The previous issue of the IPM Chronicle discussed recent findings from the National Academy of Sciences related to the safety of genetically engineered crops on human health and the environment. Now, the discussion turns to the recent developments and the potential benefits of such modern techniques to produce genetically modified crops. In order to fully understand the advanced techniques developed to design crops, it’s essential to understand past crop breeding methods.
Ever since humans domesticated plants to produce food about 10,000 years ago, they were continuously selected for desirable traits that occurred naturally. The field of classical plant breeding through cross-pollination witnessed rapid growth following the famous pea-plant experiments of Gregory Mendel who outlined the “rules of genetics” in the late 1800s.
As scientists began to understand that physical traits expressed was by virtue of genetic information, crude mutagens (agents that can alter the genetic sequence), such as radioactive rays or certain chemicals, were used to induce mutations to generate new varieties shortly after World War II. This was followed by plant tissue culture to induce and select desirable expressions. However, most of these methods were time consuming, cumbersome and often times dependent on trial and error.
Major row crops, such as corn, soybeans and cotton, are genetically engineered to tolerate pests, such as weeds and insects. These crops are able to tolerate herbicides but will kill weeds and/or are able to kill insects upon feeding on crop parts. Undoubtedly, these modern technologies are essential to keep up with the increasing demand for food and fiber; however, the safety of GE foods to human health, the environment and socio-economic implications are vital for their long-term adoption.
A consumer is often bombarded with mixed messages regarding the safety of GE foods. Claims and viewpoints related to the positive and negative effects vary widely. The National Academy of Sciences appointed a committee to perform a rigorous and scientific review of available information to address food safety, along with its environmental and socio-economic aspects. Their findings were released during the summer of 2016 in a 584-page report.