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Sustainable Agriculture vs. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs)

Sustainable Agriculture vs. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs)



Food security exists when all people at all times have physical, social, and economic access to safe, sufficient, and nutritious food, while food safety can be defined as the assurance that food should not cause harm to consumers. The increasing population and climate change are some of the biggest challenges to ensuring food security and safety around the globe. The increased population requires more land for residence infrastructure and other purposes, resulting in an increased burden on natural resources such as agricultural land and water. Productive agricultural lands are utilized for hospitals, schools, industrial areas, and other commercial uses, resulting in decreased yearly food production. According to reports from the United Nations, almost 12 million hectares of agricultural land are lost per year due to the uncontrolled population boom all over the world. Overpopulation disposes harmful industrial and domestic waste into agricultural lands and water resources, affecting food quality and safety and resulting in foodborne diseases.  Natural resources like water reservoirs are under great stress due to their increased demand for drinking and processing purposes by the large human population (current statistics are around 8 billion people); limiting their availability for agriculture and food production processes.

Similarly, climate change due to uncontrolled greenhouse gas emissions and an unwanted carbon footprint due to the misuse of non-renewable energy resources is also disturbing the world food supply chain. The disturbed climate and weather patterns disturb the crop’s growth patterns and limit their yield, making it difficult to feed large populations healthy and sufficient food. The extreme weather variations lead to increased growth of microorganisms in different types of food material, resulting in food spoilage and foodborne illnesses. For example, climate change has decreased the yield of maize by 11.6%, soybeans by 12.4%, and wheat by 9.2% due to increased temperatures and droughts, as reported by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Sustainable agriculture culture includes practices that limit traditional agricultural practices' environmental impact. Agroforestry, cover crops, integrated pest management, dairy waste management, hydroponics, aquaponics, etc, are some of the techniques maximizing the use of eco-friendly practices to not only conserve the environment and natural resources but also result in increased production of safe and adequate food. Genetically modified organisms are organisms inserted with the gene of interest to ensure increased food production with better resistance qualities, helping to overcome hunger and food safety issues. In the agriculture sector, genetic modification involves the production of better-quality crops with improved disease and pest control to maintain the world’s food supply chain requirements. Both sustainable agriculture and GMOs play a crucial role in increasing food production to ensure food security and limiting pest and disease attacks to ensure food safety.

This blog post aims to highlight the concerns about food safety and food security due to overpopulation and climate change. We will conduct a comparative analysis of sustainable agricultural practices and genetically modified organisms and their role in meeting the world’s food requirements and the production of safe and sufficient food for the increasing human population. We will try to figure out the societal concerns, scale of adoption, future directions, and innovations introduced in the above-mentioned industries. 


Sustainability MindMap Diagram

Sustainability MindMap Diagram

I-Sustainable Agriculture: Principles and Practices


Sustainable agriculture involves practices like water and soil conservation, limited use of synthetic and chemical fertilizers, use of renewable energy resources, and biodiversity preservation to promote a long-term healthy environment, improve crop yields with better resistance qualities, and preserve the integrity of arable land for future generations. Sustainable agricultural practices include crop rotation, organic farming, agroforestry, and integrated pest management. The ecological impact of sustainable agriculture involves improved soil and water quality, a reduced carbon footprint, and reduced GHG emissions to maintain the natural habitat and preserve biodiversity.

The economic dimensions can be estimated by increased crop production with high resilience, lower expenses on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and use of renewable energy resources. The societal dimensions of sustainable agriculture include fair labor practices, overcoming food shortages, and food safety for large human communities. According to the reports of the World Bank, the agriculture sector can help to overcome poverty and food security for 80% of the poor world population living in rural areas associated with farming, and sustainable agriculture practices are the driving factors in achieving this goal.

Crop rotation is one of the most widely adopted sustainable agriculture practices, and it involves the plantation of different crops on the same piece of land over a sequence of seasons. It helps in maintaining the nutritional profile of the soil and controlling pests and diseases. Organic farming is an agricultural technique that helps bring sustainability by eliminating the use of synthetic chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and genetically modified organisms to improve soil health, preserve biodiversity, and minimize the harmful impacts of conventional farming. Agroforestry is another technique to achieve sustainable development, it involves the integration of trees and shrubs into the crops to improve soil nutrition, mitigate unwanted climate changes, and support the farmer's finances by providing an additional income source.

