Many of us have heard of GMOs—genetically modified organisms in our food supply—and have seen labeling on food packages that note products are “non-GMO” (or other verbiage on food and beverage packaging that there are GMO or bioengineered ingredients in a product). But many of us don’t know a ton about how GMO technology uses specific scientific innovations that genetically alter plants to promote desired characteristics. In fact, GMO technology is a farming tool that increases productivity, decreases waste, and simultaneously provides us with safe and nutritious grains, fruits and vegetables. One key GMO crop that helps our food supply in many ways? Corn. Read on to explore how GMOs can benefit our food supply and to learn about some intriguing research linked to GMO corn.
GMO crops available in the U.S. include corn, soybeans, cotton, potatoes, papaya, summer squash, canola, alfalfa, apples, sugar beets, and pink pineapples. GMO characteristics of these crops include attributes that help them grow better under environmental stresses, like drought, and ward off diseases and pests (as well as other handy benefits, like resisting browning once they are sliced). GMO foods provide a safe and nutritious way to access the recommended servings of fruits and vegetables that are put forth by the USDA Dietary Guidelines.
GMO technology also helps to decrease food waste, gives many underserved areas of the global population a reliable source of nutritious food options, and helps farmers use less pesticides. Notably, GMO technology has been used for over 20 years and has been scientifically been proven to be an effective way to support agriculture. Also, according to PG Economics LTD, the economic benefits of genetically modified crops have reached $150 billion globally since the first GMO crops were planted in 1996.
The Skinny on GMO Corn
Corn is used for feeding people and animals, but it is also used to produce fuel (ethanol) and many additional everyday items—like toothpaste, dish detergent, paper, cosmetics, and many other products we encounter on a regular basis. Because corn is used in a variety of consumer and animal products, GMO corn (also referred to as maize) research and advances in GMO corn characteristics support many branches of the food industry and other consumer-based economic systems.
GMO corn is made to be herbicide-resistant, insect-resistant, or a combination of both. A 2018 study by Pellegrino et al. showed that not only does GMO corn score highly on the “productivity-in-farming chart,” but that 21 years of peer-reviewed data also support the positive agronomic, human, and environmental health traits of GMO corn.
The Pellegrino research team performed a meta-analysis by analyzing approximately 6,000 globally published peer-reviewed literature publications (from the years 1996 to 2016) on crop yield, grain quality, impact on non-target organisms (NTOs), impact on target organisms (TOs), and soil biomass decomposition of GMO corn. Ideally, farmers around the globe aim to cultivate corn that grows with high-quality yields and minimal impact on the environment. Environmental impacts may include both positive and negative effects, including adverse changes to soil, the introduction of “friendly organisms” (bugs and microbes that don’t harm crops and are beneficial), changes in water resources, and increased or decreased greenhouse gas emissions.
The results of the Pellegrino study indicated that there is strong evidence that GMO corn performs better than its near-isogenic line (a non-GMO modified crop that is nevertheless similar in genetic identity) in multiple ways, including enhanced grain quality and yield as well as increased pest resistance (that does not impact beneficial insects).
In addition to the Pellegrino study, in 2019 researchers newly showed that they can consistently increase corn yields up to 10% by changing a gene that increases plant growth in the face of harsh weather and related growing conditions. Plant characteristics such as bigger leaves (which support photosynthesis) and more efficient use of nitrogen (a key soil nutrient) were pinpointed as attributes that helped these plants grow more.
Growing a widely used crop such as corn with the added benefits of GMO technology is significant on a global scale. With the growing population and threats to usable farmland, scientists and producers must work together be more strategically efficient in growing high-demand commodity crops to maintain our food supply. Fortunately for all of us, the scientific literature continues to support the safety and efficacy of ubiquitous GMO crops like corn.