The number of hungry people in the world is still rising and very unlikely to become zero by 2030. In 2019, nearly 690 million people were hungry, and an estimated 2 billion people worldwide did not have regular access to safe, nutritious, and sufficient food, although there is enough food on earth for everyone. People are starving in regions where the food supply is sparse or the food too expensive.1 There are many causes for this tragic situation, the most important of which are wars and the growing gap between people who have enough to eat and those who don't. People, including children, often work 16 hours per day but do not earn enough money to sufficiently feed their families. Most of us do not have the power to change these types of scenarios, but we should keep trying and encourage those who can do so. What can be done is to try to make more food available where it is needed. Both producing more and reducing losses may improve availability.
Two of the technologies that may help alleviate the problem are controversial, but we shall try to put them in perspective.
Producing More While Reducing Losses
Many undernourished people live in areas where conditions for growing food are harsh and the weather is unpredictable. Temperatures can be very high with insufficient rainfall, leading to desertification of large areas where no crops can grow. In areas where crops do grow, insects may consume a large portion or sometimes even all the harvest in a very short time, and insecticides used against pests may also kill the badly needed pollinators.
With modern biotechnology, especially genetic modification using clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR)-associated (Cas)-9 and similar tools, these problems may be addressed with no reported adverse effects. Opponents argue that these methods have undesirable influences on nature and that food containing modified genes harms the health of consumers, if not immediately then possibly over time. Ignoring the arguments of opponents does not make them go away and may rather feed the opinion that the technology is being pushed to enhance the profit of big companies. Many scientists have realized that with anything new, there may be both expected and unexpected results; therefore, it is important to thoroughly investigate potential adverse effects of the application of genetic modification. Many consider this process most important for effects that seem very unlikely. Over several decades now, much research has been conducted by nonindustrial, scientifically independent research groups, and the results, positive and negative, have been published in peer-reviewed scientific journals. Nicolia et al.2 published a very thorough review of 10 years of genetically engineered crop safety research (2002–2012) and concluded after examining 1,783 publications that no significant hazard directly connected with the use of genetically modified (GM) crops has been published in the peer-reviewed scientific literature. In fact, a recent article highlighted the use of the CRISPR-Cas9 technology in revolutionizing improvements in tomato and other fruit crops.
Insects may have a delayed, damaging effect on food because even if adult insects do not consume much of the crops, they often lay eggs in the food. Crops that look healthy and fine after harvesting may be found to be full of larvae that spoil the crops during storage. To address this problem, insecticides are often used, in particular to fumigate after harvesting. Another possible mitigating strategy is the use of ionizing radiation that kills insects, their eggs, and larvae effectively, avoiding the need for insecticides. Gamma radiation (γ-radiation) has been used for more than 70 years, and electron beam (e-beam) radiation has been used for a few decades. These technologies reduce the need for chemical applications, but resistance to the use of irradiation is so widespread that its application is severely restricted. There are several reasons for this resistance: First, consumers believe that irradiation makes the food radioactive and that this radioactivity harms the body, in particular, human DNA, and therefore may cause cancer and birth defects. Consumers must come to understand that getting cancer from irradiated food is as likely as getting sunburn from eating fruit that’s been exposed to sunlight for weeks or months. Second, people living near factories where radioactivity is used are afraid of the radiation that may escape from such factories via the air or the factory's wastewater. This is a valid concern in plants where γ-radiation is used and should be addressed by authorities who must ensure that companies strictly follow the relevant regulations, including frequent inspections, which is no different from regulations that apply to factories where pharmaceuticals are made using γ-radiation. The same concern is not valid for e-beam irradiation, because this process does not use radioactive materials. Instead, e-beams are generated by electricity and when switched off, there are no irradiating residues. An additional concern is that irradiation may lead to relaxation of hygiene measures by employees and managers who might over rely on the irradiation to destroy not only insects but also microorganisms. It can be argued, however, that there is no incentive for companies to relax hygiene measures, as a lack of hygiene translates into the need to inactivate a higher number of microorganisms using a more stringent process, which takes more time and may affect the quality of the product.3 Moreover, such misconceptions about irradiation may also apply to other methods to decontaminate food, such as pasteurization, sterilization, and even the more modern technologies like high-pressure processing. We failed to find any scientific reports that confirm the relaxation of hygiene measures in factories where food is treated with irradiation.
