in Nature, November Writing Challenge, Science

5 Benefits of Genetically Engineered Crops That Have Nothing to do With Pesticides

With the world’s population growing and the impacts of climate change we need to find new ways to feed people.

Genetically engineered (GE) crops, also known as GMOs, aren’t the only method we have available to us but they are an important tool. Here’s a few ways genetic engineering could help us grow better food, and more of it.

1. Increased yields and tolerance

An obvious place to start on our mission to grow more food is to bump up the amount of food each plant produces, and open up new areas of farmland that were previously unsuitable.

A study last year found that a tobacco plant engineered to photosynthesise more efficientlygave 20% greater yields. That’s a huge improvement and the team are already working on integrating similar modifications in staple crops like rice and soya.

There are already GE crops in fields with improved tolerance to poor conditions. For example a project in 13 African countries has shown significantly improved yields when planting drought-tolerant maize, and salt-tolerant crops are being developed to help ease the problems caused by saltwater contamination of farmland.

2. Reduced food waste

Food waste is a problem. A big one.

One way of helping is to reduce minor cosmetic blemishes like bruising and browning. Products like Arctic Apples and Innate Potatoes are good examples of this.

Another way is to actually extend the shelf life of the produce. A GE tomato has been developed which showed significantly slower softening than conventional tomatoes, for example.

3. Improved nutritional profiles

As well as growing more food, we can look at improving how much nutrition it provides.

Vitamin A deficiency is a huge problem. It’s estimated that a quarter-billion preschool children, mostly in Africa and south-east Asia are affected by it each year and that up to half a million children will lose their sight because of it, with half of those dying within twelve months.

Many ways of tackling the problem have been attempted, with mixed results. Genetic engineering can help by improving the vitamin A content of food like bananasrice or sweet potatoes.

4. Disease resistance

Like humans, plants are susceptible to disease.

In Hawaii the papaya crop was almost wiped out completely by disease before the GE Rainbow Papaya was introduced.

Uganda is currently experiencing a similar problem with bacterial banana wilt threatening the food security and livelihood of the people who rely on it as a staple crop. A GE banana that is resistant to the disease is being developed to alleviate the problem.

Other examples of GE crops with disease resistance include soy beans, cereals, and potatoes which are resistant to the disease that caused the Great Famine in Ireland.

5. New and improved medicines

There is one medicine you probably know of which is produced via genetic engineering – the insulin used by diabetic people. That’s produced from a GE bacteria rather than a crop, but research is being done into ways GE crops could bring similar benefits.

There is already a medicine produced from genetically engineered carrot cells, and research is ongoing into ways we can use GE crops to produce vaccines and other therapeutic agents.

Other non-plant medical applications of genetic engineering include a GE parasite that could form the basis of a malaria vaccine and a GE mosquito that could help fight Zika.

Final thoughts

The problems above are complex and will likely require a multi-pronged approach. GE crops are just one of the options available to us, but they are likely to play an important role in our future food production.

There may be bumps in the road ahead, but the potential benefits of GE crops are huge. Proper regulation and testing of new products is needed of course, but the evidence we have so far shows no cause for concern, and the potential benefits are huge.

Header image by Jake Gard. This article was originally posted on BuzzFeed.

This article was written as part of my November writing challenge, a NaNoWriMo-inspired attempt to write one short, snappy article a day in November. Please excuse brevity, but let me know if I’ve missed anything important!