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Ted Talk, A Positive Twist on GMOs: Benefits and Pros of Genetically Engineered Agriculture

Living in the San Francisco Bay Area, you are probably aware of the GMO debate that’s been stirring around and causing quite a commotion among our agriculture and restaurant industries. If you haven’t heard, GMOs stand for Genetically Modified Organisms, often coming in the form of plants or produce, that have been engineered by scientists to grow differently than how they naturally came to be. Many people protest that this is unnatural and the way scientists engineer our food is unhealthy to our bodies and harmful to the environment. However, plant geneticist Pamela Ronald is here to prove them wrong.

Ronald’s TED Talk on “The Case For Engineering Our Food” paints an insightful and well rounded picture of the benefits of modifying our crops. Her balanced opinion comes from years of research and evidence and she proves that genetically engineered agriculture can save lives and produce sustainable farming. Currently, she is the director of the Laboratory for Crops Genetics Innovation and a professor at the Plant Pathology and the Genome Center at University of California, Davis. Pamela Ronald co-wrote “Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics and the Future of Food” with her husband, Raoul Adamchak, an organic farmer. Her laboratory work on genetically engineered rice has created a crop resistant to flooding and diseases that are massive problems for residents in Asia and Africa, where rice is a main source of subsistence. Seventy million farmers struggle with growing rice in such harsh environments but Ronald’s crop, Sub1, can withstand prolonged periods of flooding and grow stronger than ordinary rice crops. Thanks to her genetic enhancing, the rice industry in these areas can grow more efficiently and produce more steady flow of food for the area.


In her TED Talk, Ronald describes how most food we consume has been modified to some extent. From bananas to corn to eggplant to brussel sprouts, virtually everything we consume has been modified to some degree from its original state. Breeders have used various techniques to create the food we consume today including, but not limited to grafting, mixing two species together, and random mutagenesis, inducing uncharacterized mutations.


Many types of engineering has to do with taking genes from viruses and bacteria and implanting them into the genes of plants, which most people argue against for fear of catching the virus through the food. However, this can be the cheapest, safest, and most efficient way to advance sustainable agriculture. Ronald gives three major examples where this type of genetic engineering does more help than harm. In Hawaii, the Oahu papaya industry was almost destroyed because of papaya ringspot virus. Dennis Gonsalves, a plant pathologist, used some viral DNA in the papaya and ultimately saved the entire industry. There is no other solution to this day, and 80% of Hawaiian papayas are genetically engineered. In addition to saving this crop, many jobs were secured as well.


Ronald’s second example comes from Bangladesh, where severe use of pesticides dangerously threatens the lives of many farmers and consumers of the eggplant industry. Around 300,000 people die every year due to this misuse of pesticides, including many children who spray them on the crops. Pesticides used to be the only option for these farmers because their pest infestation infected the eggplant crops and rendered them unsafe. By injecting the eggplant with viral genes to fend off pests, Bangladeshi farmers can reduce their usage of insecticides by almost one hundred percent and thereby reduce the harm from using such dangerous chemicals.


Finally, Ronald’s third example of genetic engineering helps fend off malnutrition in less developed countries. Because of a lack of Vitamin A, 500,000 children go blind every year in places like impoverished Africa. Through a genetically engineered golden rice that produces beta-carotene, a major provider of Vitamin A, one cup a day can potentially save thousands of lives. However, due to vehement opposition to GMO practices, activists destroyed a trial site in the Philippines last year and are severely inhibiting the possibility of such a life-saving crop. Pamela Ronald wondered if the activists understood the cost of their actions.


While there may still be miles of improvement ahead, Ronald guarantees that the genetically engineered products consumed today are safe, reliable, and efficient. Backed by major and well-trusted scientific organizations and independent scientists and from twenty years of close study, genetically engineered crops on the market today are proven to be safe. With many big problems ahead of us, including climate change and overpopulation, finding ways to make more weather resistant, sustainable, and accessible food supply is a major concern. Pamela Ronald wants “to help nourish the growing population without further destroying the environment” and is working to help support a brighter future with full stomachs and a greener world.

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