By Miku Suga, '22
Before the first genetically modified (GM) plant was introduced in 1983, ancestral farmers that knew nothing of genes and inheritance had been selectively breeding their crops for thousands of years. They closely observed each vegetation, hand picked, and crossed those with the desired features, i.e. the high yielding, weather-tolerant, well-adapted palatable crops. The genes for these traits were passed on to the offsprings, and the repetition of this process over many generations increased the frequency of this desired genes among the population. As demand generating competition incentivized the development of better crops, agriculturists turned to other farming techniques: interspecies crossing, hybridization, and eventually when the technology emerged, genetic engineering. 
What is genetic engineering and how does it work on plants? Genetic modification is simply a process of removing a specific gene from an organism and inserting it into a new host. First, the required gene is cut from a DNA of the original plant, duplicated, and inserted via vectors (often bacterial DNA or viruses) into the chromosome of the new cell. They are then cultivated and cloned, producing plants that now have acquired the desired traits. These genes may also be manufactured from scratch using free DNA bases that has been sequenced in a particular order, and it can even be transferred across different domains, i.e. from bacteria to plants. A hefty amount of enzymes are used in this process.
Ever since our first GM plant, tobacco, was introduced, farmers have been adopting this engineering technique faster than any other crop technology. Herbicide-resistant strains were introduced in 1996. Oil seed rape and canola, grown globally, can now be sprayed with herbicide, killing unwanted weeds that compete for light, space, and resources, but not the plant itself.  Insect-resistant crops appeared not long after, resulting in the creation of commercial crops such as maize and cotton which can produce their own insecticides. These plant strains contained a gene that produces Bt-toxin, which is essential in killing the insects that eats them though is harmless to other animals. They are protected against pests such as corn borer and boll weevil, that would otherwise eat its way up the stalk and leaves of the plants.
Though these GM plants have helped farmers increase their profit and efficiency of the cultivation, possible detrimental effects have been proposed by researchers. Herbicide-resistant crops itself could potentially turn out to be an agricultural weed that could compete with the wanted crops. Excessive use of GM insect-resistant plant strains may encourage faster evolution of insects’ resistance to insecticides, or could drive a population of an insect species reliant on the unmodified crops to extinction. Besides, there is also a potential risk of GM pollen traveling to the wilderness, resulting wild plants to be non-GM-free. 
Regardless of the potential problems that may come with the development, gene technology optimists’ further research successfully produced nutritionally-altered plants, e.g. Golden Rice and Golden Banana. Since rice and banana are staple food in certain communities where pro-vitamin A deficiency is prevalent, those that are GM would be able to carry orange pigments (beta-carotene) that produce high-concentration of vitamin A and iron.  Though these crops could be the solution to these low-income neighbourhoods, some activists argue that the government should first work on the larger issue of helping people out of poverty which would in effect allow them to have access to a more varied diet. Thus, along with other controversies, the use of Golden Rice and Banana is on hold.
Quantity as well as quality of food have improved ever since the introduction of GM technology, playing a key role in developing areas where food shortage is a serious threat to the country’s stability. Reduction in the use of expensive chemicals such as fertilisers and insecticides resulted from this, alleviating eutrophication (killing animal life underwater due to the lack of oxygen, caused by the sudden increase in algae and bacteria when excessive amount of fertilizers wash down from farmlands to lakes). The controllable ripening and softening of fruits, non-browning potato, modified starch composition of wheat flour, and enhanced oil content of seeds have also been made into reality.  So, how far can the GM technology actually go? Could it perhaps combat further, even larger, global issues? Imagine a plant that could absorb ten times the amount of CO2, reversing the greenhouse effect, consequently reducing global warming.  Imagine a single plant that contains an optimum nutrition for a human’s diet, which could be easily grown anywhere in the world, eliminating food/nutrition shortages. Imagine a plant that could ‘grow organic plastic’, terminating plastic production and pollution. As researchers are in the process of gaining information and activists are questioning its practicality and ethics, GM plants, just maybe, have the power to overcome world-wide issues in the near future.
1. National Research Council (US) Committee on Identifying and Assessing Unintended Effects of Genetically Engineered Foods on Human Health. “Methods and Mechanisms for Genetic Manipulation of Plants, Animals, and Microorganisms.” Safety of Genetically Engineered Foods: Approaches to Assessing Unintended Health Effects., U.S. National Library of Medicine, 1 Jan. 1970, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK215771/.
3. “Golden Rice: The GMO Crop Greenpeace Hates and Humanitarians Love.” Genetic Literacy Project, 29 June 2018, geneticliteracyproject.org/2018/02/13/golden-rice-gmo-crop-greenpeace-hates-and-humanitarians-love/.
4. Ronson, Jacqueline. “This Is How Genetically Modified Trees Will Save Us From Climate Change.” Inverse, Inverse, 25 Jan. 2017, www.inverse.com/article/26296-bunzl-genetically-modified-plants-geoengineering-climate-change.