This speech is mostly based on this video by Kurzgesagt - In a Nutshell, on GMOs. After watching the video, I decided to do some readings about GMO. To me, one of the most frustrating things in life is living in a misinformed society that prevents progress. There are too many people with irrational fear about GMO or technology in general. People like the folks at Kurzgesagt are making things better by creating high-quality science videos with fact-based content. I hope I can do the same to help more people understand science.
I delivered this speech to Earth Aware Toastmaster club and fulfilled the CC7 (Competent Communication Module 7 - Research your topic).
(Start of the speech)
Today I want to talk about one of the most misunderstood technology that has high potential to really help us protect our environment and dampen climate change. It’s GMO, or genetically modified organisms.
For thousands of years, people had been selectively breeding crops and animals. Selective breeding means that we planted seeds from the trees that beared more fruits, and we bred the wolves that were more friendly to us. We were able to do this because that every living being has different DNA, making them look different from each other. If we plant the seeds from a watermelon that has more meat, we more meaty watermelons. And then we do that again with our new watermelons. Over time, we get this (show pictures). You see, domesticated crops are very different from the wild ones.
Almost every crop and animal we see today is the result of thousand of years of selective breeding. You can see from these pictures, and think of how different dogs look like from the wolves. We have been tweaking the DNA slowly over the past thousand of years by selectively breeding the plants that are “better” for us. Bigger, sweeter. But this take times, and is essentially trial and errors. Using genetic engineering, we can create GMOs without going through thousand of years. So why are so many people concerned about GMOs? Due to the time, I’ll just go through a few concerns people have about GMO crops specifically.
Is GMO safe? There has been about 30 years of science done on this topic and yes, GMO is safe. It’s not riskier than the non-GMO. When food enter your digestive system, it’s broken down into smallest unit of proteins, minerals and vitamins. The DNA of the food itself has nothing to do with it.
But what about the plants that have been engineered to be toxic? BT crops is a type of crops that contain a gene that let the plant produce a protein that is toxic to some larva and insects. Some people think that this is terrible. The plant itself has poison that kills insect that take a bit on it. But in fact it’s fine. Poison is really a matter of perspective. For example, we eat chocolate and drink coffee, but we don’t feed that to our cats and dogs. In this case, the chemical in BT plants that kill the insect is completely harmless to us. With the BT plant, we can use less pesticide and have better yield.
In Bangladesh, eggplants are very important crop, but they often get destroyed by pests. To save the eggplants, the farmers often had to use a lot of insecticide. This was expensive and they could get really sick. In 2013, they started planting BT eggplant. And they were able reduce the pesticide they use by 80% and raise their income dramatically. A similar example was the papayas in Hawaii in 1990s. There was a virus that almost wiped out the entire papaya industry. But with GMO, that’s why we could still enjoy papaya in Hawaii.
Scientist are also developing engineered plants that can get nitrogen from the air. Why is this important? Plants need nitrogen to grow, and nitrogen is a big part of fertilizer. However, fertilizers pollute the groundwater. Nitrogen also is a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. Plants that collect their own nitrogen solve those two problems. We won’t need as much fertilizer and thus agriculture can be more affordable for developing countries, and it help slow down climate change.
Besides this, with this technology we can also made plants that can absorb carbon dioxide from the air efficiently. For example, American chestnut trees take up a lot of carbon dioxide. But they’re dying off because of fungus infection. If we can engineer them to be even more efficient at it, and make them resilient to fungus so they don’t die off, then we have a great tool at combating climate change.
Scientists are also working on plants that are drought-resistant and water resistant. Because of climate change, weather is becoming more extreme and unpredictable in some parts of the world. With drought and flood resistant plant, we can really reduce the agriculture loss in these parts of the world, and for others, we might not need as much water for the farmlands.
You might have also heard GMO crops that have been genetically engineered to be more nutritious than the non-GMO. However, there are so much negative sentiments surrounding GMOs so they haven’t become popular. For example, golden rice is a rice that has high vitamin A content. It was developed to solve the vitamin A deficiency, which kills about 100,000 people every year. However, many protesters, including GreenPeace, are against it, even though more than 100 Nobel Laureates have signed a letter to support Golden Rice. From reading articles online about GMO, I found that people are either concerned about GMOs because of 1) not really understanding what GMO is, or 2) they are concerned about big corporations with this technology controlling our food supplies. The second thing definitely is something we need to figure out if we want GMO. But that also points out that GMOs themselves are NOT the enemy here. Much of the criticism should be about our system of agriculture and food industry. We must keep that in mind.
GMOs is an ally for the future. The world is eating up 11 million pounds of food every day. By 2050, the United Nations estimated that we will need 70% more food! We can cut down more forest to create farmlands and pastures to feed ourselves, or we can use what we already have and use GMOs crops. The crops that produce more nutritious food in greater quantity. The crops that are resistant to climate change and do not need pesticide and fertilizer. GMO could be our new organic food that help save our biosphere.
(End of the speech)