USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts & Sciences > Blog

April 22, 2012

Genetically Modified Organisms: A Real Concern?

Genetically modified organisms tend to have a negative connotation within society. They’re considered unnatural, unhealthy, and even risky to human health. Yet, the majority of society lacks knowledge on science. People are bombarded each day with articles opposing genetically modified food, arguing that they have potential human health risks and pose dangers to the environment. However, most articles in the news exaggerate the negative effects of GMOs without providing sufficient proof. This negative influence on society has created an automatic opposition to GMOs without considering its many benefits that could ultimately better the world and reduce world starvation.

In reality, GMO’s benefits outweigh its costs by increasing and improving food production. For example, through the insertion of certain genes into rice, people could obtain more vitamin A (A Report on Genetically Engineered Food). In many developing countries, rice is the staple food and often one of the only foods available for consumption. Without receiving enough vitamin A, people in developing countries could face early blindness. However, with the creation of genetically engineered rice that contains vitamin A, people could live a healthier lifestyle regardless of their poverty level.

GMOs can also contain herbicides and pesticides that would not affect the crop itself but would attack certain weeds and pests that try to harm it. In Africa, there is a weed called striga that depletes crops’ nutrients underground (A Report on Genetically Engineered Food). While most weeds can be pulled out by hand, striga begins attacking crop seeds even before it has sprouted. However, through the collaboration among Kenyan and Israel scientists, a herb resistance trait was engineered, allowing crops to continue their normal growth while simultaneously attacking the weed (A Report on Genetically Engineered Food). This engineering feat has allowed farmers in Africa to grow their crops without fear of weeds damaging their crop yield.

These two examples are not the extent of GMO’s functions. They can also quicken growth, prevent pest attacks, reduce the use of fertilizer, and enhance desired traits. Furthermore, they could be better for the environment than conventional crops. Especially since land is becoming scarcer and there is a greater demand for food, GMOs have stepped in to increase the crop yield by being able to resist environmental factors such as salinity, drought, and cold (Biotechnology and the Developing World). Similarly, some GMOs are equipped with traits that require less tilling, which contributes to less soil erosion and runoff. GMOs can promote sustainable farming by encouraging farmers to increase their crop yield, while maintaining the same amount of land and using the same amount of fertilizer (Biotechnology and the Developing World).

Ultimately, genetically modified organisms are nothing to fear. Although media has hyped up the negative effects by appealing to society’s concern for the unknown, the public needs to understand the tremendous benefits of GMOs. They can improve human health by increasing nutritional value. They can also encourage sustainable farming by using GMOs that require less tilling, which benefits the environment by keeping the topsoil intact and reducing fertilizer runoffs into rivers and streams. Sure, GMOs has its drawbacks but every technology has its own faults; nothing is foolproof. But the most important issue is that the benefits exceed their costs, and GMOs does just that.


Kaylee Yang is an undergraduate in the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

February 14, 2012

California Desertification: How do we keep California the Golden Coast?

California has always been seen as the Golden Coast.  It is a land of plenty that supports millions of people and has an immense and productive agricultural industry, producing almost 15% of the nation’s annual crops.

But the productiveness of California has a limit, and both its climate and human overuse can distress the land beyond repair.  Desertification is the process of the loss of nutrients (top soil) to drylands, resulting in infertile land that can be easily eroded due to the lack of vegetation that would normally provide soils with the structural component to combat erosion.  Vegetation is vital to dry soils, prominent in much of the California climate, because the soils can easily be carried away by wind, or on the rare occasion of rain in Southern California, water.  Over farming, which depletes the soils nutrients, or overgrazing, which physically strips the soil of vegetation, are two of the most common triggers of desertification.

Desertification can be a natural process too.  The United Nations Conference to Combat Desertification identifies that desertification is also due to climactic changes, where extended periods of drought or dryness can harm vegetation and leave soil dry and exposed to the elements, although some may argue that these may be anthropogenic as because of the link between global climate change and greenhouse gas emissions.

But while desertification can be a natural process, these natural processes and tendencies of Southern California are only augmented by the anthropogenic abuse of the land such as over farming and overgrazing.