Integrated Pest Management focuses on controlling pests by using biological methods such as natural predators or parasites, cultural methods such as crop rotation, and different chemical methods. It helps to lower the use of pesticides and their harmful impact on food safety and quality. All these practices are helping to improve the crop yield, enhance their resistant properties to combat pests and diseases, improve their long-term availability and shelf life, and lower the risk of foodborne diseases to address issues like food security and food safety accordingly.


Sustainability MindMap Diagram


Potential challenges:



1- Scalability:

The widespread adoption of sustainable agriculture has not achieved the desired success yet due to a lack of awareness among the farmers, a lack of accessibility to resources, and a hesitation in adopting innovative agriculture practices. Improved communication between farmers and authorities and the provision of adequate resources and information can help overcome this issue.

2- Yield gaps:

The yield gap can be described as the difference between the estimated or potential yield and the obtained yield of a crop. This difference usually occurs due to the inefficient use of resources, lack of information, limited use of technological advancements, and traditional farming practices. Such issues can be addressed by adopting new technologies, modern farming practices, and correcting the flawless use of natural resources. 

3- Economic viability:

Sustainable agricultural practices require high initial investments, and they take a long time to provide a potential output. Sometimes, it is not feasible to adopt sustainable agriculture practices to improve the conservation of soil, water, and natural resources, as there could be yield gaps resulting in very low profit as compared to the cost of production. Government policies and agricultural subsidies can help mitigate the economic issues.


Sustainability MindMap Diagram


II-Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs): An Overview



Genetically modified organisms are organisms with modified genetic characteristics that obtain desired results, such as increased productivity and enhanced disease resistance, through modern genetic engineering techniques. Genetic modifications are usually made in microorganisms, plants, or animals to get the beneficial products; genes of interest, or part of a DNA are inserted in the DNA of the test organisms, and these genes and desired DNA pieces replicate with the original DNA of the organisms when the transcription and translation processes for DNA separation and protein formation take place. These genes, when expressed themselves in the test organisms, produce the desired products they are capable of. The purpose of genetic modifications in plants is to improve productivity, pest and disease resistance, and resistance against harsh environmental conditions.

The use of genetic engineering in agriculture accounts for a 22% increase in the yield of crops, and a 37% decrease in the use of pesticides by introducing genetically modified crops. For example, there is an 11% boost in the yield of wheat, and the yield of corn has increased by 5.6 to 24.5% by using genetically modified corn varieties with lower levels of mycotoxin. These genetic changes are helping to improve and alter the nutritional profile of different crops Beta-carotene content in rice has been increased by genetic engineering, similarly, GMO soybeans with a healthier oil profile are being introduced. Crops with herbicidal and pesticidal properties are lowering the use of chemical insecticides; the use of GMO crops has reduced the use of pesticides by 8.6 percent between 1996-2018. Examples of insect- and herbicide-resistant crops include Bt corn, soybeans, cotton, HT canola, etc.


Sustainability MindMap Diagram


Public concerns and potential environmental risks:


Consumers have different perceptions about the use of GMO crops, their safety, and their long-term impacts on the environment. Consumers are usually concerned about the mislabeling of genetically modified foods as organic foods and the damaging effects of them on their health. The altered nutritional content, genetic changes, toxins, and the possibility of new allergens can pose serious damage to the different human organs and the overall health of individuals. Consumers are also hesitant to adopt new food innovations due to a lack of information. The potential environmental risks include the gene flow from desired crops to their relative wild plants, such as weeds, resulting in wild plants with herbicide tolerance. The gene flow from GM crops can be the result of cross-pollination between GM and non-GM wild plants or crops, increasing the risk of superweed development and increasing the use of herbicides for other crops. GM plants and crops can also hurt biodiversity. For example, the growth of monoculture crops over a large area can reduce other plant species, and these changes can disturb plants other than the target ones. GMOs badly affect soil microbial biodiversity, soil natural composition, and other natural resources.

Regulatory lands


Different regulatory bodies around the globe set different standards and make regulations for the use of genetically modified organisms for different purposes. Different countries have made regulatory frameworks for regulating the standards about genetically modified organisms; for example, in the United States, regulatory authorities such as the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture), EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), and FDA regulate the standards for GMOs. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) of the European Union and, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) of India approved the use and limitations for commercial purposes of GMOs. These authorities and regulatory bodies play an important role in the large-scale adoption of the modified advancements to overcome food security, food safety, and human welfare purposes.

