What are GMOs?
If you’ve eaten anything today, chances are you’ve snacked on GMOs. GMO stands for genetically modified organism. Genetically modified (GM) foods are made from soy, corn, or other crops grown from seeds with genetically engineered DNA.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), GM seeds are used to plant more than 90 percent of corn, soybeans, and cotton grown in the United States. Unless you consciously avoid them, GM foods likely find their way into many of your snacks and meals.
Some people believe GM foods are safe, healthy, and sustainable, while others claim the opposite. Read on to learn about the pros and cons — and what the research says.
Pros of GM foods
Scientists genetically engineer seeds for many reasons. For example, they sometimes make changes designed to increase a plant’s:
- resistance to insects
- tolerance to herbicides
- tolerance for heat, cold, or drought
- crop yield
They also engineer seeds to give GM foods stronger colors, increase their shelf life, or eliminate seeds. That’s why we can buy seedless watermelons and grapes. Some GM foods also have been engineered to have higher levels of specific nutrients, such as protein, calcium, or folate.
Proponents of GM food contend that genetic engineering can help us find sustainable ways to feed people. Specifically, in countries that lack access to nutrient-rich foods. The heartiness of some GM crops makes it so they can grow in marginal environments. The longer shelf life of some GM foods allows them to be shipped to remote areas.
Potential cons of GM foods
On the other hand, some people wonder if GM foods are safe and healthy to eat. Genetic engineering is a relatively new development. As a result, research on the long-term health effects of GM foods is limited.
GM foods have to meet the same safety requirements as foods grown from non-GM seeds. But critics suggest there’s more to be concerned about. Some people worry that GM foods may be linked to allergies, antibiotic resistance, or cancer. Others suggest these concerns are unfounded. Here’s what the research says.
Food allergies are a growing problem in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), food allergies in children under 18 years of age have increased; from 3.4 percent between 1997 and 1999 to 5.1 percent between 2009 and 2011.
Some people believe that spike is linked to GM foods. But there’s no evidence that GM foods in general are more likely to trigger allergic reactions than non-GM foods, according to a study from Harvard University.
Others raise concerns about the transfer of specific proteins from one plant to another in genetic engineering. Proteins found in a relatively small number of foods cause most allergic reactions. Tree nuts are one of the most common triggers.
In the mid-1990s, researchers examined a strain of GM soybean that was engineered to contain protein from Brazil nuts. According to their report in the New England Journal of Medicine, the soybeans triggered allergic reactions in people with Brazil nut allergy. Those soybeans never entered the market and aren’t sold to consumers.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and World Health Organization (WHO) have since established protocols for GM foods. They require GM foods to be tested for their ability to cause allergic reactions. According to the Mayo Clinic, none of the GM foods that are currently on the market have been found to have allergenic effects.
Antibiotic-resistant bacteria can resist antibiotics, making them hard to kill. According to the CDC, antibiotic-resistant germs infect two million people each year. Those infections kill at least 23,000 people per year.
Scientists often modify seeds using antibiotic-resistant genes in the genetic engineering process. Some people wonder if there’s a link between these GM foods and rising rates of antibiotic resistant bacteria. No studies have confirmed this claim, but more research is needed.
In 2013, the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology retracted a paper that linked the herbicide Roundup and Roundup-tolerant GM corn to cancer and premature death in rats. Due to concerns about the paper, the journal’s editor reviewed the researchers’ raw data and the peer-review process. They found the researchers had used too few rats, the specific strain of rats was prone to cancer, and the results were inconclusive.
Since then, the paper has been republished in another journal, Environmental Sciences Europe. The controversy surrounding the study’s findings has continued.
According to the American Cancer Society, more research is needed to assess the potential long-term health effects of GM foods.
How can you tell if you’re buying GM food?
The European Commission requires GM food products in Europe to be labeled as such. But in the United States, no federal mandate exists for labeling GM foods. As a result, it can be hard to know if you’re buying and eating GM foods.
If you decide to avoid GM foods, look for products that are USDA certified organic. Certified organic foods are grown and handled without the use of GMOs.
Genetically modified foods are something that inspires passions on both sides of the debate. On one side of the equation, foods that have been genetically modified can be grown in a number of different non-traditional locations and provide higher yields. This means that more people can be fed and world hunger can potentially be eliminated. On the other end of the spectrum is the fact that food allergies are dramatically on the rise and the genetic modifications to food are thought to be at least partially to blame.
