A growing world population requires ever-increasing food production. One of the possible methods is to genetically modify plants and animals. The methods are grouped under the term GMO, and have long been discussed – but much of the criticism is in how it has so far been used. There are many indications that technology in the future may be used in other forms and with a different focus, and to a greater extent live up to their fundamentally promising potential. GMOs can contribute to feeding people, but can also be an environmental benefit by reducing the environmental impact of pesticide use in agriculture, contributing to less soil erosion, and reduce nutrient discharges from fish farms.

Larger yields feed more

According to UN projections, global food production will increase 70 percent by 2050 to feed the world’s growing population. The space to cultivate new land is limited, so the solution is to get croplands to provide higher returns.

It may seem like an insurmountable challenge – but it is not new. Building on the 1700s agrarian revolution, through the mechanization of agriculture and the so-called “green revolution” has yielded per unit area to multiply – even if the impact has been mixed: in the West the yield per hectare is often ten times as large as in Africa. The development has been achieved through new crops and changing farming practices. One element of this is the transition to high-yield hybrid crops, produced using traditional plant breeding methods. Another is the extent of the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. The debated issue is the introduction of GMOs.

Yields per unit area have multiplied thanks to modern agriculture, but there is still great potential there.

What are GMOs?

The first GM food reached the market in 1994. It was a tomato modified to mature slowly. Since then, the transgenic crop has come to cover over a tenth of the world’s arable land, most of all soybeans and cotton, and a third of all corn and canola. There are yet no approved transgenic animal foods – but a fast-growing salmon is under investigation in the U.S. and could be the first.

A genetically modified organism has had its genome modified to give it new properties. It may mean that one or more genes are isolated in an organism and inserted into another, or that an existing gene is prevented from appearing. In practice, the genome is injected into plant cells by a soil bacterium.

Even classical plant breeding changes genomes. The major differences are the ability to combine the characteristics of species that cannot be crossed with each other directly, and in what is being transferred. There are also new breeding techniques that modified genes used in a sub-step of the process, but do not reach the final crop.

Resistance to pests and pesticides

The high cost of research has led to a few corporations that have accounted for the production of GM crops. The focus has been on benefits for large-scale agriculture and a few crops: mainly soybeans, cotton, corn and canola, and a culture concentrated in the U.S, Brazil, Argentina, India and Canada.

There is a big difference in the perception of GMO’s, especially between Europe and the USA. In the U.S., there is no special treatment for genetically modified foods, and the culture. The EU has stricter rules for GMO’s, where genetically foods are almost non-existent, although a number of crops are approved for import.

Among the now established GM crops are two added features: resistance to insect pests (with BT- crops), and herbicide (in Roundup tolerant crops).

Spores from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis have long been used as a natural pesticide, in that they produce a protein that is toxic to insects. BT crops have added a gene from the bacteria, and may build in resistance to certain insects with its protein.

Glyphosate is the active ingredient in some herbicides (especially Monsanto’s own Roundup). It kills plants by inhibiting the production of an amino acid. Humans and other mammals lack the process, so for us there is relatively low toxicity. Roundup-tolerant crops have been modified to produce the amino acid in a different way, and thus they survive while weeds die. Glyphosate-resistant crops can be grown closer to each other, as they don’t require weeding by mechanical means.

Increased yields and more nutrients

Concerns expressed about GMO’s are not primarily that the products are harmful – extensive investigations have not identified any risks – but it is more often about possible disruptions to ecosystems, the spread of genes through cross-pollination and resistance training.

Another source of controversy has been the concentration of power among a few players whose products are protected by fierce patent restrictions – although many of the patents are about to expire – and not least the narrow range of properties they have chosen to work with – such as insect resistance and glyphosate resistance, instead of a broader development of crops with higher nutrient content and better ability to absorb nutrients from the soil, the resistance to drought and saltified soils.

Many argue that this is precisely what is required to achieve a second green revolution, rooted in sustainability and resilience rather than fossil-fuel dependent monoculture plantations. But genetic engineering can be used to emphasize such features – and there are many ideas.

Perennial crops have several advantages: they do not have to plow and sow every year, resulting in less erosion, nutrient leaching and need machines. Genetics may play a big role in the breeding of perennial forms to provide an annual crop.

There are advanced hopes associated with cassava – the most important crop in sub-Saharan Africa. It is starchy, resistant to drought and can grow in pour soil – but it is poor in protein, vitamins and minerals, contains harmful substances which must be neutralized by cooking, and is susceptible to certain diseases. It is believed that genetic engineering can compensate this and develop it into a more staple food.

Major crops such as wheat, maize, rice and barley are the perennial forms that currently provide for a low return.

Another vision is becoming a reality, C4 rice. Photosynthesis in plants capture carbon dioxide. Approximately three percent of the Earth’s plant species – including corn – has another, more effective method of photosynthesis. Such rice would be hardier and could increase yields 50 percent, given that rice is the world’s most important crop.

It has also been able to genetically modify rice so that it produces beta-carotene, the raw material for vitamin A, and so that the absorption is improved. It is grown in field trials in the Philippines, and it is called “golden rice,” because of its yellow color. The hope is to be able to overcome the widespread vitamin A deficiency in much of the developing world, where rice is also a basic food. In the case of the golden rice there are many patents in the works. Now, however, all patent holders waived compensation when the seed is sold to financially needy family farms.

Genetic engineering as open-source

More and more people want to highlight the open-source model as a way forward for genetic engineering. An initiative has been taken by Cambia – with its BIOS license that mimics the open source software – that allows anyone to freely use and build upon a computer program. The results, in turn, are made freely available for further development.

Another example in the same direction is Syngenta, which through a licensing procedure makes its technology available to small businesses to build on. Research and products destined for developing countries receive preferential terms.

The open source code has led to an explosion of innovation and development. A corresponding system for genetic engineering could perhaps be more diversified and less controversial for GMOs?

The article was published in November 2013