Opinion: Genetically modified crops have a place in sustainable agriculture

Daniel Sprockett

Daniel Sprockett

Daniel Sprockett is a researcher in the KSU Department of Anthropology and a columnist at the Daily Kent Stater. Contact him at [email protected].

Last Thursday, A.L.L. editor Laura Lofgren reviewed the 2008 documentary “Food Inc.” For the most part, I agree with her positive assessment of the movie and share her concern for the distressing standard practices of industrial food production that reveals.

However, one commonly misunderstood issue that she brought up was the role of genetically modified organisms in sustainable agriculture.

Truth be told, humans have been altering the genetic makeup of food for thousands of years. Our modern molecular tools are quite a bit more advanced than those of our ancestors, but the end result is the same.

The first farmers of the Neolithic Revolution began cultivating plants and keeping animals around 10,000 years ago. Over time they learned to selectively breed plants and animals based on desirable characteristics like size, growth rate, mating patterns and taste. Controlling which organisms continue swimming in the gene pool allowed them to alter species in dramatic and profound ways.

Take corn, for example. Lofgren suggests that around 40 percent of the United States’ corn is genetically engineered. However, all corn consumed in the U.S. today has been engineered by artificial selection.

Corn is a grass. In its non-domesticated state, corn looks more like wheat than the sweet golden kernels that we’re used to eating at picnics. Corn’s wild ancestor, teosinte, is still found in parts of Central America. Modern corn grows straight and tall, and yields many plump ears packed with juicy yellow kernels. Teosinte, on the other hand, grows as a short bush, with many stems branching off the central stalk. Hard seedpods house a single row of a dozen or so kernels. Visually, it is almost unidentifiable as the precursors to modern corn.

Its genetics, however, tell the tale. We now know that teosinte and corn are extremely similar genetically. Using the tools of artificial selection, early farmers we able to radically alter the tough seeds of teosinte into the sweet, soft corn we know today.

If early farmers used an axe to rough-hew the genetics of our crops, modern crop scientists use a scalpel. Today’s food engineers are able to utilize millions of years of evolutionary research and development by transferring genes between organisms. A common example of this type of genetic modification is Bt-corn.

Bt-corn produces a bacterial protein that selectively kills pests like the European corn borer. Without Bt-corn, these voracious caterpillars could decimate corn crops and cause the price of corn to spiral out of control. The alternative is using high concentrations of indiscriminate pesticides, which, as Lofgren pointed out, has many negative side effects. In fact, a recent study shows Bt-cotton helped farmers in Arizona reduce pesticide use by 70 percent.

It is important to remember, however, that genetically modified organisms have a role to play in sustainable agriculture only when paired with thoughtful and well-regulated management and regulatory practices. GMOs are a tool, not a management strategy. The world’s population will hit 7 billion this year, and advances in food sciences and crop genetics are our only hope for feeding them. We shouldn’t oppose the use of GMOs because of ignorance-based fear.