Firstly vegetables contain genes that make them grow green, so that they can photosynthesise. I have been eating green vegetables for over half a century and these genes have yet to make me turn green. Except after one particularly vicious vindaloo………
Secondly most things we eat are already genetically engineered. Selectively bred by farmers over millenia to give the characteristics the market wanted and to immensely increase food yields. Wild grasses became our modern wheat, barley and oats. Wild animals were totally transformed for food production, just compare wild boar with a domestic pig.
Thirdly it has been common practice to create new plant varieties using radiation or chemicals to create random mutations, these are then grown and some turn out to be useful. From 1930 to 2014 more than 3,200 mutagenic plant varietals have been released for widespread use. So you have certainly eaten lots of genetically mutilated food already. In 2014 the FAO/IAEA reported that over 1,000 mutant varietals of major staple crops were being grown world wide. Golden Promise barley (semi-dwarf, salt tolerant mutant created with gamma rays), used to make beer and whisky, Rio Star Grapefruit, Calrose 76 Rice (short height rice induced with gamma rays), Creso wheat, RD16 and RD6 (aromatic indica rice mutant created with gamma rays), Osa Gold Pear and many more. Nobody has been killed or even faintly harmed by all this genetic modification.
Man’s ability to understand and manipulate genes has grown unbelievably. It cost $3 billion to sequence the first human genome and took from 1990 to 2003. Now, using a computational pipeline called Churchill, efficient analysis of a whole genome sample can take as as little as 90 minutes. Also using techniques like CRISPR it is possible to modify a genome just as it is possible to use Microsoft Word to edit a document. Last year Chinese researcher Gao Caixia used this to create a strain of wheat that is resistant to powdery mildew. The new strain lacks genes that encode proteins that repress defenses against the mildew. The researchers just deleted all three copies of the genes from wheat’s hexaploid genome.
So what can we achieve with genetic engineering?
The use that most people know is making crops resistant to one particular weedkiller. They can then be sprayed and everything else that isn’t the crop is killed. This vastly helps agriculture’s aim to grow monocultures, increasing yields to feed more people and reducing or eliminating the needs for other forms of intervention.
But there is so much more that can be achieved. Here are just a couple of examples. Plants need nitrogen in the soil in order to grow, planting crops means that this nitrogen has to be constantly replaced. We apply over a hundred million tons of fertiliser every year to achieve this. But some plants make their own soil nitrogen, with nodules of nitrogen fixing bacteria that capture it from the air. These are the legumes: kudzu, clovers, soybeans, alfalfa, lupines and peanuts, also a few non legumes. If the genes for nitrogen fixing can be identified and incorporated into other staple crops such as grains then we will have a lot more food and it will be a lot cheaper to grow, whilst the huge environmental impact of extracting and transporting so much fertiliser will be removed.
A second example are salt and drought resistance. Through the action of nature and of man vast areas of the earth’s surface are unsuitable for economic crop production. But some plants do live in these areas because they have evolved to grow there. We can extract the genes from these salt and drought resistant plants and add them to staple food crops. The increase in mankind’s ability to grow foods would skyrocket. And less pressure would be put on the destruction of valuable ecosystems like rain forests, marshlands and coral reefs.
So as you can see the upsides from genetic modification of our foods is immense. In fact it would be utterly immoral not to do it when it would relieve so much suffering in the world. Also the environmental and ecological benefits are potentially huge. In addition to the benefits already mentioned, GM modification for getting rid of diseases will massively reduce the currently huge amounts of noxious chemicals sprayed on our land and on our food, whilst greatly increasing the amount of food produced. It would take a fool not to want all this.