There are certainly some advantages to the creation of genetically modified food and there are also some disadvantages that must be considered. These lists will help everyone be able to begin forming their own position in this ongoing debate.
What Are the Pros of Genetically Modified Foods?
The primary advantage of genetically modified food is that it can be grown virtually anywhere. Because the plants or animals have been genetically modified to withstand specific environments, places where farms didn’t used to be feasible can now become productive land for crops and livestock. Here is a list of some additional pros to consider on the subject as well.
1. Foods that have been improved genetically tend to have an improved stress tolerance, allowing them to withstand drought or harsh and unexpected climate conditions.
2. Many genetically modified foods have been created so that they’ll be able to grow faster, allowing for the potential of two harvests instead of one.
3. Genetic modifications can put in more vitamins and minerals into the food chain, helping everyone have a healthier overall diet.
4. Although its controversial, it may be possible to have genetic modifications in food that would incorporate specific vaccines or medication into the food supply so that human disease could be proactively treated.
5. Genetic modifications allow for crops to be more resistant to herbicides, pesticides, and other crop treatments that would normally harm the plant.
6. Foods that are genetically modified have the potential of being engineered so that they can taste better.
7. Higher yields can be produced from the same land even in just one harvest because the plants are engineered to provide more consistent results.
8. Foods that have been genetically engineered are typically able to stay fresher for longer, giving them longer shelf lives and this produces less overall food waste.
9. It provides consistent pricing because crops are less affected by weather changes, drought, or climate issues in general.
Genetically modified food has changed the way we all think about eating. By being able to create higher yields, more people can be fed. This also means that crop lands and livestock farms can be more productive and this could lead to an increase in the overall wealth of farmers who are embracing genetic modifications.
What Are the Cons of Genetically Modified Foods?
The primary disadvantage of having genetically modified food is that there can be several unexpected side effects throughout the entire food chain. People consuming the food may develop allergies or other long-term health conditions. The chemical compounds in the plants may go into their fruits in various amounts, creating an inconsistent food chain. These other disadvantages may also need to be considered.
1. Without labels on foods that are genetically modified, people are unable to make the eating choices they wish to make. There is no knowledge about whether the foods are GMO or not.
2. There are safety issues with GMO foods that have not been addressed. It is not known if genetic manipulation or spraying dangerous insecticides directly on our food is safe short or long term. If given a preference, the average person won’t eat genetically modified food. Labeling requirements of GMO food outside of the US have proven this time after time.
3. People may eating animal protein items while eating vegetables because of genetic modification, which may be against their religious preferences, their eating preferences, or even cause a medical emergency if they have a food allergy already present.
4. It reduces the diversity of each plant species because herbicide and pesticide resistance may also kill the beneficial insects that help to pollinate plants.
5. Ecological damage happens to the soil that supports GMO crops over time, robbing it of its resources to the point that it can no longer sustain life.
6. Crops that do not have genetic modifications may also be affected by the natural cross-pollination process.
7. There is no financial gain seen when the costs of GMO crops are compared to non-GMO crops. The cost of developing the genetic modifications may even make some crops more expensive to grow.
8. Resistance to herbicides and other crop treatments leads to higher chemical use to get the same results, eventually causing insects and weeds to grow anyway.
9. The chemicals that are introduced into some genetically modified food may wash into the water supply during storms or extended periods of rainfall.
10. Many genetic modifications are patented, making it less cost effective to feed the hungry or end malnutrition from a global perspective.
11. It has not been proven that GMO offer better yields for farmers.
It could be said that the consumption of genetically modified food means that people are trading food for food-like products. The main issue, however, is that the long-term effects of eating GMO foods has not been studied because the technology isn’t old enough to produce data. Even when data is available, however, it’s a very real possibility that industry studies will support genetic modifications and non-industry studies will not support food engineering.
What Do You Think About Genetically Modified Food?
If used properly, the science behind genetically modified food could be used to end hunger. If used improperly, the science could be misused and potentially endanger are entire food supply. This means that if we are to pursue this field of food science, we must have responsible management of the research being done and have third party independent verification and monitoring of results so that it becomes possible to distinguish fact from fiction.
Use this pros and cons list about genetically modified food to think about the subject today. What you put into your body becomes part of who you are. That’s why understanding this subject more completely can help everyone make an empowered decision about their health.
Crystal Lombardo is a contributing editor for Vision Launch. Crystal is a seasoned writer and researcher with over 10 years of experience. She has been an editor of three popular blogs that each have had over 500,000 monthly readers.