By Vani Kumar.
We have all heard about the world’s population surge and the frightening rate at which humans are multiplying, and I am here to tell you about it again. About our human nature which is not like Goldilocks, looking for the in between, just right, comfortable spot. No, we humans are and will always be greedy, we want more and that means more lives, more time, more everything. Therefore, while conservationists nobly try to control our insatiable desires for more, they can at best slow us down, but not completely eradicate the most human desire for more. So how do we sustain our increasing population on an already strained mother Earth?
The key to survival is food, however with our current population, four countries are at risk for famine- we are already suffering from food insecurity. Events contributing to this food insecurity are natural disasters such as droughts, which destroy local crops in poorer countries which can not afford or have access to importing food. Fluctuating prices based on yield of crops of weak economic systems also cause problems for balancing a nutritional diet as people will buy what they can afford, and sometimes that is very little.
What the world needs is more food, but food is one of our needs which is draining the Earth most of its resources. Currently. there are 1.5 billion cows on the planet and counting. In order to make space for them, rainforests are being destroyed, causing a cycle of deforestation. Other climate change problems instigated by this rise in cattle include increased methane production and water depletion.
Of course, we could all become vegetarians, but the main problem is not what we are eating, but how much. So how do we increase the efficiency of our food system- to produce more food but with less impact on the earth? This is not the first time we have sought to increase the efficiency of our food system. Humans are logical creatures, therefore, since the beginning of farming, we have discovered and created systems to increase production with lower costs, for example by selective breeding. In terms of cattle, this involves mating the biggest cows or the ones that produce the most milk to slowly increase the size of cows and the amount of milk they produce. This technique has not only made the modern cow much bigger but also more docile.
The rapidly changing times now demand a faster method of higher efficiency than selective breeding can provide, causing us to look to other forms of genetic engineering, which is what selective breeding is. This term has probably caused some red flags to go up as genetic engineering and food inevitably point to the taboo topic of genetically modified foods, or GMOs.
The modern production of these genetically modified organisms is more direct, with scientists able to change and add genes to foods and animals which gives a lot more options on how to produce foods more easily as we can make foods pest resistant, allowing them to grow in harsher environments, and in smaller spaces. This opens up a world of possibilities for us.
The main concern with this technology is its safety- is it healthy for us to ingest such foods? Let’s take the example of pest resistant foods, “natural” foods are treated with pesticides and chemicals, however on the other side, pest resistant foods have genes inserted to generate proteins to kill pests. Also, as mentioned before, even natural foods aren’t exactly natural because of natural selection. These genes usually come from other species, usually bacteria, so technically the genes are natural. On the other hand, the alternative to pest resistant foods would be using chemicals to spray on the plants which can also contaminate the soil and is definitely not a natural solution.
The concept of genetically modified foods is understandably sensitive since to many people. This system seems like playing God, however using chemicals to prolong the life of foods which would be otherwise destroyed by bugs and insects could also be argued to be like playing God. The only difference in this situation is that the changes are more direct and scary- if we can so easily change genes in plants, what could it mean for mankind? Of course, these questions are difficult to answer, but one thing is for sure, genetically engineered foods could help many people and is definitely something to strongly consider.
The world is changing, technology is changing, people are changing- but some people don’t want to. We can’t stop progress for the fear of what change can bring. Rather than stopping change, we need to discuss the best way to implement it. Thankfully, the technology for creating these genetically modified foods is still going through trial and error, it is time for us to also be considering different policies and rules for genetically modified foods and how they will fit into our world.
Some policies have already been initiated, such as the GMO labelling law that was passed by Congress last year. Many people supported this bill to know what they were eating and make choices based on their views about the issue, however it’s a little more difficult to implement. As I discussed before, genetic modification occurs at different levels and not all ingredients in a product could be genetically modified, so what is the threshold? These are issues that the United States Department of Agriculture handles, but it is also something we should be thinking about. Also, how these labels should look is an issue, because genetically modified organisms that are on the market are perfectly safe and healthy, and that is the message that should be sent through the labels as well.
Another issue to consider is the spread of genetically modified organisms. Unlike foods which are sprayed with chemicals or planted in special fertilizer, something that is genetically modified is something that will be replicated as that food is replicated, which means that if the seeds of a genetically modified organism are transported, they don’t lose their treatment, rather they continue to replicate in the while. This idea caused a problem for the Monsanto company which produces genetically modified foods known as Roundup Ready, which was found in the crops of organic farmers. This could be due to the accidental, or the purposeful, transportation of the seeds and resulted in many court hearings as Monsanto had patented their products which they believed were being illegally used and marketed by organic farmers as organic (“Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association et al. v. Monsanto Company”). When hearing the company Monsanto, many people think of an evil, greedy company which is destroying the common farmer with their dangerous products, but it is simply an innovative company trying to improve the efficiency of food production- which inevitably is hurting others. The fault is not with Monsanto, it is with the lack of policies or thought given to how we will be handling legislation on producing genetically modified foods.
Get informed, learn about what exactly genetically modified foods are, form opinions on your own about how you feel about them, and think about how you want a reality with them to look like because innovation is not slowing down.