by Dana Gross
The debate over GMOs is quite a complex one and certainly a heated one. One side swears GMOs will have severely negative consequences on our health and our planet, while the other side emphatically presses the importance of GMOs and the immense benefits it can supply to the world at large. The question is, is it nonsensical to stress over GMO products, or should we be even more rigorous about what we put in our diet, and therefore, our bodies? You’ve probably come here because you want to read the facts about GMOs for yourself, rather than relying on hearsay. We’ve fleshed out the debate with a list of pros and cons, for and against, genetic engineering. Then we’ll let you decide how you want to spend your money in the supermarket.
Why GMO in the First Place?
GMO stands for Genetically Modified Organisms, and in this article, we’ll mainly focus on genetically engineered seeds. You may be wondering, why would science do such a thing? Well, the idea is to alter the DNA of the crop to make the fruits and vegetables tastier, more attractive to humans, less vulnerable to predators and disease, and healthier. But the question is, is all that true and are GMOs sustainable?
Engineers are sourcing DNA from animals (including humans), bacterium, or produce to alter the DNA of an organism. For example, you can now treat yourself to a pink pineapple thanks to the DNA of a tomato (or should we have saved that one for the ‘pro’ list?) While this may be exciting for some, others have grown quite frightened over this sci-fi-like future, or maybe it was the GMO pigs glowing in the dark from the bioluminescence genetic code in jellyfish that got people so excited. As fascinating as this may sound, it’s reasonable if some of you are shifting in your seats right now, while others may be googling which farms are now adding glow in the dark pigs to their Halloween festivals.
Just like ‘Global Warming’ was quietly switched to ‘Climate Change,’ you may now see GMO products moving towards a GE (Genetically Engineered), BE (Bioengineered), or simply GM labeling, because who needs the extra ‘O’ these days anyway? Well, in truth, no laws have gone into effect in the United States requiring producers to label their products with any of the above abbreviations just yet, but by 2022 we should be able to witness these changes.
But how about all the strong points for GMO benefits and all those passionate points against GMO risks?
‘Go, Go GMO!’ (PROS)
- Many seeds are genetically engineered to produce crops more resistant to disease spread by insects. GM seeds can also produce crops more tolerant to herbicides. Both modifications yield more crops per season. This solution can be more economical for farmers, potentially long term, who rely on their produce as their sole income. Additionally, if there are more crops available, the market is able to sell more affordable produce to the consumers, which hopefully means more people will have access to healthier products.
- Many crops are genetically modified to increase nutritional value. For example, Golden Rice has been biologically engineered to supply high levels of beta-carotene (a precursor to vitamin A), which may be able to prevent irreversible blindness and decrease child mortality in Africa and Southeast Asia, where extremely low Vitamin A levels have been reported.
- Biological engineering can enhance flavors and alter crops to appear more attractive. These modifications could attract a wider range of consumers who typically don’t buy fresh produce or nutrient-rich ingredients.
- Another advantage of genetically modified seeds is creating products with a longer shelf life, which can lead to less waste. Additionally, produce will be able to reach remote areas before spoiling.
Clean Eating (CONS)
- Though manipulating the DNA of a crop is nothing new, as they have been cross-breeding tomatoes, potatoes, etc. for centuries, this new scientific approach differs greatly from what farmers have done in the past. One of the main concerns of the public is the potential long term effects biological engineering can have on the soil, the crops and its consumer. For many, their safety is not worth the risk. According to the Center for Food Safety, “A number of studies over the past decade have revealed that genetically engineered foods can pose serious risks to farmers, human health, domesticated animals, wildlife and the environment.”
- GM foods are of major concern for vegetarians, vegans, and certain religious groups, as many genetically engineered crops, have been or will be, given the DNA from an animal, which often goes against many groups’ moral and religious beliefs. For example, arctic fish genes have been introduced to the DNA of tomatoes and strawberries to withstand frost.
