Corn is one of the most important and plentiful crops that we grow for food. We rely on it for our agricultural needs and it consists of 95 percent of total feed grain production and use in the United States. During recent years, there has been a lot of controversy on the use of GMOs and genetically modified corn. Genetically modifying corn can have great benefits for crop growth and production but may also contribute to unknown consequences and effects on the environment. Before we dive into it, let’s first take a quick look at an overview on GMOs.
What Are GMOs?
The term GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) refers to an organism whose DNA has been changed or modified through the use of genetic engineering technology. GMOs are often altered with DNA from another organism such as plants, animals, bacteria or viruses.
In the food industry, plants and crops such as corn have been genetically modified through different scientific techniques to give them desirable traits such as improved growth, sustainability and resistance to pests.
The use of GMOs are very controversial; while the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and USDA have all deemed GMOs safe for human and animal consumption, there are still some concerns around this (especially when it comes to allergies and illnesses) and their potential effect on the environment.
History of Genetically Modified Corn
The first genetically modified food approved for release was the Flavr Savr tomato in 1994. Shortly after that, the first genetically modified corn was released in 1996 and grew increasingly popular due to its insect resistance and herbicide tolerance.
The methods of planting and growing corn have changed many times over the past centuries. Before genetic engineering, farmers used hybrid corn (crossbred corn), which was introduced in the early 1930s. In 1934, less than 0.5% of farmers in the U.S. planted the hybrid corn seeds. However, ten years later, the number increased to 59% and continued to rise steadily until in 1956, when almost all of the corn fields in the U.S. and Canada were using hybrid corn. This method had increased corn yield to an average of 20%.
It wasn’t until the late 20th century when big biotechnology corporations such as Monsanto and Lubrizo bought out major hybrid seed research and production companies to begin experimentation with genetically modified crops.
While experimenting with crops to increase plant vigor, these genetic modifications gave rise to a lot of resistance from consumers who questioned the safety of these alterations. However, genetically modified corn has become a valuable source of food and by 2018, 92% of corn planted in the United States was GMO corn.
Advantages of Genetically Modified Corn
Genetically modified corn can be extremely beneficial for the resistance, growth and yield of crops, as well as provide additional nutritional value. Here is a list of some of the advantages of using genetically modified corn:
- Nutrition: provides additional nutritional benefits as the corn can be infused with different vitamins and minerals to help certain populations around the world that may have vitamin or mineral deficiencies.
- Growth: studies have shown that GM corn produces a greater yield of corn; over 25 percent increased yield compared to non-GM corn.
- Pest Resistance: the Bt gene (taken from bacteria known as Bacillus thuringiensis) produces a protein only toxic to certain pests and insects, and it is often genetically engineered into the corn.
- Herbicide Tolerance: it is genetically engineered to withstand being sprayed by multiple herbicides such as glyphosate-based herbicides.
- Drought Resistance: the corn can be modified with genes that help survive stressful conditions such as droughts.
- Less Preservatives: GM corn can last longer without the need for chemicals (preservatives) to be added in order to increase its shelf life.
- Ease of Farming: lowers the cost for farmers (and consumers) because there is a greater yield and increased growth through harsher conditions.
71% of US farmers have said that the main reason they adopted genetically modified corn is that it increases their overall yields. Genetically modified corn can be engineered to have multiple traits to improve the vigor of the crop and can even be altered to enhance its taste and appearance to make the product more appealing to consumers.
Disadvantages of Genetically Modified Corn
While there are many benefits that come from using genetically modified corn, it is also important to consider the drawbacks and implications. Below are some of the potential disadvantages of using genetically modified corn:
- Allergens: genetically modified corn may trigger allergic reactions for people because it contains foreign genes from another organism.
- Cancers: there is currently no research that links GMO food to cancer, however some people are still concerned that it may increase the progression of cancer from the DNA mutations in the corn.
- Long-term Health: there is currently no data on the long-term effects of GM corn on human health.
- Changing the Landscape of Croplands: cross-pollination of GM corn can affect other croplands nearby and interfere with their development of non-GMO corn.
- Affecting Other Species: there’s a risk that the added/modified genes could affect animals or plants aside from just the ones that the scientists meant to target.
- Environmental Concerns: there are other environmental concerns, such as the fact that GM corn is resistant to herbicides, which could lead to the development of new weeds that are also resistant to herbicides.
- Not Labeled: in the U.S. and Canada, it is not mandatory to label genetically modified food so consumers may be unaware that they are purchasing genetically modified corn or other GMOs.
Genetic engineering is not specific, precise or predictable because there is still a lot we don’t know about genes. Over 60 countries around the world have placed significant restrictions or bans on the production and sale of GMO’s. Although the current research suggests that genetically modified corn is safe, there is still a lot of concern about the potential long-term safety issues for human consumption and the environmental impact from the genetic alterations being made to these crops.
There are both many benefits and drawbacks when it comes to utilizing genetically modified corn. While it can increase the crop yield, growth, and nutritional value, there can also be unintended consequences on the environment and human reactions, and more long-term research is required.
Corn is a very valuable crop that yields plenty of nutrition to feed our growing world population so it is important to discuss the implications of these genetic alterations and how we plan on proceeding with the future of genetically modified organisms.