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Religion & Liberty: Volume 28, Number 2

GMOs, CRISPR and the fight against hunger

Then God said, ‘Let the earth sprout vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees on the earth bearing fruit after their kind with seed in them’; and it was so.”

–Genesis 1:11

Thus began humanity’s reliance on the earth and its bounty for sustenance, aesthetics and a persistent reminder of – in the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins – “God’s Grandeur.”

The Jesuit priest and poet cast a cold eye on humankind making a hash of the environment. He further asserted that the encroachment of civilization has disconnected Earth’s inhabitants from the natural world.

Hopkins depicts the majority of humankind as oblivious to God’s presence throughout nature and further unaware that God’s handiwork will endure despite human ineptitude or natural disasters. Such temporal matters are usurped by God’s concern for all His creation, which is divinely nourished and protected: “Because the Holy Ghost over the bent/World broods with warm breast and ah! bright wings.”

However, there are times when widespread drought and other weather events and pestilence destroy carefully cultivated agricultural crops. The economic impact on farmers can be devastating, while the societal impacts are potentially apocalyptic.

Human efforts to either alleviate the negative impacts of pests and droughts or simply increase crop yields for a growing population have obsessed farmers for centuries. Among the most beneficial – and seemingly controversial, especially for proponents of organic farming practices – methods to relieve such worries has been the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

However, GMOs might soon become yesterday’s technology as new genetic methods are making impressive inroads throughout the planet. Specifically, Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR), a method of cross-breeding techniques both old and new, is making enormous strides – even in some of the planet’s most difficult growing environments.

GMOs and the precautionary principle

The use of GMO seed has resulted in significant gains when it comes to feeding the world’s hungry affordably and with little to no threat to environmental sustainability. However, despite no research to support opponents of GMOs, many of them subscribe to the Precautionary Principle. In short, those who adhere to this principle often state that some technologies are too recent to comprehend eventual long-term results on humans and the environment.

More than 60 countries prohibit or limit the sale or growth of GMO crops. Several well-funded groups, including GMO Inside, a coalition of nonprofits affiliated with Green America, are dedicated to convincing corporations and the public at large to move from GMOs to what they consider to be more sustainable solutions.

However, Blake Hurst, writing for The National Review in March, reported: “Meanwhile, back at the lab, a recent Italian paper reviewing over 6,000 studies and 20 years of data found that genetic modification has increased corn yields anywhere from 6 to 25 percent, while decreasing the presence of cancer-causing mycotoxins by a third. Another recent study found increased production in corn, soybeans, and canola resulting from the use of GMOs.”

Hurst is referring in the first instance to a June 2017 Genetic Literacy Project study, “Impact of Genetically Engineered Maize on Agronomic, Environmental and Toxicological Traits: a Meta-Analysis of 21 Years of Field Data”, conducted by four Italian academic researchers: Elisa Pellegrino, Stefano Bedini, Marco Nuti and Laura Ercoli.

Key findings of the analysis were reported by GLP writer Paul McDivitt:

  • GMO corn varieties increased crop yields 5.6 to 24.5 percent relative to their non-GMO equivalents
  • GMO corn crops had lower percentages of mycotoxins (-28.8 percent), fumonisins (-30.6 percent) and thricotecens (-36.5 percent), all of which can lead to economic losses and harm human and animal health

The second study cited by Hurst was released in June 2016 by United Kingdom-based PG Economics. The study concluded that GMOs improved environmental stability and resulted in an estimated $100 per hectare (roughly 2.5 acres) benefit. According to the study:

“Two-thirds of these benefits derive from higher yields and extra production, with farmers in developing countries seeing the highest gains”, said Graham Brookes, director of PG Economics and co-author of the report. “The environment is also benefiting as farmers increasingly adopt conservation tillage practices, build their weed management practices around more benign herbicides and replace insecticide use with insect resistant GM crops.” Worldwide economic benefits of GM crops have reached $150 billion, according to the report, “GM Crops: Global Socio- Economic and Environmental Impacts 1996-2014.”

Brian Baenig, executive vice president for food and agriculture for the Biotechnology Innovation Organization, stated the report’s findings regarding biotechnology’s contributions to the environment are especially significant.

