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Genetic engineering – just scratching the surface

A common misconception of genetically-engineered crops is that they benefit only the biotechnology companies that create and market them, implying that GE crops are in some way being forced on us. While biotechnology companies have no doubt profited from the huge investments they’ve made in genetic engineering – at quite a financial risk I might add, it’s naïve to believe that farmers, wildlife, the environment and humanity haven’t gained as well.

For farmers, pest-resistant crops have significantly reduced pesticide sprays and increased yield and yield consistency. In the future, drought-resistance, salt-tolerance and other traits will help crops deal with changes in climate and the effects of local weather.

Other crop enhancements are on the way that could unlock yield secrets and create greater efficiency in fertilizer and water use for farmers, while improving the environmental footprint of their farming operations.

That’s not all.

Ireland’s agricultural agency, Teagasc, has developed a potato with genetically engineered blight resistance. Once it’s approved, it could do away with a disease that typically destroys a fifth of the world’s annual potato harvest.

Researchers have also developed a genetically engineered papaya cultivar resistant to papaya ringspot virus. The papaya is approved for consumption in the United States and Canada.

Genetically engineered Bt eggplant resists the advances of the fruit and shoot borer, which typically takes up to 40 percent of the eggplant’s annual production.

Today, there are six varieties of virus-resistant squash and zucchini, which are engineered to be resistant to two viruses.

To say that humans are not directly benefiting from genetic engineering is preposterous. Genetically engineered tobacco plants for example, were critical in the development of the experimental drug ZMapp, which is being evaluated as a treatment for the deadly Ebola virus.

For children in Africa, where Vitamin A is the leading cause of preventable childhood blindness, a bowl of genetically engineered golden rice can supply 60 percent of a child’s daily Vitamin A needs.

As for wildlife, significant increases in per-acre output provided by genetic engineering can help preserve sensitive lands and wildlife habitat by keeping them out of production.

If consumers can ever let go of their irrational fear of genetic engineering, perhaps subsistence farmers in foreign lands can use biotechnology to improve their lot as well. Today, these farmers are often torn between two impossible scenarios – adopt genetic engineering to improve their production and efficiency and lose markets due to ginned up GMO panic, or stick with outmoded practices to make sure they have a place to sell their products.

Misunderstanding usually accompanies the advent of a revolutionary technology, but resistance typically dissipates as benefits become too substantial to ignore. Acceptance of genetic engineering has been slow, but we have just scratched the surface of what it can do.


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