Although genetically modified organisms have been around for about two decades, the GMO debate is still raging today.
A genetically modified organism (GMO) is any plant, animal, or microorganism whose DNA has been altered in a way that doesn’t occur naturally. Common items such as cotton are GMOs, but recently there has been debate as to whether it is safe to eat food that has been genetically modified. GMOs have been available to the public since 1994, when the Flavr Savr tomato first came to market after FDA approval. The United States is the largest producer of GMOs in the world.
Where are GMOs found?
You probably eat GMO foods all the time. Corn and soybeans are genetically modified. Even if you don’t eat corn or soybeans directly, they are extremely common ingredients in the majority of packaged products. Corn derivatives like corn flour and corn syrup are pretty obvious, but corn is also found in citric acid, lactic acid, fructose, sorbitol, starch, baking powder, and other widely used ingredients. Most vegetable oils are made from soybeans, and, according to FoodAllergy.org, soy can also hide in weird places like baked foods, canned tuna, cereals, cookies, crackers, protein bars, infant formulas, sauces, canned soups, and canned broths.
Alfalfa is also one of the biggest GMOs in the United States, and while it is not consumed by people, it is fed to livestock like cows, which are then consumed by people. Many more genetically modified grains, vegetables, and fruits are on their way to FDA approval.
Why genetically modify food in the first place?
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “One of the objectives for developing plants based on GM organisms is to improve crop protection. The GM crops currently on the market are mainly aimed at an increased level of crop protection through the introduction of resistance against plant diseases caused by insects or viruses or through increased tolerance towards herbicides.”
To combat crop loss caused by insects, a toxin that is used as a conventional insecticide in agriculture and has been shown to be safe for human consumption – Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt – is incorporated into the DNA of the plant. Crops that produce this toxin require fewer applications of insecticides in situations where pests are a major issue. To prevent diseases caused by insects, a gene from certain viruses that affect plants are introduced to the DNA of the plants, which builds the virus resistance of the plant almost like a vaccine.
Farmers also struggle with weeds that take over their fields, inhibiting the growth of crops. They are limited in their herbicide use because the chemicals that kill the weeds can also damage the crops. To assist with this issue, biotech companies have introduced a gene from a bacterium that provides the crops with resistance to some herbicides. That means that farmers can use less herbicides to kill the weeds without harming the crops.
The hope is that these combined genetic modifications will create greater crop yields, reducing the price of food and allowing more people in the world to have access to nutritious produce.
Companies like Monsanto are also hopeful that they can genetically alter foods that cause severe and sometimes fatal allergic reactions in people – like peanuts – to reduce the level of allergens in the food and provide some protection for people with allergies.
In the future, foods could even be genetically engineered to contain more minerals and vitamins. This would ensure that people receive the important nutrients they need, which would help greatly in developing countries where malnutrition is prevalent.
So why is there a GMO debate?
Because genetically modified food has only been around for about 20 years, some concerns remain about the long-term effects they will have on the human body, natural plant species, and the agriculture industry as a whole.
Some are concerned that the introduction of proteins that aren’t natural to the original plant (or animal after livestock consumes the plant) could cause new allergic reactions in the human body. About 90% of all food allergies are caused by milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, soy, wheat, fish, and shellfish. Currently, only one of those foods is commercially available as a GMO – soy. Manufacturers are held to strict standards, and, according to the WHO, “No allergic effects have been found relative to GM foods currently on the market.”
Others are concerned that consuming genetically altered foods could increase the risk for cancer in humans. The WHO states “GM foods currently available on the international market have passed safety assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health. In addition, no effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved,” but emphasize that continued assessments for safety are necessary to understand the long-term effects of these genetically altered foods.
When it comes to GMOs and the environment, the WHO explains, “Issues of concern include: the capability of the GMO to escape and potentially introduce the engineered genes into wild populations; the persistence of the gene after the GMO has been harvested; the susceptibility of non-target organisms (e.g. insects which are not pests) to the gene product; the stability of the gene; the reduction in the spectrum of other plants including loss of biodiversity; and increased use of chemicals in agriculture. The environmental safety aspects of GM crops vary considerably according to local conditions.”
All of these issues are taken into account before FDA approval for a new genetically modified food is granted. So far, studies have shown very low risks of cross-contamination when farmers follow appropriate practices. Research has shown that other, complex factors are the likely causes of declining populations of pollinators like bees and butterflies rather than GMOs. Just as with human health, GMOs will continue to face scrutiny until their long-term effects on the environment are studied and verified.
The concerns of some about the impact of GMOs on agriculture are best summarized by the WHO’s website, which explains “Certain groups are concerned about what they consider to be an undesirable level of control of seed markets by a few chemical companies. Sustainable agriculture and biodiversity benefit most from the use of a rich variety of crops, both in terms of good crop protection practices as well as from the perspective of society at large and the values attached to food. These groups fear that as a result of the interest of the chemical industry in seed markets, the range of varieties used by farmers may be reduced mainly to GM crops. This would impact on the food basket of a society as well as in the long run on crop protection (for example, with the development of resistance against insect pests and tolerance of certain herbicides). The exclusive use of herbicide-tolerant GM crops would also make the farmer dependent on these chemicals. These groups fear a dominant position of the chemical industry in agricultural development, a trend which they do not consider to be sustainable.”
For now, the popularity of organic produce is maintaining a level of biodiversity in the agriculture industry, along with companies and farmers who still choose to use unmodified seeds. Many groups will continue to watch these issues closely as more GMOs are being developed and becoming commercially available.
What is the future of GMOs?
GMOs have been around for about two decades, and are likely here to stay. There is currently a lot of debate about the labeling of foods that contain genetically modified organisms. More than 60 countries have implemented labeling laws that require foods with GMO ingredients to be clearly labeled. The United States does not have a national labeling standard, but many states are beginning to create their own laws. As a result, some major food companies like General Mills, Kellogg’s, ConAgra Foods, and Mars, Inc. have opted to implement standard GMO labeling for the products they sell in the United States.
Whatever your personal feelings about genetically modified foods, the GMO debate has sparked a greater awareness of how our food is produced and opened a dialogue about the importance of sustainable farming to the health of our planet.
Organic options persist for those who have lingering concerns about consuming genetically modified food. If you want to have a larger role in the GMO debate, get informed and consider a degree in biology that could prepare you to become a conservation scientist, biological technician, allergist, or nutritionist. Excited about the possibilities of GMOs? Consider a career in biotech and make advancements that ensure the health and safety of our world.