Benefits of GM Foods
Currently, the most important use of genetic modification is making crops more resistant to insects and other pests. An example is the large-scale use of GM corn in South Africa. About 85 percent of the maize and 95 percent of the soy grown in South Africa contain GM traits, in particular, insect resistance. This has the additional beneficial effects of less mold growth and less mycotoxin in these products.4
Another interesting example is the development of GM bananas, a staple food in East and Central Africa. In Uganda, the yield is about 10 tons per hectare per year, whereas in India and Ecuador, the yield is 120 tons per hectare per year. Reasons for this huge difference are many, partly biotic, such as bacterial and fungal wilt, weevils, nematodes, and black Sigatoka (also a fungal disease), and partly abiotic, in particular nutrient deficiencies and moisture/drought stress.5 Attempts to deal with these problems over the past 50 years did not result in significant improvements, and it appears as if the only option is to use genetic engineering to insert the lacking traits. Significant progress has been made when the genes for incorporation into bananas were sourced only from edible plants, such as sweet pepper or banana varieties growing elsewhere, preventing significant objections to the GM bananas under development.5
In these and similar cases, genetic modification makes the use of insecticides and antimicrobials unnecessary, protecting the environment (including useful insects), reducing the risk of spreading antibiotic resistance, and protecting farmers and those living near farms from chemical exposure. Examples of these applications are discussed in Máthé and Antofie.6
With the advent of climate change and its unlikely reversal, many areas may become unfit for growing food, in addition to the already massive deserts in several regions, particularly in Africa. Clearly, some way must be found to keep producing food amid this change. GM technology looks promising.
There are plants that grow in deserts by extracting water from the soil via a vast, deep root system and/or by keeping transpiration to a minimum via the closure of their stomata or making the leaf cuticle less permeable. Other plants, such as Tillandsia spp., have developed the ability to extract water from the air.7 Using the genes responsible for these abilities in crops for human consumption may make it possible to convert deserts into farmland. Salinity also plays an important role in the amount of available arable land. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations estimates that 11 percent of irrigated arable land is affected by salinity, with Pakistan, China, the United States, and India representing more than 60 percent of the total (21 million hectares). An additional 20 percent is affected by waterlogging and related salinity.8 Drought and high soil salinity, in particular, are the major causes of reduced crop productivity and food production worldwide.9
Genetic modification to introduce salt tolerance (and other abiotic stresses) has been demonstrated previously.10 It may have a huge impact on food production in places where salinity is a big problem, such as in large parts of India and Pakistan.
The storage of food to be able to bridge the winter often results in losing a significant portion of it. Further, transport by boat or road may take so much time that fruit picked when still unripe may nevertheless ripen too fast to be fresh at its destination. Genetic modification has made it possible to delay the ripening of tomatoes and bananas, reducing losses significantly.6
In areas where populations suffer from malnutrition, plants may be modified to produce the nutrients that people lack. The well-known and much opposed application is rice that produces ß-carotene, generated by copying genes from carrots into rice11. It is hard to see what can be wrong with this, but nevertheless, doubts and fears should be properly addressed.12
Adverse Effects of GM Foods
The main doubt about GM foods appears to be that they are supposed to be unnatural and therefore unhealthy. These concerns have been addressed, and the only serious potential health effect has been allergenicity with a few experimental crops, none of which got approved and were banned from the food market.6 There is broad scientific consensus that all approved foods and feeds derived from GM crops that are on the market are safe to eat. Every respected organization in the world that has examined the evidence has come to the conclusion that consuming foods containing ingredients derived from GM crops does not present a greater health risk than eating conventional foods with the same but non-GM ingredients. One of the reasons is that most, if not all, transgenic DNA in food is broken down in the gastrointestinal tract.13 It is important to realize that there are many health benefits of GM crops, such as reductions in pesticide exposure, fewer incidents of cancer in farmers, and nutritional benefits, such as reductions in blindness from a lack of vitamin A.13
The main benefit of irradiation to prolong the shelf life of food is that it can be applied to inactivate microorganisms and insects after packaging, with little effect on the organoleptic properties, as is common to pasteurization and thermal sterilization.14 An important benefit is that fumigation with toxic gases (in the case of cereals) can be avoided and that no heat is required (fruits, vegetables). Irradiation also inhibits sprouting (potatoes, garlic, and onions), extending shelf life and thus reducing losses without the need for toxic chemicals.
Many people, however, are already scared by the word “irradiation” alone. This can at least partly be explained by the use of nuclear bombs during World War II and the disasters with nuclear power stations in Chernobyl and Fukushima. Although in these cases, much radioactivity was produced and polluted the environment with radioactive material, that has very little relevance for the irradiation technologies used in the food industry, even if only because the amount of energy is many orders of magnitude lower, and there are no risks of explosion. Mankind, moreover, has always been and will always be exposed to a little natural ionizing radiation, and the body can cope with it.5 Nevertheless, it should not be denied that irradiation changes the food; after all, if it did not, how would it kill insects and microorganisms? DNA, RNA, proteins, and other complex molecules are altered. What must be explained is that with the amounts of irradiation applied, the quantity of chemicals produced is extremely small and harmless.16 The Global Harmonization Initiative (GHI) has thoroughly studied the peer-reviewed literature about the risk of irradiated food being harmful for humans and concluded that under the conditions applied, irradiated food is safe for consumption, agreeing with the findings of the Joint FAO/International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)/World Health Organization (WHO) Expert Committee on Food Irradiation, which were adopted by the FAO/IAEA/WHO Joint Study Group on High-Dose Irradiation.17
With ionizing radiation, the shelf life of food can be drastically increased and may significantly reduce food loss. It is probably just a matter of education to help people understand that the irradiation of food does not make the food radioactive and that radioactivity is bad only if it exceeds the concentration that the human body can handle. As with chemicals, it is the amount that determines whether it is harmful or even beneficial.18
There are no reasons to assume that the consumption of GM or irradiated food is less safe than the consumption of the non-GM or non-irradiated varieties.
