(Photo above by Scott Warman via Unsplash)
GMOs have become hot button issues in recent years, but do they deserve the controversy surrounding them? Some people are concerned that the science is too new to know the future effects; others simply think that genetically modified foods are not as healthy as unmodified food. In America, many consumers actively avoid buying GMOs and opt for organic produce instead, which must not be genetically modified to meet USDA regulations.
Still, the scientific community embraces GMOs, and no scientific literature finds them to be dangerous. Instead, most scientists believe GMOs are promising in their capabilities to solve many socioeconomic issues.
Before you make up your mind about them, learn more about GMOs to create an informed opinion.
What are GMOs?
GMO stands for genetically modified organism. This may sound intimidating and conjure pictures of scientists in lab coats creating foods in clinical laboratories. While that is how many genetically engineered foods are created today (which is not inherently bad), things as simple as cross breeding count as genetic modification.
GMOs as we know them today are foods that have undergone genetic recombination. Recombinant DNA technology isolates and extracts one or more genes from one organism and inserts them into the DNA of another organism. In crops, genetic recombination is used to discover and propagate advantageous traits to increase farmers’ yields, improve flavor and shelf life, reduce the use of insecticides, or make any other number of possible changes.
Genetically modified food is very common in the U.S. Since the federal government’s approval for consumption in 1994, the practice has grown very quickly. In 2014, 90 percent of the United States’ corn, cotton, and soybeans were genetically modified. If you are concerned about buying GM foods, or just want to know whether the produce you’re buying is genetically modified, the federal government passed a bill in 2017 requiring GM foods to be labeled as such. Though the bill does not go into full effect until 2022, it is not uncommon now to see either a symbol or text on food packaging that indicates its status. (Note that the labelling may use the phrasing “bioengineered” instead of “genetically modified.”)
But, genetic engineering is not used only for food. Medicine has also benefited greatly from this technology. Developing vaccines using GMOs allows scientists to no longer rely on blood samples and animal parts, which have contamination risks. I’m going to focus on GM foods and consumer reactions to them, but it is important to know that genetic modification is applicable in other areas.
Why do people avoid GMOs?
There is currently a lot of anti-GMO sentiment in the U.S., and many brands proudly display “Non-GMO” stickers on their products’ packaging. A 2018 Pew Research Center poll found that 49 percent of Americans believe that GM foods are worse for your health than non-GM foods. This is an increase from a 2016 poll, in which only 39 percent of people believed this (though the increase is attributed mostly to those with low levels of scientific knowledge). There is even an organization called the Non-GMO Project, which companies can pay to verify and label their products as certified non-GMO.
One of the most common reasons consumers avoid GMOs is because of the perceived health risk they pose. In this comedic (and probably staged, let’s be honest) Jimmy Kimmel clip, people are asked if they eat GM foods. One woman confidently says that she avoids them “because they’re not good for you,” even though she doesn’t even know what GMO stands for.
This is, of course, an overblown bit for a late night show. But it does shed light on the reality that many people who believe that GMOs are harmful do not fully understand what GMOs are. In a New York Times article covering a Nature Human Behavior study about consumer fears of GMOs, they found that, “as the degree of opposition to the foods increased, knowledge about them decreased.”
It’s not completely unreasonable to be wary of new technologies and the impacts they may have on your health. But there is currently no evidence that eating GM foods poses any health risks. There has never been any observed death or other injury due to GMOs. Gene recombination is a controlled process that is heavily vetted and assessed for safety. The genes that are inserted into plants are well-known and their effects understood. GM foods are more rigorously tested for safety than any other food available, ensuring that any that make it to your plate are safe and edible.
What are the pros?
We already know that GMOs are safe to consume, and they have no adverse health side effects. But beyond that, GMOs have many benefits to offer farmers, consumers, and whole populations alike.
The classic reason for genetically modifying crops was to eliminate the need for insecticides. The most common example of this is inserting a gene that produces Bt toxin, a natural insecticide, into corn. Studies in India have shown that corn modified with the Bt toxin increased yield by 30 to 80 percent. GMOs have also been used to create herbicide-resistant crops as well, which can control invasive weeds. These GM crops may be good choices for consumers who are concerned about traces of pesticides left on their produce, as they don’t require the use of those chemicals.
Another benefit for consumers is improved quality of the produce they buy. Specific genetic modifications can lengthen produce’s shelf life, enhance flavor, and increase nutritional value. All of these create better products for consumers to buy. Though GM foods are convenient for American shoppers, they are most beneficial to people in countries where food scarcity is rampant.
The Golden Rice
Biofortified foods offer great opportunities to areas where malnutrition is an epidemic. The most well-known biofortified food is golden rice. Golden rice is a rice strain that was developed to contain beta-carotene, a precursor to vitamin A, to combat vitamin A deficiency. VAD can cause blindness, reduce immune function leaving sufferers susceptible to disease, and lead to death if left untreated. In 2012, VAD affected 250 million children, and treating it could save up to 2.7 million from dying.
Golden rice was designed to help areas of the world that consume lots of rice and are most affected by VAD. Traditional white rice has little nutritional value, and swapping just ⅓ cup of white rice to golden rice per day would prevent VAD from developing in children. Even though this seems to be extremely promising in preventing millions of unnecessary deaths, anti-GMO activism has prevented golden rice from being widely adopted. (Specifically, Greenpeace campaigned hard for it to not be accepted in China, one of the world’s greatest consumers of rice.)
Misinformation and disbelief in science are allowing preventable deaths to continue. Anti-GMO sentiment in consumers here affects the worldwide opinion on the technology. And the longer we allow the mainstream distrust in GMOs to continue, the longer global malnutrition remains unresolved.
If you decide not to eat GMOs for yourself, that’s fine. But do not base your opinion in pseudoscience and do not contribute to the dismissal of lifesaving technologies for others.
Are you more confident about the positive role of GMOs now?
I’m gonna do more research