It’s no secret that GMOs are a widely debated topic. Many people oppose them without really knowing what they are, exactly. Others just aren’t sure about something so “unnatural” or how they will affect the planet. I want to discuss the pros and cons of this technology, and some examples of how GMOs are being used to improve agricultural practices and our health.
What are GMOs?
What does GMO stand for? Genetically modified organism. Simply put, a GMO is any product with modified DNA for a specific purpose. Humans have been modifying genes for thousands of years. Selective breeding allows farmers to breed plants with desirable traits to ensure they are getting the best crop. This is a slow and steady process that is often unpredictable. Grafting is another “classic” technique used throughout history.
You may have also heard the term gene editing and wondered how it differs from gene modification. Gene editing is a specific way to produce GMOs through targeted, precise gene insertion. An example is CRISPR technology..
Genetic modification can be used to help farmers avoid pests, save crops from drought or disease, and can even make food more nutritious. Through the use of genetic modification, we may also decrease our dependence on pesticides.
Which crops are GM at the grocery store?
Corn, cotton, and soybeans are the most widely sold GM foods. Most of these products available on the market have been genetically modified. Currently, there are 13 GM crops approved for sale throughout the world. New products are continually being studied.
Did you know? Insulin was the first GMO product developed for human diabetics in 1977.
- Squash – disease resistance
- Soybeans – insect resistance and herbicide tolerance
- Corn – insect resistance and herbicide tolerance
- Cotton – insect resistance and herbicide tolerance
- Papaya – disease resistance
- Canola – herbicide tolerance
- Alfalfa – herbicide tolerance
- Sugar beets – herbicide tolerance
- Potato – non-browning, decreased bruising, low acrylamide (for health), blight resistance
- Apples – non-browning
- Salmon – grow more quickly
- Eggplant (Bangladesh and India) – insect resistance
- Pink Pineapple (Costa Rica) – increased carotenoids
To label or not to label?
Some consumers have been arguing for mandatory labeling of GM products for many years. They demand consumer transparency and the right for consumers to choose what foods are right for them. Critics argue that the labels may confuse consumers and promote fear of biotechnology.
As of 2018, GM labels will be required on food packaging and you may see them as early as next year (2020). However, manufacturers are not required to list a number of GM ingredients in refined foods if no detectable levels are present. These include corn, soybean, and sugar beets. Companies must complete testing to prove no GM material is present.
Proponents of GM labeling are unhappy with the execution of the rule, stating that consumers will still have to do their own research on what’s really in their food. Knowing which GM foods are available can help when looking at ingredients lists.
“The Standard defines bioengineered foods as those that contain detectable genetic material that has been modified through certain lab techniques and cannot be created through conventional breeding or found in nature.”
USDA Agricultural Marketing Service
Other countries such as those in the EU, Japan, and Australia already require labeling if a product contains more than 0.9%, 5%, or 1% of GM ingredients, respectively.
It can be easy to forget about food insecurity in the US. Most of us don’t depend on agriculture for our livelihood, and we have some of the lowest food costs in the world. We generally don’t have to worry about malnutrition and have our pick of the best-of-the-best organic produce.
But, remember, the rest of the world doesn’t necessarily have this luxury. Iron and Vitamin A deficiencies are all too common in developing countries. If these countries follow our lead of rejecting GMOs, they could be missing out on the opportunity to improve the health and livelihood of their citizens.
As the world population continues to increase and climate change wreaks havoc, we will have to use science to produce more food with the same amount of resources. Weeds are the biggest concern in terms of reduced yield in farming. Insects infestation can ruin entire fields and jeopardize the well-being of farmers and citizens. Genetic modification is just one tool that can help.
How can GMOs help?
Here are some examples of how genetic modification can benefit our food supply.
Saving the Hawaiin papaya crop from papaya ringspot virus is one of the best-known stories of GMO success. After initially refusing to adopt the technology, scientists were able to develop the rainbow papaya using viral DNA that acts as a sort of vaccine to the plant. The technology saved the papaya and Hawaii’s farmers.
Did you know there’s a deadly disease that is essentially decimating the banana crop in Africa? In a continent where livelihood depends primarily on farming, ignoring GMOs can lead to severe consequences. 1/3 of global banana production is from Africa and it is also a staple food in the African diet.
