The Pros & Cons Of GMOs: How Are They Best Used?
Genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, have been a topic of controversy for decades.
It’s reasonable too – as the industry provides many benefits but also tends to skirt ethical lines quite often.
This easily leads to confusion, and many people are still on the fence about GMOs despite their widespread use.
And these modified crops and foods are probably more common than you think.
So, what are the main pros and cons of GMOs?
A short GMO history lesson
The idea of altering food to better suit our needs, or simply for better taste, is nothing new.
Since the dawn of agriculture, humans have been selectively breeding and crossbreeding plants and animals, modifying their genes for traits that we consider more desirable.
In fact, many of the fruits and vegetables we eat today are crossbreeds between species native to different continents.
However, the genetically modified organisms (GMOs) of today differ from the selective breeding methods of the past in some pretty major ways.
The traditional form of selective breeding can take a very long time; and considering the technology currently available, it’s beginning to appear a bit antiquated and inefficient.
In 1973, two biochemists by the name of Stanley Cohen and Herbert Boyer inserted DNA from one bacterium into another, the first genuine step to genetically engineer food.
This method would later lead scientists to make the specific changes needed in a much more efficient manner – and by 1982, human insulin became the first FDA-approved consumer GMO product.
By the 1990s, GMO crops began sprouting up everywhere.
The process of genetic engineering starts by finding a desirable trait in nature.
Take corn, for example.
To design a strain of corn that’s pest-resistant, researchers need to:
- Find another organism with the desired trait, and find the gene responsible (in this case, a strain of bacteria)
- Once the gene is isolated, it’s copied
- Then it’s inserted into the corn, so as not to alter any other traits
- Lab studies confirm the trait was adopted and the review process begins
This process of genome editing is more or less a shortcut of the artificial breeding process used before, where desirable traits are selected and bred by farmers instead.
Gene editing is scandalous
As a relatively new science, GMOs have had a lot of backlash from competitors and the concerned public. And this has been further fueled by scandals like studies on GMOs safety being retracted due to scorn from the scientific community.
In 2012, a French research team led by Gilles-Eric Séralini published a paper linking higher rates of tumors in rats fed GM maize (corn) treated with the herbicide Roundup, developed by Monsanto.
This paper was then retracted in 2013, mainly being criticized for a lack of conclusive evidence due to the small number of rats tested.
Interestingly, the research team stands by their questionable paper, citing a conflict of interest between the journals Associate Editor for biotechnology, Richard E. Goodman – a former Monsanto employee.
It’s clear that financial incentives drive much of this drama, but what are the real pros and cons of GMOs?
Pros of GMOs
To paint a clear picture of how we can benefit from GMOs, it’s important to highlight how even a desired trait can be a double-edged sword.
- Some fruits selected for sweetness now contain unhealthy levels of sugar
- Vegetables bred for increased yields have lost beneficial phytonutrients
With that being said, let’s talk about the slew of other GMO benefits.
Allergens can be removed
While the concerns about dragging allergens from one plant into another are valid, GMO crops can be edited to remove the gene for producing the allergen in the first place, allowing for crops like allergen-free soy or wheat.
We’ll cover allergic reactions a bit more further down, as there are some potential downsides in this regard as well.
Increased crop yields
Up to 40% of global crop production is lost to pests, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. This costs the global economy over $220 billion each year, and the problem is only expected to worsen as we approach worrisome climate tipping points.
According to a recent NASA study, maize crop yields are projected to decline by nearly 25% as early as 2030, due to the effects of climate change.
GMOs resistant to pests cut down on these losses significantly.
As temperatures continue to increase around the globe, and floods and droughts become more prevalent, climate-resistant GMOs will play an increasingly important role in the preservation of our global food system.
Reduced pesticide use
An example of this is the Bt gene, which is inserted into soybean and corn varieties, making them more resistant to pests, and you can imagine the benefits of applying GMO technology to crops like hemp which already require little treatment.
A 2014 meta-analysis showed that GMO technology reduced the use of pesticides by 37% while raising crop yields by 22% – which should hopefully mean reduced costs for both farmers and consumers.
The artificially selected crops we consume daily are often less nutritious than they could be – and GMOs can potentially reverse this issue.
A common worry is that GM food crops can negatively affect the nutritional value of the foods we eat, but in reality the opposite may actually be true when it comes to biofortified crops.
According to the University of Michigan School of Public Health, GMOs have been useful in the fight against nutritional deficiencies; and this has global implications as society attempts to lift billions out of poverty worldwide.
Positive environmental impacts
The combination of the above benefits can dramatically affect the environment in several positive ways:
- Increased yields mean lower demands for land, clean water, and energy
- Reduced pesticide use means less pollution and more biodiversity
And this is all locally applicable – as the benefits of GMOs extend across the planet to some of the poorest nations.