“Crop biotechnology has reduced pesticide use by almost 581 million kilograms”, reported Baenig. “In addition, farmers are spending less time on the tractor, burning less fossil fuels, which ultimately reduces carbon dioxide emissions.” Additional benefits include improved soil quality and reduced need for harsh herbicides.

An interesting twist on the GMO debate occurred in February, when the Des Moines Register reported that Iowa State University researchers released a report revealing that Russia had been planting negative stories about GMOs. This revelation may explain much of the negative perceptions of GMOs.

The ISU researchers, already looking at how U.S. media portrayed genetic engineering and biotechnology, decided to include GMO news articles published on the U.S. versions of RT and Sputnik, news sites funded by the Russian government…. RT accounted for 34 percent of GMO-related articles among the seven sites; Sputnik articles made up 19 percent. The researchers also found RT and Sputnik used “GMO click bait” embedded in articles that most people would consider “negative or distasteful” to create an intentional negative reaction.

The CRISPR revolution

Regardless of the probability of GMOs being a safe and environmentally sound agricultural option, its days might be only one weapon in science’s arsenal to defeat world hunger. CRISPR technology, which combines cross-breeding of plants with gene-splicing, has thus far proven itself invaluable in farmers’ fights against harsh environments and pests.

Kevin Scott, a farmer from Valley Springs, South Dakota, and secretary of the American Soybean Association (ASA), also serves as a member of ASA’s Biotech Working Group. He is the fourth generation of his family to work the same farmland and says he anticipates passing it on to a fifth generation.

Scott said he’s been planning GMO corn since 1996. “We used a corn hybrid because of an infestation of corn borers”, he said, referring to the European corn borer that is estimated to cost U.S. farmers more than $1 billion annually. “We had been spending a tremendous amount of money on treatments, but found the GMO seed to be a great fix.”

After 1998, Scott said he began using GMO seed to counteract weed issues. He began using the corn seed, but followed suit with his bean crops in subsequent years. “Prior to the GMO seed, I was spending $40 per acre on chemical controls that didn’t work”, he said. “Afterwards, I only had to spend $10 per acre.”

Scott added that although the “system worked well for 15 years, weeds are extremely smart, and developed a resistance to the Round-Up Ready.” He said CRISPR techniques offer a faster path forward.

Nearly as impressive is the rapid growth of the wheat, which is ready for harvest in only 92 days.

Explaining the course of natural selection over past centuries, Scott said CRISPR “speeds up the process by turning off or on genes as needed.” He acknowledged it “was a fairly crude process at first, but we’re far more precise now. It’s kind of old school, somewhat similar to comparing flip-phones to today’s smartphones.”

The benefits of CRISPR extend well beyond America’s Heartland. The Guardian’s Dylan Curran reported in March that CRISPR wheat is revolutionizing food production in, of all places, sub-Saharan Senegal. Scientists tested “thousands of wheat varieties” during a four-year test period before developing wheat that can flourish despite heat hovering consistently above 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

They did this through experimentation with contemporary breeding techniques and seeds from both modern and ancient wheat strains in what the lead scientists on the project described as “genome fingerprinting research.”

Curran notes that wheat is traditionally considered a cold-weather crop indigenous in the Northern Hemisphere. “If you can grow it here, you can grow it anywhere”, Dr. Filippo Bassi from the International Centre for Research in the Dry Areas told Curran. Bassi worked on the project with Professor Rodomiro Ortiz from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences.

Nearly as impressive is the rapid growth of the wheat, which is ready for harvest in only 92 days. Further, the wheat yield is six tons per hectare (slightly less than 2.5 acres), and requires less water and provides “five times more protein, as well as more vitamins and minerals” than Senegalese rice.

Currently, Senegal imports nearly $37 million of wheat per year. According to Icarda, the CRISPR-developed wheat possesses the potential to increase local production of pasta by an estimated 1,900 percent. An additional benefit is that straw can be harvested once the wheat is collected – straw that can be used to feed or bed livestock and is sometimes used as a base for building material.

Humans have made great strides when it comes to developing new means to feed the world’s hungry while, at the same time, serving as worthy environmental stewards. We have witnessed a tremendous 50 percent reduction in extreme world poverty over the past quarter century and might soon live in a world where starvation for most is but a memory.

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Bruce Edward Walker, a Michigan-based writer, writes frequently on the arts and other topics for the Acton Institute.