MIT Technology Review makes ‘green’ argument for genetically modified food

mag cover environmentalx
Image via MIT Technology Review

The latest issue of MIT Technology Review, “Buy Fresh Buy GMO,” dives into the GMO debate by making the case that genetically modified food can lead to greener, more sustainable farming practices.

David Rotman, in the cover story, writes that advances in genetic engineering have allowed scientists to more precisely tweak a plant’s genome, providing enormous sustainability benefits.

These advances are fueling research in finding ways to combat plant diseases—such as potato blight, which wipes out a fifth of the world’s potato crop every year. Ewen Mullins of Teagasc, Ireland’s agricultural agency, is currently field testing a GM potato created to fight off the fungus that causes the disease. Though Teagasc has no intentions of releasing the potato to farmers in the near future–GM crops are very controversial in the EU–it represents a new generation of genetically modified crops that could benefit the consumer directly.

The story is accompanied by a video of researcher Mullins testing a GM potato.

Genetic engineering can also benefit farmers in the face of global climate change. Between 1980 and 2008, climate change depressed yields of wheat and corn. Yields still rose during that time, but overall production was two to three percent less than it would have been without global warming. What’s worse–farmers haven’t adapted to the rising number of extremely hot days. In terms of average yields, productivity has been steadily rising. But if you look at sensitivity to extreme heat, says Wolfram Schlenker, economist at Cornell University, it seems just as bad as the 1950s.

At University of California-Davis, plant scientist Eduardo Blumwald is creating crops by inserting genes for tolerance to heat, drought and high soil salinity in the hopes of giving them at least some advantages during extreme weather conditions.

“There’s no cure for drought. If there’s no water, the plant dies. I’m not a magician,” he says. “We just want to delay the stress response as long as possible in order to maintain yields until the water comes.”

Jason Pontin, MIT Technology Review’s Editor-in-Chief, writes in an editorial, GMOs are green, that genetically modified food could lead to reduced use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers.

Outside the very poor world, all farming is industrial. That’s because even organic farmers are frightened of the blights and diseases that can destroy a harvest or covey, and they think about nothing more than increasing the yield from their land. Organic farming today isn’t what the original founders imagined.

Recent breakthroughs in genetic engineering could allow a greener and more sustainable way of farming. New technologies allow one gene to be transferred from one organism to another, as the Bt genes expressing a toxin poisonous to bugs were inserted into corn, soybeans, eggplant and cotton.

Perhaps a new order of GMOs where plant geneticists accelerate the traditional work of plant breeders will seem less freakish to consumers. Perhaps, too, the new crops will seem greener: high-yield, disease-resistant, hardy GMOs will allow farmers to use pesticides and fertilizers less, which is truer to the organic ideal.

Read the full issue here: Buy Fresh Buy GMO

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