Golden rice, scuba rice and Bt corn: Can GMOs help mitigate climate change?


Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have long been a point of contention. But recent research and innovation points towards GMOs as a means of mitigating the effects and progression of climate change — could GMOs literally save the planet? 

A GMO is an organism that contains deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) that has been adjusted using genetic engineering to produce favored physical traits or abilities. For example, several species of corn, such as Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) corn, are genetically engineered to act as their own herbicide, which means they can target and drive away insects that try to eat them. As a result, fewer herbicides are used on the corn, and therefore less chemicals are released into the environment.

Despite environmental benefits such as decreasing chemical use, certain research shows that genetically modified foods (GM foods) have health risks. According to the National Library of Medicine, certain studies indicate that GM foods cause a variety of common health issues relating to the kidney, liver, pancreas and reproductive organs.

In terms of consumption, some health organizations have deemed GMOs safe. On their website, the Food and Drug Administration wrote, “The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) ensure that GMOs are safe for human, plant, and animal health.”

Despite this, general public distaste for GMOs seems to be grounded less in evidence but, according to Scientific America, rather in a feeling that food has been contaminated. Genetics Teacher Cole Larsen said, “Especially with the public, people have swung more towards the idea that the whole [GMO] process is dangerous just because there are some risks involved, but at the same time, people eat processed food all the time, which has been unequivocally linked to all sorts of health issues.”

This critical eye for GM foods is also a product of health food marketing strategies. Science Teacher Geoff Ruth said, “In my opinion … GMOs have been … wrongly targeted by environmentalists as universally bad. If you walk into a health food store, many are advertising GMO-free.”

In Whole Foods Market’s newsletter, published on March 8, 2013, they wrote, “Whole Foods Market has been collaborating with many of its supplier partners for several years to source products without GMO ingredients.” They then introduced their new line of guaranteed non-GMO products through the Non-GMO Project™, also encouraging their grocery supplier partners to do the same.

Contrary to health food advertising, GMOs can be beneficial for human health — even life-saving — rather than a poisonous force to be reckoned with. GMOs such as Golden Rice — a popular variety of rice — were invented as a means to supplement vitamin and nutrient deficiencies. In an interview with The Urban Legend, Dr. Stuart Strand, a retired civil and environmental engineer at the University of Washington, said, “[Twenty years prior to the production of Golden Rice], about a hundred thousand children went blind every year [in the Philippines] … [because] they didn’t get enough vitamin A, which is in Golden Rice.” 

However, the question of whether GMOs have more positive or negative effects on human health remains unanswered. Larsen said, “The debate oftentimes gets wrapped up in this idea of should we or should we not…but [GMOs are] all so different from each other. It’s really the kind of thing where you do need to do these case-by-case studies.”

Regardless of the contention surrounding GMOs and their consumption, there have been efforts to utilize GMOs in mitigating climate change. 

One way GMOs have been used in mitigating climate change is by decreasing carbon emissions by storing carbon beneath the soil. Discoveries in a study called “Correlating Genetically Modified Crops, Glyphosate Use and Increased Carbon Sequestration” by the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada found a potential link between herbicide-tolerant GM crops and increased soil carbon sequestration. This means that plants are taking more CO2 from the air via photosynthesis and using it as carbon to grow their cells. That carbon is now plant material, and if used in the roots, is stored underground rather than in the air where it contributes to global warming.

There are also specific GMOs, such as microalgae, that are able to take in more CO2 than other plants. When these GMOs take in the CO2, they then undergo photosynthesis like all other plants, using that CO2 to produce oxygen and glucose (sugar) for energy. The difference is the speed at which this GMO is able to photosynthesize, by more efficiently gathering CO2 and water. These GMOs then optimize those inputs to produce the maximum amount of outputs.

Certain GMOs are also more climate resilient, as Larsen put it. “A lot of regions in the world will either be receiving a lot more or a lot less rain than they traditionally have received,” he said. “So on one hand there’s this push to make crops that can tolerate at least the forecast of conditions that we are expecting to encounter, and also ways to make existing crops more environmentally friendly.”

Rice that can be produced untraditionally — where waterlogging paddy fields are not required — is a type of GM crop that can survive in areas with inconsistent weather conditions. Scuba rice, for example, can withstand flooding, and Green Super Rice can withstand high salt levels.

Looking at GMOs like Bt corn, Golden Rice and climate-flexible rice, it is clear that through developments in genetic engineering, creative efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change in the agricultural world could be effective. The technology to make change is right at our disposal. So, why are we not deploying these tools to combat climate change en masse?

“Because [GMOs] operate within a capitalist system, they are mostly being used in ways that are harmful … There is very little monetization that can happen with Golden Rice [for example] because you’re using it in order to provide nutrition for very poor people,” Ruth said. “There is no money to be made in making the world a better place.”