California is an extremely large and diverse state with a wide range of climate patterns and weather conditions.  Therefore, while some areas are lush, others are experiencing drought.  This raises the issue of distribution of water in California.  About 65 percent of the state receives less than 20 inches of rain fall per year, which is indicative of the scrubland biome. [1] While 70 percent of Californias runoff occurs north of Sacramento, 75 percent of the agricultural demands are located in the south of the state. This is why California has undergone some of the most  extensive water redistribution projects, which have created conflict over water rights between Northern and Southern California.  Water supply to farmers in the far south, such as those in El Cajon, CA is still not enough, despite these water redistribution projects, to support their agricultural based economy due to the increasing water demands of Northern California.

So when Southern and Central California experience the periodic droughts indicative of their climate, the desertification that would have naturally occurred is only amplified by California’s reliance on it’s agricultural industry heavily based in the south, and it’s inability to supply the amount of water necessary for this huge, over-productive, and depleting industry.

Some political and socioeconomic implications of desertification in California include increased risk of wildfire, reduced crop yields, social unrest (water wars), and potentially dust bowl conditions similar to those that plagued the Midwest in the 1930s during the Dust Bowl.  This dust creates health problems, and blows in to the ocean and other already contaminated and damaged water sources, further causing contamination.

The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification is an initiative of the UN that hopes to remediate degraded soils through additions of fertilizers and growth of crops that do not require many nutrients, and also to fight the source of desertification.  This undertaking has several objectives, including anticipating and/or limiting land degradation, repairing degraded land, raising awareness of desertification, and developing sustainable management practices through education.  While droughts and the climate of Southern California cannot be controlled, and the water limitations of the area will remain a chronic issue, the best way to prevent further desertification is by cutting back overgrazing and overuse of the land, and practice farming and agricultural use in a sustainable way.

California takes specific measures of its own to combat desertification.  It releases a Drought Contingency Plan every 5 years, and in 2008, the California DCP proposed new groundwater and surface water storage facilities, environmental restoration, and increased conservation and sustainable practices.

Other methods for combating desertification include water harvesting from new technologies that can extract water from the humidity in the air.  Genetically Modified Organisms, or GMOs, can also be a potential solution, manufactured to be more resistant to drought and require less water, but they still pose a great deal of controversy due to other environmental factors and causes.

The fact is that desertification can only truly be diminished if the practices of the people living in the area change.  Too much reliance is placed on farming in areas that cannot support the overuse, and if more sustainable farming practices do not begin soon, then the land will quickly become too unstable to even use.


Justin Bogda and Kimberly Knabel are undergraduates in the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences.

November 21, 2011

Genetically Modified Organisms: Not Worth The Risk

Filed under: Genetically Modified Organisms — Tags: , — dginsbur @ 11:21 am

Genetically modified organisms raise a number of questions surrounding their place in technology, government, environment, society, and the economy. To clarify, a genetically modified organism is any organism in which the genes have been added to, subtracted from, or mixed around in a laboratory setting. It is different from natural gene mutation or breeding in that it does not happen randomly through reproductive recombination (BMJ, 1999). This genetic modification is not done without reason—there are a number of benefits that include: increased pest resistance, drought tolerance, greater food supply, and increased nutritional content. However, there are also a lot of risks. These risks include indirect harm to organisms, reduced pesticide effectiveness, gene transfer to non-target species, unknown impacts on human health, and economic concerns because farmers have to buy the seeds year-after-year (the GMOs often cannot reproduce) from the company or corporation that owns a particular gene sequence (WebMD).  For these reasons, they are not worth the risk—the costs severely outweigh the benefits.

Genetically modified crops, though intended to reduce environmental damage, are not the most sustainable and safe way to increase food production. According to the Sierra Club, since the introduction of GMO’s in the 1990s research has shown that genes introduced into the environment through GMOs can make it easier for weeds to grow on the cropland. This problem is heightened further when bees or other biotic pollinators spread genetically modified pollen to native plants or weeds. The advantageous characteristics in the GMO, like resistance to herbicides, are then incorporated into the weed. It is the next to impossible to eradicate the weed. Humans have created weeds that we cannot easily get rid of (Sierra Club). By working to solve the problem of weeds on cropland, the problem has only been magnified in severity and scope.