Concerns about the influence of GM crops on the environment are certainly legitimate, and it is useful to monitor such influences. Currently, however, there are no indications that nature is adversely affected by GM crops. To the contrary, the use of GM crops, despite scientifically unsupported counterarguments, may have positive effects because farmers will require fewer or no pesticides, and areas where virtually nothing grows can be made green and healthy for both flora and fauna.
Irradiated food is not radioactive; there is no need to be concerned about radioactivity in the environment or in factories where food irradiation is used. Even if an accident would happen and some of the radioactive material leaked into the environment, the resulting exposure would remain far below the level that could do harm.
- FAO, et al. The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2020. Transforming Food Systems for Affordable Healthy Diets (Rome: FAO, 2020). doi.org/10.4060/ca9692en.
- Nicolia, A., et al. 2014. “An Overview of the Last 10 Years of Genetically Engineered Crop Safety Research.” Crit Rev Biotechnol 34(1):77–88.
- Tauxe, R.V. 2001. “Food Safety and Irradiation: Protecting the Public from Foodborne Infections.” Emerg Infect Dis 7:516–521.
- Groenewald, J.-H. “Genetically Modified (GM) Food in South Africa,” in Genetically Modified and Irradiated Food – Controversial Issues: Facts versus Perceptions, ed. Andersen, V (London: Elsevier, 2020).
- Namanya, P., et al. “Genetically Modified Bananas for Communities of the Great Lakes Region of Africa,” in Genetically Modified and Irradiated Food – Controversial Issues: Facts versus Perceptions, ed. Andersen, V (London: Elsevier, 2020).
- Máthé, E. and Antofie, M.-M. “Why Is Genetic Modification of Interest or Why Can It Be Useful?” in Genetically Modified and Irradiated Food – Controversial Issues: Facts versus Perceptions, ed. Andersen, V (London: Elsevier, 2020).
- Raux, P.S., et al. 2020. “Design of a Unidirectional Water Valve in Tillandsia.” Nat Commun 11(396). doi.org/10.1038/s41467-019-14236-5.
- FAO. The State of the World’s Land and Water Resources for Food and Agriculture (SOLAW) – Managing Systems at Risk (Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, and London: Earthscan, 2011).
- Fita, A., et al. 2015. “Breeding and Domesticating Crops Adapted to Drought and Salinity: A New Paradigm for Increasing Food Production.” Front Plant Sci 6:978. doi.org/10.3389/fpls.2015.00978.
- Parmar, N., et al. 2017. “Genetic Engineering Strategies for Biotic and Abiotic Stress Tolerance and Quality Enhancement in Horticultural Crops: A Comprehensive Review.” Biotech 7:239.
- Regis, E. Golden Rice: The Imperilled Birth of a GMO Superfood (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2019).
- Regenstein, J. “A Perspective on the Evolution of Genetic Manipulation of Biological Materials, Both Plant and Animal,” in Genetically Modified and Irradiated Food – Controversial Issues: Facts versus Perceptions, ed. Andersen, V (London: Elsevier, 2020), 36.
- Blair, R. and Regenstein, J.M. “GM Food and Human Health,” in Genetically Modified and Irradiated Food – Controversial Issues: Facts versus Perceptions, ed. Andersen, V (London: Elsevier, 2020), 69–98.
- Prakash, A. “What Is the Benefit of Irradiation Compared to Other Methods of Food Preservation?” in Genetically Modified and Irradiated Food – Controversial Issues: Facts versus Perceptions, ed. Andersen, V (London: Elsevier, 2020), 217–231.
- Dobrzyński, L., Fornalski, K.W., and Feinendegen, L.E. 2015. “The Human Cancer in High Natural Background Radiation Areas.” Int J Low Radiation 10(2):143–154.
- Scott-Smith, J. and Pillai, S. 2004. “Irradiation and Food Safety.” Food Technol 58 (11):48–55.
- Sponsler, R. and Cameron, J.R. 2005. “Nuclear Shipyard Worker Study (1980–1988): A Large Cohort Exposed to Low-Dose-Rate Gamma Radiation.” Int J Low Radiation 1(4):463–478.
Huub Lelieveld is president of the GHI.
Veslemøy Andersen is GHI’s ambassador for Norway.
This article was originally published in the April/May 2021 issue of Food Safety Magazine.