The Case for GMOs
When our family farm planted its first-ever genetically modified seed 25 years ago, we saved some of the empty bags.
Those packages symbolize a historic moment, one that leaves a distinct hash mark on the timeline of American agriculture history. The arrival of genetically modified seed on the farm arguably ranks as the most significant modern-day advancement to affect the capability to produce more crops with fewer inputs – such as fertilizer and pesticides – and less environmental impact. Yet, hate, fear and misunderstanding commonly surround the three-letter acronym that identifies this biotechnology.
In simple terms, genetically modified organism (GMO) refers to the process of taking a desired gene from one organism and inserting it into another organism to improve its performance. For farmers, this means the opportunity to grow genetically modified crops that exhibit resistance to insects, pesticides and disease; tolerance to drought; or contain enhanced nutritional value. The most common GMO crops grown in the United States include alfalfa for animal feed, canola, corn (including field and sweet corn, but not popcorn), cotton and some soybeans.
I respect the concern for food safety, which escalated for me with the onset of motherhood. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) joins hundreds of scientific studies in deeming GMO foods safe to eat by comparison to their conventional counterparts. Science also allows ample time to make those determinations. On average, a GMO takes 13 years in research and development before farmers can grow it. That process includes safety and regulatory approvals from the FDA, as well as the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency.
For centuries, mankind has bred plants to possess desired traits. Selective breeding developed the seedless watermelon my son loves and the pollenless sunflowers my daughter grows and sells as an FFA project.
See more: Lessons in Food Labeling
In fact, breeding for quality plant genetics receives much credit for the resiliency of crops on our farm. The scientific process of genetic modification accelerates breeding’s benefits, particularly with reduced chemical use. While agriculture’s herbicide reduction due to evolving weeds can be challenged, there’s no doubt insecticide use has significantly declined since the advent of biotechnology in agriculture. The genetically modified corn seed we plant today can protect itself from corn borer and rootworm – two common pests in Illinois fields – without the application of insecticides. As a result, our farm has cut per-acre insecticide use by more than half in a quarter-century, and we produce nearly 50% more corn per acre.
Agricultural biotechnology encompasses GMOs and the next generation of genetic modification through gene editing, a process that edits genes within an organism’s own DNA. You and I can now buy a specific apple variety that does not brown when sliced and potato varieties less likely to have bruises or black spots, leading to less food waste. The pipeline shows promise for more bioengineered foods that help tackle challenges for farmers, consumers and our environment. We watch and wonder what the next 25 spring planting seasons may bring.
(select varieties) Source: Illinois Farm Families (watchusgrow.org)
12 Genetically Modified Foods Available in the U.S.
Source: Illinois Farm Families (watchusgrow.org)