Another issue with genetically modified crops is the reduction in biodiversity that comes along with them. Like most crops, genetically modified or not, they are grown monoculturally, meaning there is only one species of plant on a particular plot of land. Growing monoculturally increases impacts to the soil, for the plants all require the same nutrients and those nutrients are then quickly depleted. Soil is a nonrenewable resource, so farmers should be working to maintain the nutrient content and integrity of the soil. Growing on species also means that if a pest mutates to the point where it can get past genetic modifications to prevent this, the whole crop can be lost to the pest. If all food is switched to genetic modification, this could mean entire types of food could be lost to pests and no longer be available for human consumption (Sierra Club). The smartest alternative is growing polycultural, non-GMO crops. The food would then be less susceptible to a single pest, and none of the other problems associated with GMOs would be ensued.

The economic and political concerns surrounding GMOs are also very important to consider. According to Michael Graham Richard, “GMOs are usually patented bio-technology.” This patenting makes them very expensive and hard to obtain for small farmers. Big agriculture business is favored and some fear corporation will, if it hasn’t already, take over America’s food supply. That is a scary thought for many.

The scariest aspect of GMOs, and the one that is most often debated, is their possible threat to human health. The New York Times article “Study Raises Doubt About Allergy to Genetic Corn” reported Starlink corn, a GM version of corn, was incorporated into a number of foods during the early 2000s, and people reported a number of severe allergic reactions to the products. Similar reactions could be seen with other, new GMO products. Is it worth it to risk overall human health for questionable increased food production?


Genetic modification is a radical new technology that has yet to be investigated fully. It is not the best alternative to feed the growing population. Instead, farmers should look to use other, less-risky technologies and strategies to increase food production and reduce the amount of land that they are using. Great alternatives do exist and genetic modification is not one of them.

About the authors: Katherine Moreno and Madi Swayne are working towards their bachelor degrees in the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

November 13, 2011

Genetic Modification: An unlabeled hazard or fruitful technology

Filed under: Genetically Modified Organisms — dginsbur @ 2:16 pm

Let’s face it. Genetic modification of plants and animals has been taking place for thousands of years. In order to generate a fruitful harvest or breed larger stock, farmers would selectively breed their best with their best, thus creating a superior breed.

So what’s all controversy about?

Modern genetic modification is no longer as simple as taking two large plants and breeding them with each other.  The role of technology and science has become more and more reliant and nature no longer is allowed to take its course. This is not necessarily a bad thing but has provided a basis for controversy.

Genetic modification has proven as a benefit to society in many ways. Through altering certain genes, crop yield and quality have greatly increased and improved. Through scientific breakthroughs one crops’ distinct gene, such as an ability to create a vitamin beneficial to humans can now be transferred to a completely different crop. This same concept has now created crops that require less pesticides. By identifying bacteria that are resistant to certain diseases, DNA can be extracted, altered, and implanted into a crop. This modified crop is overall easier on the environment and of a higher quality to that of traditional farming methods.  Due to the removed cost of pesticides to treat plant disease and the ability to create larger and healthier harvests, farmers have been able to generate larger profits.

While there are many positives for a society to adopt genetically modified organisms, many people question the effects engineered agriculture can have on the human body. Produce is not the only type of genetically modified organism. Many of the animals we currently eat are engineered to grow quicker and be larger than those found in nature. This unhealthy growth has been the concern of many people across the United States who feel as though ingesting such engineered meats can be carcinogenic and unhealthy. While there currently has been little scientific proof of such accusations, many people feel strongly that any agriculture genetically modified should be labeled when up for sale. Stemming from this concern, organic agriculture has been thriving and providing people with certainty their food has not been scientifically tampered with. Every store bought organic item is labeled and guarantees nothing through its growing process has been engineered or modified.

Along with health concerns, GMO’s have massive potential to dominate in nature. Through their engineering process, GMO’s tend to be superior in many ways to a wild version of the same plant. There currently is a large concern for GMO’s to cause a loss of genetic diversity and variety among certain species of plants. This lack of variety can eventually lead to a loss of a prized trait that may have a certain use in the future.

The GMO debate is not one that will end soon. Still relatively new to the market, the positives of GMOs currently outweigh the negatives. Though future analysis, science will be able to analyze and decipher the negative effects engineering organisms can have on the human body. In the mean time, I believe the people should have the option to choose whether or not they want to eat these organisms. Stores should be forced to label produce that has been engineered and shoppers should decide what they currently want in their diet.

About the authors: Lucas Biging and Nick Leonard are working towards their bachelor degrees in the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.