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Developing Transgenic Agriculture for a Growing Population


There is a hot debate going on today about something exceptionally ordinary: the food we eat. This debate surrounds the use of transgenic agricultural practices in the production of food that is to be consumed by humans. Although some believe that the slight DNA alterations involved in transgenic technologies pose inherent threats to people, the potential benefits to the ever-increasing worldwide populace are extensive. The question of whether or not transgenic agriculture should undergo further development must be addressed, because the Earth is currently supporting more people than it ever has, and our population continues to grow.

As global citizens, we should be concerned about decisions regarding the future development of transgenic agriculture, because food shortages may arise as the human population increases. Recent estimates of the human food-based carrying capacity are around ten billion, which means that our planet can sustain about ten billion people with its current food resources. A Cornell study warns that by the end of the twenty-first century, the human population may reach the twelve billion mark, which means that the next two generations could inherit a global food crisis (“A. D. 2100”). To forestall this potential disaster, scientists are currently working on methods of slightly altering the genetic makeup of agriculturally significant plants, such as corn and potatoes, to increase the overall harvest of these crops. The cultivation of transgenic crops will fortify the growing human populace by reducing malnutrition, promoting self-sufficiency, and conserving farmland.

Although the term “transgenic agriculture” may seem vague, the science behind it is quite simple. Transgenic technology involves “altering the genome so that a permanent change is effected” (Nicholl 224). The permanent alteration of the genome via transgenic processes involves the insertion of just one or two genes from one species into another, thereby creating more favorable characteristics, such as pest resistance or improved nutritional content in plants. Farmers have been using selective breeding techniques to cultivate better-quality plants for ten thousand years, producing gradual genetic modifications in most plant species currently used in food production (Chassy et al. 2). Modern transgenic techniques are, therefore, just amplifications of age-old agricultural practices that may provide new nutritional benefits to our growing population.

Transgenic techniques could be used to introduce favorable nutrients, such as vitamins, into staple foods, which may result in a large-scale reduction of malnutrition. To put malnutrition into perspective, at the end of the twentieth century, statistics revealed that about 30% of the human population had a daily caloric deficit of up to six hundred and fifty calories below the daily-recommended value (“Disposable Planet”). This means that it would take about eight hundred days for a one hundred fifty pound person to weigh nothing. However, caloric consumption is only one piece of the puzzle; adequate vitamin intake is also nutritionally fundamental. A multinational scientific committee, which included members of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, assessed that, “in addition to food, deficiencies in micro-nutrients (especially Vitamin A, iodine, and iron) are widespread” (3). The absence of Vitamin A in the diets of small children can have tragic developmental consequences; they could actually die. The World Health Organization draws attention to studies that have shown that the introduction of Vitamin A into deficient areas actually cut the rate of infant mortality by 23% (“Vitamin A”). Therefore, it may be possible to save the lives of many innocent children by utilizing transgenic processes to insert the gene for Vitamin A into the plants that provide food in deficient areas. In addition to Vitamin A, the genes for other desirable nutrients could also be introduced into plants to potentially produce extensive improvements in worldwide nourishment.

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Millions of malnourished people throughout the world could benefit from the simple insertion of a few vitamin-coding genes into their everyday food. However, as research scientist Fagan contends, organisms that have been bred using transgenic techniques may undergo alterations that could diminish their nutritional value (qtd. in Bakshi 218). Then again, due to the natural variability of metabolic changes, they could just as likely favor the production of higher quantities of nutrients. In addition, recent research with transgenic tomatoes indicated that the addition of a metabolic modifier yielded fruit that had higher levels of vital nutrients, such as Lycopene and Vitamin C, than unmodified tomatoes (Oke, Pinhero, and Paliyath 163). Transgenic refinements such as this could lead to the successful integration of many vital nutrients into food that malnourished people might someday be able to harvest for themselves.
The promotion of self-sufficient farming is another benefit of transgenic technology, which would provide people in developing countries with the opportunity to harvest their own food. Although the quality of farmland in each country is unique, there are usually native crop species suitable for cultivation. A research team led by Nigerian scientist Kuta explained that millions of Africans were once fed by what are called Africa’s “lost crops” (581). The lost crops are dietetically significant plant varieties that have been agriculturally neglected, and one of the most significant of these is called Fonio. Fonio is a cereal crop that is particularly low yielding and vulnerable to pest invasion, but it has traditionally provided millions of African people with a valuable food source. The research suggests that the transgenic alteration of Fonio may increase its pest resistance as well as improve yield, resulting in the increased availability of locally grown foodstuffs for the people of Africa (580-585). Therefore, the transgenic resuscitation of crops such as Fonio might help alleviate famine in some areas of Africa through the reintroduction of traditional farming practices.

