This is not a guide about whether GMOs and genetic engineering technology are right or wrong to use and create.
That is a separate question.
Rather, this guide focusses on what GMOs are used to do/achieve currently, and why they may be, and may not be needed for the future.
Why Do We Need GMOs Into The Future?
There are still questions about GMOs about their short term and long term effects on people, animals, and the environment and ecosystem.
But, the possibilities with GMOs about how they may benefit society are wide ranging.
With food in particular, GMOs have the potential to help feed our growing population – which is expected to reach around 9 or 10 billion by around 2050 (however, because we already produce enough food for that number of people – people point to fixing up food loss in developing countries with cold food storage technology, and decreasing food waste in developed countries as better solutions).
Genetic engineering can help with the future of food production.
For example, depletion of freshwater resources and climate change/global warming are two issues that are expected to grow in significance into the future (and are already fairly significant).
GE can help crops and foods be more resistant to water droughts – which can make agricultural growing conditions much easier on farmers when considering these two issues.
GE can also help increase yields and help food last longer before it spoils – so there can be more food and that food will take longer before it goes to waste – both of which can be helpful in feeding a growing population.
These are just a few examples of how we might need GE into the future, but there are many more examples of how GE can be useful to us as a way to combat other problems we may have.
- Conservative estimates suggest that the human population will surpass 9 billion by 2050. The actual figure could be closer to 10 billion. Either way, this will require a massive shift in the way we lose or waste food, or we will need to boost food production to feed that many people.
- Crops that are more adaptable to varying climate conditions and less vulnerable to pathogens and other pests will be significant pieces of the puzzle.
- “We can’t control the fact that the population is increasing or that there is a finite amount of agricultural land — land that is decreasing in quality overall,” … Some people have fears about large-scale industrial agriculture and GMOs, and that’s why we should also be looking at things from the viewpoint of sustainability.”
- Pests and diseases aren’t the only concerns driving the development and use of genetically modified crops.
- Changing global average surface temperatures are also making farming more challenging worldwide.
- … some food crops are naturally ill-equipped to handle the added environmental stresses, ranging from not enough rain to unyielding cold spells.
- “Since we are dealing with narrow genetic and germplasm bases for most of our staple food crops, we may have to reach out to genetic engineering technologies and genes from other sources to improve them further,” … “Otherwise, we may run out of options.”
Why We May Not Need GMOs In The Future
Some sources have a differing view on a need for GMOs into the future.
Organicconsumers.org and Earthopensource.org both outline reasons why a heavy reliance on GMOs might not be necessary.
‘there is no need to take risks with GM crops when effective, readily available, and sustainable solutions to the problems that GM technology is claimed to address already exist. Conventional plant breeding, in some cases helped by safe modern technologies like gene mapping and marker assisted selection, continues to outperform GM in producing high-yield, drought-tolerant, and pest- and disease-resistant crops that can meet our present and future food needs.
The quality and efficacy of our food production system depends only partly on crop genetics. The other part of the equation is farming methods. What is needed are not just high-yielding, climate-ready, and disease-resistant crops, but productive, climate-ready, and disease-resistant agriculture.’
As mentioned above, addressing the issues of food waste and food loss in both developed and developing countries are also ways to address the food production vs population increase problem.
What Are GMOs Currently Being Used For?
Food & Crops
- Insect Resistance – against pests for example
- Drought Tolerance – better moisture retention, can better endure drought conditions, and need less irrigation from freshwater sources
- Herbicide Tolerance – tolerate specific herbicides, allows farmers to fight certain weeds better, and allows farmers to use conservation tillage production methods that preserve topsoil, prevent erosion, and reduce carbon emissions.
- Disease Resistance – against diseases that are known to damage or wipe out certain foods and crops. This saves profits, waste and increases yields
- Enhanced Nutritional Content – can increase nutrition profiles with fats, protein and calcium for example
- Reduced Food Waste – reduce browning and bruising of foods like potatoes and apples
- Improved Manufacturing Processes – more efficient biofuels production by improving the process through which cellulose and/or starch is broken down and converted to fuel
- Bacteria have been used in the production of food for a long time
- Specific strains of bacteria have been developed and selected for that work on an industrial scale to produce a large amount of proteins
- There’s potential to treat diseases by genetically altering the bacteria to, themselves, be therapeutic agents
- Bacteria have been used for over a hundred years in agriculture
- Other uses for genetically modified bacteria include bioremediation, where the bacteria are used to convert pollutants into a less toxic form, and Bioart (a type of artwork with bacteria)
- Viruses are often modified so they can be used as vectors for inserting genetic information into other organisms.
- As of 2016 two genetically modified yeasts involved in the fermentation of wine have been commercialised.
- Transgenic plants have been engineered for scientific research – plants are engineered to help discover the functions of certain genes
- Transgenic plants have been engineered to create new colours in plants
- Transgenic plants have been engineered to create different crops – for production of biopharmaceuticals in bioreactors as opposed to cultivating plants in open fields
Crops (food, and fibres/seeds like cotton)
- Plants used in agriculture – this is a widely used practice – especially in the US
- In most cases the aim is to introduce a new trait to the plant which does not occur naturally in the species.
- There’s also development of cisgenic (sometimes called intragenisis) plants in the works too
- Genetically modified organisms have been proposed to aid conservation of plant species threatened by extinction
- This remains speculative though
Currently being developed in six main categories:
- to research human diseases (for example, to develop animal models for these diseases);
- to produce industrial or consumer products (fibres for multiple uses);
- to produce products intended for human therapeutic use (pharmaceutical products or tissue for implantation);
- to enrich or enhance the animals’ interactions with humans (hypo-allergenic pets);
- to enhance production or food quality traits (faster growing fish, pigs that digest food more efficiently);
- to improve animal health (disease resistance)
- Transgenic animals are used as experimental models to perform phenotypic (observing traits and characteristics) and for testing in biomedical research.
Human therapeutics and xenotransplants
- Within the field known as pharming, intensive research has been conducted to develop transgenic animals that produce biotherapeutics.
- Some animals are also genetically modified so that they can provide organs that are suitable and safe to transplant into humans (xenotransplants).
Food quality traits
- Animals have been genetically engineered to produce certain traits in the food products or by products they produce
- For example, Goats have been genetically engineered to produce milk with strong spiderweb-like silk proteins in their milk.
- Animals have also been GE’d to change the way they digest to be more environmentally friendly too
Human gene therapy
- Gene therapy, uses genetically modified viruses to deliver genes which can cure disease in humans.
- To conserve certain types and species of animals
- Genetically modified fish are used for scientific research – in genetics and development
- Genetically modified fish are used as pets – such as the Glofish,
- Genetically modified fish are being considered for use as food – in the aquaculture industry to increase the speed of development and potentially reduce fishing pressure on wild stocks. Salmon (by AquaBounty) is a fish that has been approved for marketing in the US. Trout and tilapia are other fish types that are under development
- Genetically modified fish are being developed to detect aquatic pollution.
- Genetically modified frogs are used for scientific research and are widely used in basic research including genetics and early development.
- In biological research, transgenic fruit flies are model organisms used to study the effects of genetic changes on development.
- In 2010, scientists created “malaria-resistant mosquitoes” in the laboratory.
- A strain of Pink Bollworm has been genetically engineered to express a red fluorescent protein.
- Cnidaria such as Hydra and the sea anemone Nematostella vectensis are attractive model organisms to study the evolution of immunity and certain developmental processes.