- Certain foods may trigger an allergic reaction depending on where the DNA was derived from. Research has shown that there was an increase in food allergies in children under 18 from 1999 to 2011, which many believe is due to genetic engineering.
For example, methionine from Brazil nuts was introduced to transgenic soybeans, which then triggered an allergic reaction in individuals with an allergy to brazil nuts and was, therefore, not introduced into the market. The main concern here for no-GMO activists are, genetic engineering can reach the point where we no longer know exactly what’s in the DNA of the simple ingredients we have in our diets
- Though a majority of scientists believe GMOs are safe, there are several researchers who believe GMOs can lead to – yes that word we’re all afraid of – Cancer. They believe it’s a risk of introducing new genes into the body since cancer is a result of a genetic mutation. However, there is no conclusive evidence and more research needs to be done since this issue is relatively young.
- Though those voting for GMOs see GM seeds more tolerant of herbicides as a positive outcome, many believe this is a part of the evil of GMOs. According to As You Sow, “The modifications are centered around resistance to toxic substances, such as pesticides and certain fertilizers. When dangerous chemicals are applied, plants use them to grow, and the food itself can be detrimental to our health.” This certainly triggers the buttons of those in the Organic camp.
Issues concerning Labeling vs. Non Labeling
Something to consider for all those US citizens out there reading this article: Most developed countries (64 countries in total) require foods that have been genetically modified to be labeled as such. We’re talking about Japan, Australia, and the entire European union here, so what’s up with the FDA? As of 2019, genetically engineered foods require labeling in the USA, with a mandatory compliance date by 2022. In truth, only some products (we’re talking oils, medicines, cereals, etc.) containing genetically modified ingredients will need to be labeled.
The FDA now states that food that consists of compositional differences which yielded material change after BE, require new labeling. How has this law manifested itself? Well, when something like canola oil, after a genetic modification has increased lauric acid content the FDA now requires the oil to be labeled “laurate canola oil.” Similarly, soybean oil must be labeled “high oleic soybean oil,” after apparent changes. Not that your average consumer would know what that implied, but now that you’re here, you may find it useful to be aware of these subtle changes.
When new laws come into effect for GMO labeling, the only products that need to be labeled ‘Biologically Engineered’ are only those with detectable traces of GMOs. While this may sound reasonable at first, in truth, based on scientific evidence, refined foods like, refined beet, refined oils refined cane sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and several other refined ingredients while processed almost entirely, or completely, lose the DNA that was originally present before undergoing processing. So, as we can see, this debate continues to expand in its complexities.
Additionally, very small businesses are exempt from labeling their foods as “BE,” Meat and milk-fed GMO ingredients are exempt from labeling and 100% organic foods aren’t required to have labeling since it’s implied in their regulations. For information on Non-GMO labeling click HERE.
Some Bonus GMO FACTS
- By 2014, 90-95% of the cotton, corn, canola, sugar beets and soybeans are grown or sold in the US have been genetically modified. Other common GM crops include potatoes, squash, zucchini, apples, and Hawaiian papayas. GMOs can be recorded as far back as 1994.
- As of now, not all products are subject to GMO. So, some items are tagged as ‘non-GMO’ when it was never at risk of containing GMO ingredients in the first place.
- The major biotech companies that are genetically engineering our food are (drum roll please!):
- Pioneer Hi-Bred International (a subsidiary of Dupont)
- Dow Agrosciences (a subsidiary of Dow Chemical)
- Syngenta AG
- Bayer CropScience (a subsidiary of Bayer)
- Foods that have genetically modified ingredients in their product will no longer be able to label themselves as “natural.”
- Check out a list of Bioengineered foods here by the USDA.
If you’re interested in reading further on topics concerning GMO follow any of the links encrypted above. When investigating such a heated topic, it’s best to read articles that cite reliable sources. It’s clear both sides have an agenda, and it’s up to you to decide which agenda resonates most closely with your own set of morals, health concerns, and expectations.