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What Are the Positive Aspects of Genetic Engineering?

by Daniel Walton

In the debate over genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, critics like to deploy the evocative label "Frankenfood"; like the literary monster, genetically engineered foods are cast as unnatural products of science with the potential for great harm. Yet GMOs, also like the monster, are often misunderstood, and the scientific evidence suggests that genetic engineering can help solve many of the problems facing modern agriculture.

Decreasing Pesticide Use

The bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis possesses a gene that allows it to produce a protein toxic to the European corn borer, a problematic pest of maize. Through genetic engineering, the DNA required for the production of this toxin has been introduced into a number of corn varieties, designated as Bt-corn. These varieties effectively make their own pesticides, sparing farmers the expense of spraying their fields and mitigating agricultural pollution in the environment. The toxin is also highly specific to the corn borer and has no effect on mammals, birds or fish, reducing concerns about off-target impacts that are often associated with pesticides.

Supplementing Nutrition

The residents of many developing countries experience vitamin A deficiency; an estimated 1.15 million children die from the condition each year, and many more suffer blindness or reduced immune system functioning because of it. The Golden Rice Project has used genetic engineering to develop a variety of rice that produces beta-carotene, a vitamin A precursor, in a process called biofortification. Farmers who grow the golden rice will be able to ensure that their families and communities get the necessary amounts of the vitamin.

Increasing Yields

The positive impacts of genetic engineering aren't limited to plant foods. AquAdvantage salmon, developed by AquaBounty Technologies, is an Atlantic salmon variety into which a growth hormone gene from Chinook salmon has been inserted. This additional gene causes AquAdvantage salmon to mature in approximately half the time of the unmodified variety, allowing for the production of twice as many fish in the same period. Farming the salmon could help fishermen meet rising global demand for seafood without leaning more heavily on stressed ocean fisheries.

Protecting Against Environments

Environmental variability, particularly drought, has the potential to devastate crop yields, and global climate change may increase the likelihood of such extreme events. In preparation, the biotech company Monsanto has employed genetic engineering to develop "DroughtGard" maize varieties, which contain a gene from the bacterium Bacillus subtilis that reduces the plant's water requirements in its early growth stages. Although the varieties still require sufficient water during the reproductive stage, the bacterial gene helps to keep the corn healthy until this period.

About the Author

Daniel Walton is a Cincinnati-based science writer whose articles have appeared on the blog Sword of Science and the Internet science hub Real Clear Science. He holds a Master of Science in crop science from the University of Illinois and grows a substantial vegetable garden in his backyard.

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