The ethical debates and concerns about GMOs are:

1- Potential risks to human health

2- Negative impacts on the environment

3- limited use of conventional farming practices

4- Dominance of monoculture crops such as GM corn and wheat species


Comparative Analysis: Sustainable Agriculture vs. GMOs


Sustainable agriculture focuses on the conservation of biodiversity, improving soil health, and minimizing the impacts of conventional agricultural practices such as chemical fertilizers and pesticides on crops and the environment. It helps crops to mitigate challenges like climate change by lowering GHGS emissions and using less energy-dense practices, and it improves the overall resilience of crops to ensure food security and food safety. Meanwhile, genetic modifications involve the introduction of better-yielding crops highly resistant to pests and diseases to keep the food supply chain in order. The accessibility of sustainable agriculture practices is dependent on the availability of financial resources and the provision of adequate information, while GMO accessibility depends on governmental regulations and consumer perception, both of which play a role in overcoming food security and safety accordingly.

Sustainable agriculture implements the use of eco-friendly practices, limiting the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, promoting soil health, water conservation, and biodiversity, thus, they do not affect the safety of the food chain that much. Meanwhile, genetically modified organisms, although they increase food production and improve crops resistance to diseases and pests, pose health risks such as the introduction of new allergens and nutritional changes’ impacts on human organs. These practices have an impact on their surrounding environment to a large extent, as sustainable agriculture helps to improve soil health by adopting strategies like crop rotation and agroforestry to maintain a nutritional profile. It also helps to conserve water resources by utilizing them efficiently and to preserve biodiversity through the plantation of varieties of different plant species. On the other hand, GMOs can promote pest and herbicide resistance, increasing the use of pesticides and herbicides for non-GMOs and damaging soil integrity. The monocrop culture of GM crops can limit the cultivation of other plant species, affecting biodiversity.

The high initial cost of sustainable agriculture practices can limit their widespread adoption, but they have the potential to be the farmer’s preference as they improve soil health, conserve water resources, and bring sustainability to the environment. On the other hand, GMOS improves crop productivity and resistance against pests and diseases; their adoption is dependent on the cost of GM seeds and governmental policies. Sustainable agricultural practices are usually encouraged because of their eco-friendly features, conservation of soil and water resources, and reduced environmental impact. Consumers and society usually raise concerns about GMOs, such as the bad impacts on human health, the unnatural nature of these modifications, their ethical implications, and the limited preservation of biodiversity.


Sustainability MindMap Diagram


III-Case Studies and Real-World Applications:


Sustainable agriculture practices such as integrated pest management not only help in increasing crop yield to mitigate food security challenges but also improve the health of the concerned environment. For example, agroforestry, a sustainable agriculture technique in Malawi (a country located in southern Africa), was promoted by the World Agroforestry Centre. They implemented the agroforestry practices with native crops under the Malawi Agroforestry Food Security Project (AFSP) in the period between 2007-2011. This technique not only helped to increase the crop yield to mitigate the food security challenges of three-fourths of the population of Malawi but also helped to lower problems such as land degradation and deforestation to improve the health of the environment. Another example of sustainable agriculture practice is precision agriculture, adopted by Brazil in 1981, Advancements were introduced with time, and this technique involves the use of a GPS, sensors, and modern digital advancements like the Internet of Things and improved communication technologies to navigate the tractors, as well as the precise use of pesticides and fertilizers to limit their overuse and reduce their environmental impact. The grain production of Brazil accounted for up to 251 million tons produced over 65 Mha during the growing season between 2019 and 2020 to meet dietary needs and reduce the environmental impact of conventional agriculture practices.

Genetically modified organisms, such as GM crops, are yielding better production and have developed resistance against pathogens such as pests and diseases. A case study conducted on the development of golden rice by genetic engineering concluded that this development aimed to overcome the vitamin A deficiency by enabling the rice plants to carry beta-carotene in the kernels, which is usually present in the leaves and stems of the rice plant and which gets converted into vitamin A in the human body. This innovation led to the development of a rice variety with an improved nutritional profile, but it also faced criticism from the public and different organizations. Different organizations criticized this development because of the poor availability of golden rice where it was needed since 2002, when it was declared ready to be used. The consumers raised concerns about safety, as GM golden rice could have a bad impact on human health, and environmental impacts such as danger to biodiversity and other ecological issues. Most consumers perceived that it could be a monopoly to earn more profit and divert the public from other possible solutions for overcoming vitamin A deficiency. Another example is roundup soybean, a genetically modified crop that is herbicide-specifically tolerant of glyphosate.

