For quite a while now, I have been unsure about where I stand when it comes to so-called GMOs: genetically modified organisms. People seem to take an extreme stance on this topic, whether pro or anti-genetic engineering. According to many of these vocal advocates, either we have no choice but to turn to genetic engineering or die of starvation as the earth gets warmer and more populated, or we’re poisoning ourselves and the environment by consuming genetically modified food. When you hear from each side, both are convincing, but both are unavoidably biased. It’s kind of like comparing accounts of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from Israelis and Palestinians. I struggled to find an unbiased source of information, but I believe I found a few, which I will provide for your reference. I will now share with you what I’ve gathered, not to convince you of anything, but to try to clear this emotional haze surrounding what is primarily just another technology we have to approach cautiously like any other. I’m doing this in two parts so as not to overwhelm you.
Let’s start with a definition, because some of you may not know exactly what a GMO is, even though I’m sure you’ve heard of them by now. In simple terms, a scientist genetically modifies a food by taking a gene from one organism that promotes a desirable trait–or silences an undesirable one–and inserting it into another organism. To give you the most relevant examples, upwards of 95% of the corn and soy grown in the U.S. is genetically engineered. The corn has been modified with a gene from a bacterium to produce an insecticide known as Bt. The farmers don’t have to spend money or time spraying insecticides on the corn to keep away pests. The soy has been modified to resist an herbicide called Roundup. This is desirable because farmers can spray the herbicide throughout the growth of the soy to kill weeds without harming their crops. I believe a significant percentage of sugar beets are also genetically engineered (GE) now, as well as canola grown in Canada. These are the only widespread examples of genetically engineered food that have been on the market for at least two decades now.
Because these crops are so widespread, expect to find them in all animal products (because most of the GMO corn and soy goes to animal feed) and processed food that isn’t marked organic or non-GMO.
A lot of people are under the impression that there is something inherent in the genetic engineering of a food that makes it harmful to ingest. There simply is not scientific evidence to suggest that this is true. Granted, I have not perused the research myself, but I have read the reports, blogs, and news articles of experts who have, or who have interviewed scientists who have. People have been consuming GE corn and soy for literally decades now, and no one has been acutely, or chronically at this point, been harmed by virtue of the genetic engineering of the product. There are all kinds of problems with the abundance and cheapness of corn and soy in the food supply, but that’s another story.
Because of the imprecision of genetic engineering, a scientist can never be sure of the exact effect a gene will have when transferred from one organism to another. This means that there is always some level of risk of creating a harmful crop. For instance, there was a group of scientists at one point who transferred a gene from a brazil nut to a soybean. If consumed by a person with an allergy to a brazil nut, the reaction could have been extremely serious, even fatal. This sounds terrifying, right? Good thing that safety testing revealed this problem, and the crop was never commercialized.
Something people don’t realize is that any risks that come with genetic engineering are probably also risks involved with more conventional plant breeding techniques. Farmers have been selectively breeding plants to try to promote desirable traits for a very long time now. Scientists have been mutagenizing plants’ DNA randomly to find desirable traits for longer than GMOs have been around. These techniques are less precise and just as likely to produce a harmful crop as genetic engineering, but no one complains about them.
You may hear from anti-GMO activists that safety testing for GMOs by the federal government is voluntary and not mandatory. Evidently, though, these regulations are only voluntary in theory. No company has skipped safety testing a new GMO product, because the FDA could pull it off the market if they did.
There are some problems with the regulation of GMOs, however. The testing is done by the company independently, not the government agency responsible for assuring safety, and the specific testing is determined on a case-by-case basis. If the FDA were to require mandatory pre-market approval that was open to public review, there would be a greater assurance of safety and greater public confidence in the technology. It is also illegal as of now to require the recording of all products containing GMOs, so if there were a problem, it would be very difficult to trace.
There are clearly kinks that need to be worked out, but they are more in the regulatory system than the scientific one. Know for now that you can keep eating your favorite snacks without worrying about the transgenic ingredients poisoning you.
For Part II, I’ll go into the environmental consequences of GMOs and whether GMOs only have advantages for corporations. Hope I’ve given you something to think about for now!