, genetically modified crops will continue to be developed since it has been noted to pose various benefits that can help humanity overcome some of its pressing problems.
Baker, John M., et al. "Tillage and soil carbon sequestration—What do we really know?" Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment 118.1-4 (2007): 1-5.
Brookes, Graham, and Peter Barfoot. "Economic impact of GM crops: the global income and production effects 1996–2012." GM crops & food 5.1 (2014): 65-75.
Damalas, Christos A., and Ilias G. Eleftherohorinos. "Pesticide exposure, safety issues, and risk assessment indicators." International journal of environmental research and public health 8.5 (2011): 1402-1419.
Fernandez-Cornejo, Jorge, et al. "Conservation tillage, herbicide use, and genetically engineered crops in the United States: The case of soybeans." (2013). 231–241
Mannion, A. M., and Stephen Morse. "GM crops 1996–2012: A review of agronomic, environmental and socio-economic impacts." Centre for Environmental Strategy, University of Surrey, UK & Department of Geography and Environmental Science, University of Reading, UK (2013).
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