You're most likely familiar with the fiery debate surrounding genetically modified organisms, more colloquially known as GMOs. Those who oppose their use view them as contaminants in an otherwise pure world, and avoiding them at all costs is often the raison d'être of many celebrities. But what if the use of GMOs could save hundreds of thousands of lives? Read the first article in the GMO series to find out why this hypothetical could potentially become a reality.
What are GMOs?
GMO stands for genetically modified organism – and it's exactly what its name implies. More specifically, a GMO is "any plant, animal, microorganism, or other organism whose genetic makeup has been modified using recombinant DNA methods." Most grievances surrounding GMOs center around the idea that these organisms would not otherwise exist in nature without human intervention, despite the fact that there is currently no scientific consensus on the safety or risks associated with consuming GMOs.
Why do people want them?
The ability to genetically modify an organism with specific, useful traits has already begun to award massive benefits to those affected. For example, over 50% of those in sub-Saharan Africa depend on maize as their staple food source, yet the frequent droughts in the region reduce the likelihood of germination and of adequate subsequent crop yields. With the survival of millions at stake, the creation of drought-tolerant, well-adapted maize hybrids was a godsend.
According to the Drought Tolerant Maize for Africa Initiative (DTMA), the use of these drought-resistant strains helped farmers in 13 countries and benefited nearly 43 million people. Another project, run by the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) program, sought to use biotechnology-modified maize (Bt maize) to augment Kenya's agricultural production by using pest-resistant, higher-yield strains. The Kenyan government approved limited field testing of the Bt maize in 2016, with the hope of achieving widespread usage beginning in 2018.
Furthermore, micronutrient deficiencies continue to be a major public health crisis around the world. Many staple foods, including rice and maize, lack significant levels of many micronutrients that are essential to proper human health. Insufficient amounts of Vitamin A have particularly heinous consequences – between 250,000 and 500,000 children are blinded each year due to a Vitamin A deficiency.
With that in mind, the creation of biofortified food – crops whose nutritional value is increased via breeding practices or biotechnology – has the potential to save hundreds of thousands of lives every year. The most well-known example of biofortification is golden rice, genetically modified to produce and store provitamin A in the plant itself. The controversy surrounding GMOs has prevented its widespread usage, although its creators argue that golden rice could save millions.
The recipients of the 2016 World Food Prize took a similar approach, developing a disease-resistant, drought-tolerant, and high yielding strain of sweet potato. Not only will this crop help ameliorate the negative effects of Vitamin A deficiencies (sweet potatoes are an abundant source of Vitamin A), but the resilience of this particular strain of the crop will aid in providing steady, consistent, and healthy yields for years to come.
What's the bottom line?
It would be incorrect and irresponsible to designate GMOs as dangerous, useless, and unimportant. Anything with the potential to save this many lives should be considered very seriously, and those of us in more fortunate life situations should refrain from harsh judgements in the absence of proper facts. However, this is not to say that GMOs should be taken as gospel – they have their caveats, and the ramifications of innovation without regulation can be massive. Check out Part 2 next week for the darker side of GMOs.
Disclaimer: I am not a licensed nutritionist nor a registered dietician. The opinions expressed in this article are my own, and each individual is ultimately responsible for his/her dietary and nutrition practices. Please consult a physician before starting a new dietary program.