Latest posts by H. Sterling Burnett (see all)
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Approximately 800 million people on planet Earth are currently malnourished, and 2 billion additional people are expected to populate the world by 2050. Only the widespread embrace of bioengineered or genetically modified (GM) crops and animals can solve the persistent problem of hunger and lessen the impact of pest-borne diseases without doing untold damage to the environment.
Unlike crops and breeds of animals developed through traditional crossbreeding techniques, genetically modified organisms are among the most extensively studied scientific subjects in history.
That is why the National Academy of Sciences, Royal Society, World Health Organization, American Medical Association and in fact all major research bodies that have looked into the health and safety of genetically modified organisms have endorsed their use.
Despite these endorsements from scientific organizations, environmental extremists would deny the world the benefits of biotechnology, arguing “Frankenfoods” pose phantom risks.
Let’s look at just a few of the genetically modified organisms that could soon be alleviating hunger, lessening the impact of disease, and reducing peoples’ impact on the environment.
The first GM animal cleared for commercial sale
Fish protein is very beneficial to human health. Scientists studying the matter argue people should eat more fish. However, the world’s fisheries are overharvested, with many species in decline. In the United States in particular, a number of salmon subspecies are at risk. With this in mind, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently approved the genetically engineered AquAdvantage salmon as the first genetically altered animal to be cleared for commercial sale. This salmon reaches commercial maturity in half the time of wild salmon, using 25% less feed in doing so. FDA’s approval came after a long process of study beginning in the 1990s, making AquAdvantage possibly the longest-studied and most thoroughly tested and vetted food product in FDA’s history.
In making its decision, FDA determined the AquAdvantage salmon is as safe to eat as any other Atlantic salmon, and also as nutritious. According to The New York Times, William Muir, a professor of animal sciences at Purdue University, echoed the views of many researchers in applauding FDA’s long-awaited decision: “The current practice of using wild caught salmon as a food source is not sustainable; our oceans are overfished. This development provides a safe and sustainable alternative.”
Another potential biotech breakthrough comes in the form of the lowly moth. The diamondback moth annually causes as much as $6 billion in damage to Brassica plants, including cabbages, broccoli, and cauliflower. The moth is particularly harmful because it can spread so rapidly, reproducing in less than two weeks with each female laying up to 150 eggs. Farmers currently battle diamondback moth eruptions with massive amounts of broad-spectrum pesticides, which can also harm beneficial pollinators such as bees.
A UK-based biotech company is producing an alternative solution to reduce the amount of crops lost to the moth. Oxitech has developed a genetically modified version of the diamondback moth with a special gene that causes female young to die before reaching adulthood. As the females die out, the population cannot reproduce, and it collapses. The self-limiting GM diamondback moth being tested at Cornell University could dramatically reduce the use of potentially harmful pesticides. The reduction in pesticide use would be good for farmers, those who handle crops, consumers and the environment.
Researchers are also fighting the spread of tropical diseases by genetically modifying mosquitoes. Oxitech has developed a self-limiting GM version of the yellow fever mosquito, a pest known for transmitting a number of diseases besides yellow fever, including dengue fever and chikungunya. The modified mosquito has been tested in Brazil, the Cayman Islands, Malaysia and Panama, and the results have proven so promising the modification has received commercial approval in Brazil.
Helping those in the real world
Researchers at two California Universities have genetically engineered a mosquito they hope will help conquer malaria, a disease that claims more than 600,000 lives a year and persists as a chronic illness in millions more. In research spanning 20 years, biologists at the University of California–Irvine inserted into mosquitoes genes from mice that provide them a strong immune response against the malaria-bearing Plasmodium parasite. The modified mosquitoes passed on their new malaria-resistance genes to only about half their offspring. Combining this work with that of scientists from University of California–San Diego, scientists built a set of genes using a gene-editing tool that produced, within just a few generations, a cohort of mosquitoes 99% of which have malaria resistance and thus, do not transmit the disease to humans.
Right now, many of the world’s leaders are prattling on in Paris about how they can save lives and protect the planet by controlling the weather 100 years from now. But in the real world where people are dying today due to hunger, disease and lack of access to modern energy systems, intellectual and commercial entrepreneurs manipulating plant and animal genomes are solving real-life problems. These innovators will be the true benefactors of humankind and Earth–so long as we don’t allow environmental panic-spreaders to stop this good work.