Junchen Gu

Monsanto Company/ Dr. Norman Borlaug Corporate Fellow

Arts & Sciences: DBBS, Molecular Genetics and Genomics | PhD

Scholar:

Cohort 2008

Alumnus:

Graduated 2016

Partner University:

China Agricultural University

Biography

Junchen Gu did not wait for graduation to take on the leadership responsibilities encouraged by the McDonnell Academy. Gu, a PhD student in the Department of Biology and Biomedical Sciences and the Monsanto/Dr. Norman Borlaug Corporate Fellow in the McDonnell Academy, was appointed president of I-CAN (International Graduate Student Association for Career Development and Networking) for the 2011-12 academic year. I-CAN is a university-wide graduate student association whose mission is the help international graduate students build networks, and develop communication and leadership skills through group project work in an English-speaking, multicultural environment. It is serves primarily students who studied outside of the U.S. until beginning graduate studies, and who consequently are less familiar with American culture.

At the same time, Gu served as the 2011-12 secretary for the Graduate Professional Council (GPC), the university’s graduate student association that reaches across schools and disciplines to provide all graduate students with opportunities for professional and personal development through social, academic, community, and cultural events.

Wearing yet a third hat, Gu served as the treasurer of BioEntrepreneurship Core (BEC), whose mission is to promote entrepreneurship among graduate and undergraduate students, faculty and staff in all disciplines sharing an interest in biomedical research and its interface with entrepreneurship. Gu explained his goal was to spend the academic year in service to the university through these various leadership roles. “Hopefully it’ll be a fulfilling and rewarding year,” he remarked.


Scholar Highlights

Genetically Engineered Crops: The Solution for the Poorest

Genetically engineered crops are the best hope for feeding the billions of poor people around the world who suffer from inadequate nutrition. The biggest engines of this technology have been large private corporations. But big private corporations, with their exclusive patents on the technology, are also one of the biggest obstacles to realizing the hope of ending hunger.

You might disagree with growing genetically modified crops because they are said to be unsafe by some activists, although so far there is no definite proof of their toxicity. You might prefer the practice of growing crops organically. Unfortunately, given the harsh agricultural conditions in many places of the world and the dependence of organic farming on available natural resources, it’s not practical or even possible to feed an increasing planetary population through exclusively organic means. The poorest people don’t have the luxury to eat organically.

Thus the only solution has to rely on the adoption of genetically engineered crops. To meet the ever-increasing challenge of improving crop yield under harsh environmental conditions with limited soil and water resources, genetic engineering came into play and has helped to meet much of our demand for food in the past couple of decades.

It’s through genetically engineered crops that we can meet the need for enough food, and this is especially true for the poorest people in the world. The technology is mature. It has proven to be cost-effective and to increase crop yields while reducing the environmental impact.

For example, in China, India and the United States, insect-resistant cotton has improved cotton yields and reduced insecticide usage significantly.

While genetically engineered crops or genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are prevalent in the United States — more than 80 percent of the corn and soybeans planted in the United States is genetically engineered — they are still rare in many places in the world where they are needed most, places such as Africa, where drought, floods and insect infestations frequently wipe out crops and leave the population unable to sustain itself.

The importance of being able to produce enough food so that people don’t suffer from hunger needs no more emphasis. Strikingly, many people in some of the poorest countries still can’t enjoy a good meal each day while others enjoy an excessive and sometimes wasteful consumption of food.

There are several ways in which we can help solve the hunger problem for the poorest people. Among them, international aid through various programs has played an important role in alleviating the problem. However, relying on aid is not the ultimate solution. To eliminate the problem, those countries in need must establish their own sustainable agriculture, grow crops on their own land and become self-sufficient in food supply. Only by accomplishing these goals can these countries assure that their people won’t suffer from hunger anymore.

So far, only a handful of projects are underway to help African countries to develop their own sustainable agriculture, clearly not enough to meet the need.

To fully realize the benefit of genetically engineered crops in these countries, large corporations who own almost all the relevant patents must make an effort to make this technology and related materials freely available to scientists who are trying so hard to solve the hunger problem and meet the most fundamental need of human beings.

One important obstacle comes from the patent issue on relevant genes and technologies.

The issue of whether genes are patentable is still rather controversial and under intense debate. Nevertheless, scientists trying to develop GMOs for countries with the greatest need have to pay royalties for using these patented technologies and materials, and this puts them at a great disadvantage. Sometimes the lack of funding makes it impossible to do the work. Pursuing profit from these patents is surely the ultimate goal for biotech giants, but when it comes to saving lives, the humanitarian need for freely distributed technology must outweigh unlimited profit. We must give the poorest people the opportunity to become self-sufficient in food production. Some compromise can be reached through negotiations involving industry, government and nongovernmental organizations to not only advance the development of GMOs in those poorest countries, but also maintain a certain profit to industry to maintain their innovation.

In short, the fast-growing world population and the demand for more nutritious and high-yielding crops necessitate the development and adoption of GMOs, especially in the poorest countries. To eliminate the obstacle of combating hunger and saving lives, we must make the technology freely available.

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