GMOs (genetically modified organisms) continue to be a hot topic in the food space, and soybeans are a particularly large part of that conversation since they make up a significant portion of GMOs grown in the United States. As people seek to know more about where their food comes from, what it contains, and how it was farmed, it’s essential to understand what it means for a food to be genetically modified. Soybeans are a great way to define and illustrate genetic modification, which is sometimes called bioengineering, because they are versatile crops, are frequently used in processed foods, and are a large player in the plant-based movement—a continued focus of consumers in the new year.
Genetic modification can help farmers and consumers
Consumers sometimes attribute GMO foods to a lack of sustainability and safety, but these foods represent the exact opposite. GMOs have been highly researched and analyzed for safety and are deemed safe for consumption in the U.S. Scientific evidence shows they do not have any adverse effects when eaten. In addition, GMO crops are beneficial in farming practices, as they can help increase crop yields and reduce pesticide use. Farmers choose to use GMOs as time- and labor-savers on their end; in addition, there are both economic and environmental benefits to using GMO crops.
How does bioengineering work?
Bioengineering can be done in a few different ways, but the basic idea is that the DNA (the genetic code of an organism) of the targeted crop is changed slightly. In most cases, GMO foods are engineered to have new genes added that can give the crops specific traits, such as resistance to herbicides and/or pests. Soybeans in particular are typically modified through this method. Inserting specific genes into soybeans improves the plant by making it stronger and more resistant to potential damage. Importantly, this process does not hinder the plant’s performance. Therefore, although the plant’s genetic structure is slightly changed, GMO soybeans still look the same, taste the same, and have the same nutritional profiles as a conventionally grown soybeans.
GMO soybeans: Helping farmers
There are currently ten GMO crops approved for use in the U.S., as well as one animal product (salmon—although GMO salmon is not yet available for sale in stores). Currently, these foods have been modified in ways that are similar to the method described earlier. However, it’s important to note here that farmers have been selectively farming for generations to grow the most desirable foods, thus imparting some level of genetic modification over millennia of agriculture. Although the technology for GMOs is newer (GMOs have been in our food system for over 20 years), the intent, when it comes to modifying food, is not—GMOs have been created to make food more appealing, safer, and less wasteful. In fact, the majority of soybeans (more than 90%) grown in the U.S. are bioengineered. These beans typically have herbicide-resistant genes inserted into their genetic structure so that farmers can use herbicides to destroy invasive weeds without harming the soybean plant. These versatile beans may then be used for animal feed, pressed into soybean oil, or added as ingredients in foods like tofu. Due to the biotechnology that is used in soybeans, farmers often see an increased yield and lower loss from damage to the beans, which means more supply and more opportunities to feed people.
The future of bean biotech
Soybeans are currently the only GMO beans that are commercially available in the U.S., but new biotechnology is on the horizon. Brazil, for example, has been experimenting with genetically modified pinto beans. These beans are being modified to protect the crop from a destructive Brazilian virus, which could consequentially increase pinto bean yield and decrease waste due to contaminated crops.
In the U.S., the concept of gene editing is on the rise, with modified soybeans serving as a hopeful example for speeding up and streamlining bean modification and production as well as improving its growth and nutritional profile. Typically, soybeans are modified by means of transgenics, which is the process of transferring genes (such as those related to herbicide resistance) from one organism to another. Gene editing is different. Rather than inserting new genes to the existing genetic profile, scientists can modify the existing genetic structure of the targeted organism. One system that can be used to do this is called CRISPR. In this case, the CRISPR protein “searches for” the appropriate gene in the soybean and rearranges it in such a way that the soybean then carries the desired trait, such as herbicide resistance, without adding in a new gene. Some scientists think this could be an easier, more efficient way to modify soybeans to have the qualities that can benefit farmers and the general population.
A final note: Gene modification helps our beans
While the concept of genetic modification by means of selective farming has existed for generations, modern biotechnology has made this process easier and more efficient. GMO crops in general can benefit the U.S. food supply, the well-being of farmers, and the environment. GMO soybeans in particular are widespread because of their utility and versatility in the food supply. The new arising technology in gene modification makes this process even more desirable, as it can build on existing advantages with even greater efficiency.
This article was written by Courtney Schupp, MPH, RD.