Hi-tech food for a Hi-tech world
Bioengineered crops (also known as genetically modified organisms or GMOs) have been grown for nearly two decades and have proven to have many on-farm benefits including less pesticide use and a smaller impact on the environment. Beyond that, GM foods help decrease food waste and can even offer consumers greater nutritional value in some cases.
Humans have been modifying plants for centuries using various methods of plant breeding and selecting for desired traits. Bioengineering (a.k.a. genetic engineering, biotechnology, gene modification) is just one of the ways we can modify the genetics of a plant. The benefit of using bioengineering is that it can achieve the desired trait with much greater accuracy than other plant breeding methods.
Why modify plants at all?
Crops can be bioengineered with specific “traits” that are beneficial for the farmer, the consumer and/or the environment. A trait is a specific characteristic – just like some flowers are purple and some are red, some plants can be more resistant to threats than others.
Many people think crops grown through bioengineering, or GMOs are bigger than non-GM crops, or taste or feel different, but the truth is that genetic engineering isn’t yet used to make crops grow bigger or to look any different than their non-GM counterparts.
Beneficial GMO traits include:
- Insect resistance. This trait provides farmers with season-long protection against certain insects and reduces the need for pesticide applications, thus decreasing environmental impact and the cost of growing food.
- Drought resistance. GM crops that are drought resistant can grow in much drier areas without irrigation, conserving water and other environmental resources.
- Herbicide tolerance. Crops that can tolerate specific herbicides allow farmers to fight weeds by applying herbicides when needed without damaging the crop and enable them to use no-till production methods that preserve topsoil, prevent erosion, and reduce carbon emissions.
- Increased/enhanced nutritional content. One example of this is high-oleic soybeans which are genetically engineered to have an enhanced oil profile, much like olive oil, made to be longer lasting and trans fat free. Golden rice (recently approved in the U.S.) is bioengineered to contain more beta carotene – a vitamin A precursor that can help people in third world countries who are suffering from deficiencies. One day, we may even have a peanut without the protein that causes allergies!
- Disease resistance. Through genetic modification, the Hawaiian papaya industry was able to recover from the devastating papaya ringspot virus that had crippled the industry.
Ten crops have genetically modified (GM) varieties available commercially in the U.S. See the list and learn more from farmers and other experts here.