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Brave New Crops: food, water, and genetic modification

25 Jan 2016

Genetically modified food is not a popular concept. In fact, it could be described as a political ‘hot potato’ (excuse the pun). However, the hard fact is that we have been consuming GM foods for over two decades – a trend set to continue as we discover evermore effective ways to create ‘designer’ crops capable of protecting themselves against pests, diseases, poor soil and drought. What is risky needs to be balanced against what is necessary and valuable for the future.

Bioscience in the form of genetic engineering or GMO (genetically modified organisms) may hold the key to advancing the way we grow food in both developed and developing nations. That – together with canny innovations in water management – are keys to a new world order in food production and the way we live.   

The difference between Genetic Modification and Genetic Engineering 

Genetic modification is not new. It’s part of a natural process that has gradually changed plants and animals, including us, over millennia. Possibly even before the agricultural revolution, humans had figured out a way to control this process when it came to producing crops. They experimented with sorting the best seeds for good crops – breeding and cross-breeding varieties to make them taste better, grow larger and cope more successfully with inclement elements. Over centuries, farmers became adept in selecting the best strains to cross-breed – but they always worked with plants with similar or directly related genetic structure.

However, this has changed. Today’s genetic engineers can transfer just a few genes at a time between species that are distantly related or not related at all. They can extrapolate any desired gene from any organism and craft it into another to create an entirely new entity with the exact traits the engineer wants – such as greater sweetness from one organism and strong weed resistance from another. These ‘engineered’ plants are referred to as transgenic.

Several of these food crops are already on the market in varieties of corn, soybeans, canola and squash. Most of this bioengineering revolves around the farmer’s age-old bugbears of weeds, insects and disease. Once the genes are transferred in this way, they can be passed on through normal fertilization to the next generation, thus enabling farmers to breed crops with the most advantageous traits, year after year. 

The difference between Genetic Modification and Genetic Engineering

The long and the short of it

Long before we became picky about GM labeling, plant breeders had already used these techniques to produce varieties of wheat and rice with higher grain yields. The wild tomato used to be the size of a marble but has been transformed by human interference to reach the giant size we’re familiar with today. A weed-like plant with an ‘ear’ barely an inch long has been developed into the foot-long ears of sweet white and yellow corn that most people understand to be the only way to grow corn. What we take for granted as natural today is actually the modified product of visionary farmers of the past. Over 60% of all processed foods in the US – such as cookies, ice-cream, pizza, salad dressing and corn syrup – are products drawn from genetically engineered soybeans, corn or canola.

Over the last decade, these biotech plants have become the basis of many foods, developing from what was once regarded as merely experimental to crops planted on a vast scale across 13 countries, among them Argentina, Canada, China, South Africa, Australia, Germany, and Spain. In the United States alone, fields of genetically engineered crops jumped nearly 25-fold from 1996 to 2001.

Of cabbages and kings

Since we now have the ability to unravel the genetic code of every living thing on the planet, the future of genetic engineering is moving into evermore fantastic scenarios. What if we could insert the gene of a Cecropia moth into an apple? What would be the result of that combination? A winged apple? No – the gene we would extract from the moth would be the specific gene that makes the moth immune to the fire blight bacterium. Your perfect green apple would then also be immune to this bacterium. Healthier apples, bigger crops, more food.

What about fruit that carries a gene that kills the virus that is the leading cause of pneumonia in children? Science fiction? No. It’s currently under research. Scientists are continually seeking ways to insert genes for specific traits into both plant and animal DNA – fields which hold the twin edges of both extraordinary possibility and real apprehension.  

In this brave new world of genetic engineering, imagine:

  • tomatoes and broccoli bursting with cancer-fighting chemicals
  • vitamin-enhanced crops of rice, sweet potatoes, and cassava  
  • allergen-free crops of wheat, soy and peanuts 
  • bananas that deliver vaccines
  • vegetable oils loaded with therapeutic ingredients for patients at risk of heart disease

Water scarcity and the drip factor

One of the most pressing issues driving the development of new food crops is the diminishing supply of water. Developing plants that require very little water to survive is paramount to meeting food shortages as we approach the eight billion mark. The work currently being undertaken at the University of Cape Town – the study of the Resurrection plant – is an example of how intelligent genetic engineering will help to feed mankind.

The Resurrection plant transforms from a state of almost death to revival in a matter of hours after the minutest sprinkle of rain. If that ‘rebirth’ gene can be identified, extrapolated and inserted into wheat – you would have a product impervious to drought and able to resume full nutrient value on the merest amount of water.

The significance of waterless plants is underpinned by the unique concept of drip irrigation, where plants – with or without the resurrection gene – are able to flourish on small, controlled drips of water released directly at the roots. If we consider the astonishing combination of crop enhancement and water-saving technology, then the world’s food supply should be guaranteed as we head through the challenges of population growth and climate change in the 21st century.    

With a shadow of doubt

Despite all the benefits there are concerns that can’t be swept under the carpet. Many believe that while experimentation is proving positive, products are being moved to market before their possible long-term effects have been tested. They argue that the negative results of transgenic organisms may only surface a generation from now. For the moment, there is no evidence that currently managed crops are detrimental to human health but critics cite the early contraceptive pill of the sixties – the negative implications of which were only evinced two decades later. However, bioengineers – and many farmers worldwide – feel that progress is worth the risk. Their view is that tests and evidence are already extensive and the world cannot allow millions to starve while we ‘wait and see’.   


At Netafim we are dedicated to alleviating water shortage through constant technological innovation. Our wide variety of drip irrigation solutions are continuously tested against the challenges our farmers face everyday – and we help them plan for the future. There is no doubt that drip irrigation, working with improved crops able to withstand the ravages of pests and disease, results in larger, more successful harvests – and vitally contributes to a more healthy and stable food supply. 

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