Having the ability to farm small plots of land for self-sustenance could also reduce the need for international famine relief programs in developing countries. Famine relief programs have come under scrutiny lately, as some corrupt officials may be absconding with the food that is intended for the severely malnourished. Being able to maintain small family or community farming plots could allow impoverished people to bypass these obstacles in obtaining food. In 2006, at an international conference on biotechnology, former US President Bill Clinton spoke on behalf of transgenic technology for this purpose:

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I did support the development of genetically engineered [transgenic] crops.
…I think the use of agricultural technology, which uses less fertilizer, takes better care
of the soil, increases productivity, and could be transfered at low cost through seeds to
poor farmers in developing countries is a good thing. We need more people to be able to grow
their own food and feed themselves. (qtd. in Sayler 2)

As President Clinton explained in this passage, the use of transgenic agriculture may provide the impoverished citizens of developing countries with a means of self-sustaining food production. This may be especially important in some parts of Africa, where small minorities may squander food from the marketplace, leaving the majority hungry and, in some cases, starving to death. The introduction of transgenic seeds to these regions may provide millions of starving people with a chance to practice sustenance farming, which would likely conserve farmland, as well as reduce the occurrence of famine in those areas.

Through the conservation of existing farmland and the possible transformation of arid wastelands, transgenic agriculture may promote the preservation of environmentally significant woodlands. As the world population increases, arable land will likely become scarcer, which means that it may become necessary to clear tracts of forest to obtain more farmland. Although shortages of arable land may not present a problem in the US, in other areas of the world, such as China, the scarcity of farmland is already becoming problematic. At an International Conference on Agricultural Engineering, Fanxi explains that the practice of deforestation to create new farmland in China is resulting in the loss of 3000 million cubic meters of wood per year, placing natural woodland processes such as “water regulation, soil holding source of genetic diversity, and provision of clear air” at risk (I-84). This combination of factors could generate many adverse outcomes, such as the reduced availability of drinking water, and increased air pollution. Transgenic technology could eventually be used to engineer plant species that could be grown in hostile desert climates, such as those found in parts of China, thereby preserving woodland areas (Fanxi I-85). Potentially, the cultivation of transgenic crops in desert areas may even have the effect of humidifying arid soils so that they may be available for future generations to farm.

Ultimately, due to the rapid expansion of the human population, we have a responsibility to protect agricultural soils in environmentally sensible ways that will help sustain future generations. Since agriculture gradually strips nutrients from the soil, a natural decrease in topsoil quality could occur over time. The development of transgenic technology could potentially help preserve valuable topsoil by creating beneficial conformational changes in the chemistry of the soil in which crops are planted. However, Altieri, of the Department of Environmental Science at UC Berkeley, claims that toxins from transgenic corn have been detected in the soils of cornfields following harvests, and that these particular toxins could potentially spread to neighboring farms, thereby contaminating the soils of farms that do not grow transgenic corn (18-19). Although a small amount of genetic intermingling amongst similar species occurs naturally, an international consortium of scientists, including members of the
U. S. National Academy of Sciences, asserts, “there is no consensus as to the seriousness, or even the existence, of any potential environmental harm from GM [transgenic] technology” (20). Therefore, with proper testing, agricultural soils could someday be safely enriched through the use of transgenic technology, to be enjoyed by future generations.

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Through the development of transgenic technology, future generations may realize significant enhancements to their living standards. These improvements include the potential for widespread nutritional improvements, the ability to practice sustenance farming, and the preservation of environmentally important woodlands. Although some people believe that transgenic foods are unwholesome, the development of transgenic technology could directly impact over a billion people worldwide, by providing them with local access to nutritious food, while maintaining the integrity of the environment. The human population is expanding, and transgenic technology could help ease the burdens on future generations.

Works Cited

Altieri, Miguel A. “The Ecological Impacts of Transgenic Crops on Agroecosystem Health.”

Ecosystem Health 6 (Mar. 2000): 13-23.
Bakshi, Anita. “Potential Adverse Health Effects of Genetically Engineered Crops.” Journal

Of Toxicology and Environmental Health B.6 (2003): 211-225.
Chassy, Bruce M., et al. “Crop Biotechnology and the Future of Food: A Scientific Assessment.”

CAST Commentary 2 (2005): 1-6.

Disposable Planet? Food Stats Bank. 2005. BBC News. 25 Jul. 2006
Fanxi, Meng. Impact of Transgenic Crops in Developing World Agriculture. Proc. of 99
International Conference of Genetic Engineering, Dec. 1999, Beijing. Beijing: China Agricultural University, 1999.
Kuta, Danladi D., et al. “Potential Role of Biotechnology Tools for Genetic Improvement of

‘Lost Crops of Africa’: the Case of Fonio (Digitaria Exilis and Digitaria Iburua).”

African Journal of Biotechnology 12.2 (2003): 580-585.
National Academy of Sciences. Transgenic Plants and World Agriculture. Washington: National

Academy Press, 2000.
Nicholl, Desmond S. T. An Introduction to Genetic Engineering. Cambridge: Cambridge

University Press, 2002.
Oke, Moustapha, Pinhero, R. G., and Paliyath, Gopinadhan. “The Effects of Genetic

Transformation of Tomato with Antisense Phospholipase D cDNA on the Quality

Characteristics of Foods and Their Processed Products.” Food Biotechnology 17.3

(2003): 163-182.
Sayler, Tracy. “Clinton Discusses Applications of Biotechnology at BIO 2006.” ISB News

Report May 2006: 2.
Segelken, Roger. “A. D. 2100: Study Predicts Miserable Life on Overcrowded Earth.” Cornell

News Service Homepage. 30 Sept. 1999. Cornell University. 28 July 2006

Vitamin A. 2002. WHO.INT. 25 Jul. 2006