Genetically modified organisms, or GMO’s, are any plants or animals that contain genetic structures that have been manipulated by scientists. Using genetic engineering, scientists can pinpoint beneficial traits in any organism, in terms of added nutrition, better flavor, or greater ability to fight pests or diseases, and incorporate them into other organisms. This is done by isolating a particular gene responsible for a trait in one organism, removing it, and then transferring it to another organism, where this same gene replicates itself, creating a stronger and more resilient strain of the same organism.
Although researchers have been employing genetic engineering techniques in agricultural crops since the mid-1980s, and media coverage of these developments has increased sharply in the past few years. Most people have little awareness of genetically modified foods and the controversies surrounding them. In a 2001 survey conducted by Penn State agricultural economists, 84 percent of those questioned said they either knew little or nothing about GMO foods, or hadn’t heard of them at all. Yet these techniques and products have already had an impact on our food system, from producer to consumer, and will continue to make their mark on the world’s food supply.
Statistics indicate that as much as 60% of the foods we purchase at the supermarket have ingredients that come from GMO’s. Since much of the genetic engineering thus far as been performed on corn and soybeans, this would then include ingredients such as vegetable oils produced from these crops. No matter how diligent one may be in isolating their household from genetically modified foods, it is most likely that all of our readers have consumed GMO – produced foods, in the form of vegetable oils and corn flakes, delayed-ripening tomatoes, and pest-resistant vegetables. GMO’s are ingredients in salads, pizza, baked goods, and many corn-based cereals. They will be consumed from grocery purchases, and in many restaurants and food stands.
While the future of genetic manipulation is uncertain, the business is booming and likely to continue. Pressing global needs to produce more food for a greater population, and producing it all from less agricultural land, implies the need for increased yields per acre. Crops that are less often destroyed by plant diseases, and animals that produce more lean meat for the amount of feed they consume are just two factors being heavily addressed in genetic engineering for agriculture.
There is a vast amount of land yet on the globe not being farmed. Future decades will likely see the clearing and development of such lands to meet global food requirements, but environmental pressures from many limit such development. Genetic engineering has proven an affordable short term solution.
So what are the risks? What will be biotechnology’s long-term effects on the environment? By altering nature through genetic engineering, are we coming dangerously close to playing God? Many of these questions may never be answered. But just as hybrid technology of our grandfathers made its debut to the rejection of many (and doubled yield output at the farm level) genetic engineering will eventually become accepted by the public…. . even if the risks are somewhat vague.
-Tom Clouser, Madisonburg, PA
Tom Clouser is a 38 year old farmer in Pennsylvania. In addition to farming, he and his father publish a monthly 16-page newspaper called “Trees ‘n’ Turf", which targets subjects of interest to those in land use industries and activities. View their website at http://www.clouserfarm.net