The disease, known as Banana
Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin most known for its role in developing healthy
Rice is a staple food in much of the world because it is inexpensive. Scientists have been working to develop rice containing beta-carotene, the precursor to Vitamin A, to help those in countries such as the Philippines have access to healthy food. Unfortunately, fear of GMOs has slowed the progress of this crop. Activists have even destroyed test sites of GMO studies of golden rice, hindering research.
Research in golden rice is supported by the Rockefeller Foundation and the seeds are freely distributed to farmers.
Drought resistant maize
Drought is another issue facing many farmers, not only in developing countries but also in the Western US. Developing crops that could grow with less water could provide much-needed food security.
Citrus greening is a major concern in the orange crop throughout the world, and especially in the state of Florida. There is potential that GMOs could help save the crop and restore acreage in Florida.
What are the major concerns?
Despite these success stories, many people remain skeptical about the true benefits of GMOs. They are primarily concerned about potential effects on health and the environment. As more research is conducted, we have a better understanding of the impacts of GMOs.
Safety. Issues of allergens and DNA transfer concern many when it comes to GM foods. The National Academy of Science, American Medical Association, World Health Organization, and
Others also worry about the “unknown” of new proteins transcribed by modified genes. After 20 years of research, the major scientific institutions have concluded that genetic modification is no riskier than traditional methods such as selective breeding.
Environment. Concerns regarding the environment are often more difficult to measure. The impact is difficult to understand and takes more time and study. The biggest concerns in this area include gene transfer to unmodified species, insect and weed resistance, and impacts to biodiversity.
GM plants have been modified to produce proteins that are toxic to certain pests. This helps to reduce the use of pesticides in the field. Basically, the bugs eat the plant and die. The proteins are very targeted to specific pests to ensure only the harmful insects are affected, unlike pesticides.
It is true that reliance on glyphosate as the only herbicide in use has caused some resistance in weeds. This is a concern that will need to be addressed moving forward. Insects may also develop resistance to crops that have been genetically modified.
Farmer well-being. Many people believe corporations serve to gain through the use of terminator genes in their seed. This would stop farmers from reusing seeds the following year so that they would need to continually purchase seed. However, this technology is not being used today.
There is also
Some may wonder how farmers in poorer countries afford these seeds. However, in less developed countries, the seeds are freely available and distributed to farmers.
Long Road Ahead
While these concerns are certainly justified, much of the resistance to genetic engineering in food is largely due to mistrust in large biotech companies. Distrust in science and government corporate interests grew because of the lack of communication with the public.
Perception is a major hurdle facing the future of GMOs. As you saw in the Golden Rice video, destruction of GMO testing sites does happen and it slows progress. Fear, mistrust, and misunderstanding of science contribute to this perception.
Today, as more people take an interest in the food supply, scientists must work to reverse this path and responsibly report results. Companies must be open and transparent with consumers. This is why I think it’s so important to communicate science and share stories of how GMOs are helping agriculture and people.
This post only skims the surface of genetic modification. As with any technology, there are pros and cons that must be considered. Research is continually evolving and we must make changes based on data. This is an important issue to follow in the future.
This debate series is fascinating and allows you to cast your vote before and after the debate. Experts on both sides of the argument have a chance to discuss important points.
Warning! This video is almost 2 hours long. But, if you’re interested and you’ve got the time, I highly recommend! You can also read information on the debate webpage.
Food Business News. 2018. USDA Announces GMO Labeling Standard. https://www.foodbusinessnews.net/articles/13064-usda-announces-gmo-labeling-standard
GMO Answers. Current GMO Crops.https://gmoanswers.com/current-gmo-crops
National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine 2016. Genetically Engineered Crops: Experiences and Prospects. Washington, DC: The NationalAcademies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/23395
Purdue University College of Agriculture. The Science of GMOs. https://ag.purdue.edu/GMOs/Pages/The-Science-of-GMOs.aspx
Ronald, Pam. 2015. (Video) The Case for Engineering our Food. TED. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wZ2TF8-PGQ4
USDA Agricultural Marketing Service. BE Labeling and Disclosure. https://www.ams.usda.gov/rules-regulations/be