This blog was originally based on a course ran by Professor Nick Gray of the Trinity Centre for the Environment at Trinity College Dublin who also wrote a textbook for the module Facing up to global warming: What is going on and what you can do about it. Now working as an independent consultant, Nick continues to work in the area of environmental sustainability and looking at ways of making a difference without recriminations or guilt. Saving the planet is all about living sustainably.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Use of genetically modified crops to achieve a sustainable future

Genetic engineering is a technique in which specific traits or genes can be transferred from one organism (e.g. an animal) into an alternative other such as a plant. The resulting entity is called a genetically modified organism or GMO.

Optimizing agriculture is a key aspect in achieving a sustainable future. Currently industrial agriculture in the developed world has negatively impacted global warming through greenhouse gas emissions from fertilizer and pesticide use and extensive deforestation.

Presently the favored strategy in combating these detrimental farming practises is organic agriculture. While this tactic is “environmentally friendly” its main pitfall is that its rationale isn’t entirely realistic at a global scale. Relying on ecological processes and the rejection of pesticides runs a risk of crop disease epidemics which devastate yields. In addition plants relying on organic nutrition would result in a peak capacity for production which unfortunately would not meet the exponentially growing world populations requirement for food.

Genetically modified crops are quite advantageous in agriculture offering increases in crop yields and quality as well as reductions in the requirement for pesticides and fertilizers. Genes which confer for disease resistance provide food security for farmers in an ever competitive market. For example introduction of the insecticidal protein gene from the bacterium Bascillus thuringiensis allows crops such as corn to be insect resistant which subsequently negates the requirement for pesticide utilization.

Along with increased yields these advancements would allow for optimization of self sustainable economies and self efficient countries in my opinion. GMO would be beneficial for small time farmers providing them with the materials to grow a range of crops that can then be then sold locally. Substantial yields would allow reductions in prices for these local products that otherwise could not compete with large scale farmers. This would reduce the requirement of importations (where other countries may have the ideal climate for the traditional seed or can grow them at a high level and therefore sell them cheaply) and since each country could potentially grow a range of crops to meet the needs of the public exportations would also decrease as well. Taking this as a whole our carbon footprints, both personal and all inclusive, would be drastically reduced.

Controversial issues that surround GMOs are typically catalysed by bias media reports which scare an ill-informed public. One such example is the fear of ‘horizontal gene transfer’ i.e. genetic transfer between organisms. The main problem here is that this would result in resistant organism promoting the risk of disease outbreaks. In reality this risk is actually quite low. The phenomenon occurs naturally but also rarely and it has yet to be simulated in an optimized lab environment. In addition I believe the concern of its negative impact for ecological organisms pales in comparison to the detrimental consequences of our currently employed methods of spraying herbicides and pesticides religiously and broadly.

Therefore I am personally in favour of the employment of GMOs into agriculture practice in order to reach the ever tantalizing goal of sustainable living.

Robin Burns

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