Case studies in the USA showed that 91% of soybeans in the USA were genetically modified by the year 2007. This innovation led to agroeconomic benefits such as limited use of herbicides, a shift towards less toxic herbicides, and limited effects on the food chain as glyphosate is less toxic. However, there were concerns like the high cost of seeds, consumers’ demands for GM-free soybean products, and the harmful impacts of glyphosate on the environment, although it was less toxic.


Sustainability MindMap Diagram


IV-Future directions and innovations:


Advancements like sustainable agriculture practices and genetic modifications can collectively address issues like food security and food safety, and they can enhance the crop's abilities to mitigate problems like climate change and global warming. These innovations have the potential to lower the harmful impacts of agriculture on the environment, and increase crop productivity and resilience against pests and diseases to increase their overall survivability. For example, drought-resistant crop varieties are being produced by using CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats), a technology that involves the modification of the target DNA by introducing genes of interest, such as a gene that promotes water retention and efficient use of water during stressful conditions, improving the survival abilities of plants. The CRISPR-Cas9 system is being used for the development of drought-resistant varieties of rice, maize, cotton, canola, etc. to help overcome the scarcity and availability of water for the agriculture sector and to grow the crops in water-rare areas.

Government policies granting incentives and subsidies can help to promote responsible use and introduce modern advancements in sustainable agriculture practices and genetically modified organisms to avail themselves of their potential to overcome the challenges of food security, safety, and the environment. Governmental regulations should ensure the fair use of genetically modified organisms to lower their impact on the environment and biodiversity. The concerned authorities and departments should provide incentives to research the impacts of using GMOs and bring innovations in sustainable agricultural practices to ensure the sustainability and durability of the environment.

The ongoing research is helping to improve the performance of sustainable agriculture practices in terms of lowering the use of energy-dense practices, conserving water resources and biodiversity, and improving soil health. They help us point out the drawbacks and loopholes where there is still a need for improvements in the current agriculture technologies. They have also figured out the negative impacts of GMOs on the environment, defining the limits and boundaries for the large-scale adoption and utilization of genetically modified organisms.  Public awareness and the provision of adequate knowledge on the importance of sustainable agriculture and genetically modified organisms are also important, as they can help change their perception and help them make decisions. Public education can raise the urge to demand better and economically beneficial agriculture practices, and it can pressure businesses to make fair use of genetically modified organisms. The eco-friendly features of sustainable agriculture, like reduced environmental impact, improvements in soil water and biodiversity conservation, better crop yields, and a reduced burden on non-renewable energy resources, can help the introduction of modern innovations in this era.


 Sustainability MindMap Diagram



Key findings:


1- Overpopulation and climate change are the driving factors behind the food security and safety challenges across the globe.

2- Sustainable agriculture practices are helping to reduce the negative impacts of conventional agriculture practices on the environment and also to improve crop yield and resilience against unwanted climate changes.

3- Genetic modifications are resulting in crop varieties with better yields and enhanced resistance against pests and diseases to meet the increasing food demands.

4- Sustainable agriculture practices and genetically modified organisms can collectively overcome food security and safety challenges by enacting the efficient use of natural resources. 

5- Modern innovations in sustainable agriculture and the fair use of GMOs can help alleviate public concerns about these technologies.

6- Government policies, ongoing research, and public education can help with the widespread adoption and improvements in current technologies in both fields.

Call to action:


Sustainable agriculture practices and genetic modifications through genetic engineering are helping to improve crop yields, their resistance against pests and diseases, reduce environmental impacts, and conserve biodiversity by improving soil health and implementing efficient water use accordingly. Sustainable agriculture has the potential to reduce the devastating environmental impacts contributed by the use of synthetic chemical fertilizers and pesticides, which lead to the emission of GHGS, damaging the soil and water quality in their manufacturing processes and also when they are applied on agricultural fields. Genetically modified organisms are helping to overcome food security and food safety issues by introducing high-yield crops with improved nutritional profiles.

Although there are some issues and concerns, such as health risks and long-term environmental impacts associated with the application of these novel techniques, these challenges can be easily overcome by the use of modern eco-friendly sustainable agriculture techniques and the fair use of GMOs. It is time for policymakers to introduce new policies to promote the adoption of these innovations to bring sustainability to the food system. Farmers should also adopt sustainable agriculture techniques and GMOs, as they can provide better remittance and profit by increasing crop yields and resilience against climate change and other environmental conditions. Consumers’ shift toward the use of products obtained through renewable and environment-friendly practices can also help bring sustainability to the food chain and environment. 


Sustainability MindMap Diagram



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