If you live in the United States, there’s a good chance you’re already eating GM foods, whether you’re fully aware of it or not – as 90% of all the soy and corn in the US is grown using GM seeds, according to the USDA.
Although some countries do reject GMOs despite widespread hunger, the developing world in general struggles with famines that these technologies could address.
Cons of GMOs
Many of the risks of GMOs are issues similar to the ones we face with traditional selective breeding, but some are more ominous artifacts of the capitalist agricultural system we currently have in place.
Here’s a short breakdown of the major concerns:
This is a major concern in agriculture as a whole, and may be a risk that’s exacerbated with GMO crops.
Genes for antibiotic and antimicrobial resistance are commonly edited into crops to be used as a sort of marker linked to the gene with the desired trait, which allows researchers to easily test whether the trait has been adopted or not.
These genes are usually taken from bacteria, and it’s been discovered that the antibiotic-resistant genetic code survives human digestion and wastewater treatment, creating a reservoir of genetic material which can then be absorbed and adopted by other bacteria.
Because they contain foreign genes, GMO foods can trigger allergic reactions in certain individuals.
For example, a study carried out in the 1990’s found that when albumin from Brazil nuts is encoded into GM soybeans, those allergic to Brazil nuts may still suffer an allergic reaction to soybeans.
Thankfully, this type of soy was consequently never approved – and its development spawned a policy that prohibits GMOs from containing proteins suspected of being allergens.
GMO monopolies and human rights
As is often the case, large corporations with the most capital have the most power.
And the intent to monopolize certain technologies with the vague potential to improve human welfare often ends up causing more harm than good – with GMOs being no exception.
One issue is when powerful GM producers set prices low enough to harm the business of non-GM farmers; once the GM producer has weakened or eliminated the competition, they raise their prices and reap the rewards.
In terms of GMOs, a prime example of a corporation monopolizing food markets is the case of Monsanto. Monsanto holds a patent on a so-called terminator gene, which forces crops to produce sterile seeds.
Marketed as a way to prevent the spread of unwanted genes into the environment, the implication of patenting a gene would be that farmers are forced to buy seeds from Monsanto each season, and would be unable to own the reproduction rights of the crops they harvest.
In Argentina, soy production tripled in a matter of just over a decade once Monsanto began selling its Roundup Ready soybeans, leading to a drastic decrease in other staples such as rice, maize, potatoes and lentils.
As a result, thousands of small farmers were forced to leave the countryside, and Monsanto has even sued small farmers for reusing their patented GM seeds – even though it’s standard practice to reuse seeds for crop diversification.
So, Monsanto has developed a bit of a reputation for screwing countless small farmers out of business by the unethical implementation of its patented GM crops.
While GMOs can be improved to reduce the need for pesticides, that doesn’t mean it’s what always happens.
Chemical producers still want to sell their products – and vast monoculture plantations are the perfect place for concentrated pesticide use.
An alternative to monoculture farming is sustainable farming, which is essentially agriculture framed in the complete opposite manner of monocropping.
Negative environmental impacts
Even though some studies have highlighted the potential for positive environmental effects, GMOs can also have a detrimental effect on genetic diversity – an essential component of plant and animal survival for eons.
Let’s use the well-known Irish Potato Famine as an example of the importance of genetic diversity in crop production.
This 19th century tragedy occurred due to a lack of diverse potato varieties, leading most to easily be wiped out by an invasive pathogen. Had there been more genetic variability, more species of potato would have survived, and the death of around 2 million people could have been avoided.
Genetically engineered crops may just be too advantageous from a biological perspective, leading to uncontrolled growth and a kind of evolutionary monopoly.
And these emerging pathogens hurt wild crop varieties, and the insects and other fauna that rely on them for survival too – not just the foods we eat.
Another legitimate concern is the use of herbicide-resistant GMO crops that encourage heavy pesticide use, contributing to toxicity both on the food itself, and in the groundwater and runoff as well.
GMO labeling rundown
GMO labeling on products is still in its infancy, but if you’re in the US in particular there are some things you can look out for.
Bioengineered foods is actually the term preferred by regulatory agencies – not GMOs; and they’re defined as those which couldn’t be found naturally and contain enough modified genetic material in them to be detectable.
Keep an eye out for labels such as:
- Derived From Bioengineering
- Non-GMO Project Verified (if you want to avoid them)
- Other symbols and disclosures in general
GMOs can and do provide enormous benefits to humanity and the planet.
But if employed without proper care, or if used to the detriment of small farmers, they can hurt biodiversity and violate human rights.
So, how do you feel about GMOs?