Are GMOs Friend or Foe?

When an organism has been genetically modified, its DNA has been altered through genetic engineering. We can think of GMOs as the result of selective breeding with techno

The public perspective of what is and isn't healthy fluctuates throughout time. Corn syrup, MSG, and cooking oils are just a few products that have been subject to scrutiny. By the early 2000s, GMOs began to face that same criticism. They became the next villain in the food industry, and brands everywhere began declaring that their products were free of them. While many people understand that the acronym stands for genetically modified organism, do most actually know what that constitutes? Moreover, what role do GMOs play in the larger conversation of food sustainability? We are increasingly aware of the dangers that fertilizers and pesticides pose to our health and the earth. Should we be as equally concerned with GMOs? Breaking down what genetically modified organisms are and why they're used can help determine whether or not their presence in our food supply does more harm or more good.

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The GMO Breakdown

Genetically modified organisms can come in many forms and serve different purposes. A modified organism can be a plant, an animal, or even a microbe. When an organism has been genetically modified, its DNA has been altered through genetic engineering. We can think of GMOs as the result of selective breeding with technology. Specific characteristics are chosen in an organism to produce a specific result, usually an enhanced trait. Genetic engineering can change phenotypes like the color or shape of an organism, or it can change characteristics the eye can't see, like fertility or maturation time. While animal DNA is normally modified for research, plants are often modified for food consumption. The concept of choosing an organism's genetic traits is nothing new. Humans have altered DNA using different breeding methods for generations. The domesticated dog breeds that exist today are mostly the result of selective breeding, and people have selectively grown corn for years! 

One key difference between the traditional methods of selective breeding and today's genetic modifications is the amount of time required. With modern technology and science, genetic modifications allow living things to be changed and enhanced at a much faster rate. Not only does biotechnology cut down the time it takes to create GMOs, but it also helps avoid any unwanted traits. Traditional selective breeding and crossbreeding aren't exact science. Oftentimes, these methods yield desired traits as well as unwanted traits that are just a byproduct of breeding. In truth, many success stories wouldn't even be possible without modern GMOs. For decades, the oyster population in the Chesapeake Bay declined to a point where over 99% of the population was lost due to overfishing and disease. When scientists and watermen joined forces, they bred and repopulated the bay with a lab-bred species. The specialty oyster species was engineered with genes that were disease resistant and with faster growth patterns. 

In fact, the origin of GMOs didn't begin with food at all but instead with medicine. While people mainly think of GMOs as health hazards, GMOs were actually first introduced for insulin. In 1982, The Food and Drug Administration approved genetically modified insulin hormones. Before this was done, diabetic patients had to rely on insulin from pigs and cows, a method that wasn't reliable for two reasons. Suppliers couldn't always guarantee to have enough livestock for these insulins. On top of that, not everyone could tolerate insulin from pigs and cows. Creating insulin that was lab-grown and genetically altered allowed those with diabetes to receive medication that was animal-free and a much closer match to human insulin. This pharmaceutical breakthrough was the first step for GMOs as we know them today.

Why Do Our Groceries Have GMOs?

Fast forward a few years, and there are now various reasons why we may find GMOs in the food in our grocery stores. In many cases, GMOs offer a way for farmers to grow their crops with less difficulty. Some crops have been modified to withstand the climate in locations they weren't previously able to grow in. A plant's genetic code can be adjusted to become more resistant to insects too. Bt-corn is a type of modified corn crop with a selected gene from a soil bacterium. The gene contains a protein that kills European corn borers, a pest that feeds on grains. With this special ingredient in its DNA, Bt-corn is extra equipped to withstand that pest, and this allows the crop to need fewer pesticides. Plus, scientists have found that Bt-corn is just as nutritious as unmodified corn crops.

While crops like Bt-corn require fewer pesticides, they still can be exposed to other chemicals and have been designed to endure that exposure. A study on genetically modified crops and their relationship to carbon emissions was published in 2020. The research found that pesticide spraying on crops had reduced by 8.3% as a result of developing engineered genes that were insect resistant and tolerant of herbicides. The decrease in pesticide use helps reduce harm to the environment. Any chemicals that are used in agriculture usually end up in the surrounding soil and water as runoff.

When crops are created to outlast the effects and dangers of herbicides, insects, and the climate, we get a bigger harvest for the growing population.

The World Health Organization has also cited disease and herbicide resistance as a reason to modify crops in order to increase output. When crops are created to outlast the effects and dangers of herbicides, insects, and the climate, we get a bigger harvest for the growing population. Cornstarch, corn syrup, corn oil, soybean oil, canola oil, and granulated sugar all tend to be made from GMO crops. Many bioengineered crops are used for animal feed as well. The USDA even provides a list of the common food products that are genetically modified. Corn, soybean, and cotton are the three main crops grown in the United States, and a majority of them come from these modified seeds. In 2018, it was reported that an estimated 92% of corn and 94% of soybeans were from genetically modified seeds.

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Corporate Crops

Going beyond science, GMOs provide a financial benefit to the companies that produce them. The genetically modified food supply can't be discussed without looking at the massive corporate industry behind it. Federal government agencies insist that GMOs do nothing more than optimize the supply chain and output. However, there's an existing argument that corporations rely on GMOs for financial gain and control. A small handful of agrochemical corporations control half of the world's seeds, and unfortunately, monopolies like this often lead to higher prices of the product. Choosing to opt-out of purchasing seeds from these companies is nearly impossible for farmers to do because there are only a few options to choose from. Most of those options are just other conglomerates that control too much of the market. With that much power, companies can make decisions that impact a large number of people. In an industry that makes billions of dollars in one year alone, companies tend to act on what benefits them financially instead of what benefits anything else, whether it be people or the planet. 

A small handful of agrochemical corporations control half of the world's seeds, and unfortunately, monopolies like this often lead to higher prices of the product.
A Threat to Sustainable Farming

Because a small number of corporations control a large portion of genetically modified seeds, they have distribution and selling power. At one point in time, many of the seeds sold to farmers that were resistant to herbicides were also referred to as terminator seeds. This is because the seeds were also designed to produce sterile seeds, meaning farmers could not replant the additional seeds from their harvest. Instead, farmers had to continue purchasing from agrochemical corporations, leaving them subject to whatever prices were set for the seeds. Terminator seeds entered the market in the 1990s, and they prevented pollen production as well as crossbreeding in the wild. What used to be a natural, continuous cycle became a linear relationship that began and ended with these large firms. Some companies even made it so the seeds wouldn't activate without a specially designed compound that farmers also had to buy. In this regard, genetically modified seeds morphed into a tactic to control farmers and the food supply. In the early 2000s, complaints about this practice rose, and federal governments around the world had to step in. Biosafety laws came into effect to better protect farmers. Today, terminator seeds have an international moratorium.

The dominating presence of GMOs also has an influence on the ecosystems around them. Farming with genetically modified seeds has caused other seed varieties to drop over the years, leading to the endangerment and extinction of other crop varieties. When we create only one type of seed for each crop and grow them at an industrial level, we create monocultures. Monocultures of any crop also tend to be disadvantageous for the environment, as they take away the biodiversity and suck up the soil's nutrients. A land that grows plants of all kinds will do a better job of fostering a healthy ecosystem.

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GMO Health Hazards

Genetically modified organisms being inherently good or bad is still a debate among some consumers. GMOs aren't something that naturally exists in the world. It's understandable that some would have hesitation consuming any food item that has been altered with science and technology. However, just because something isn't naturally occurring does not mean it's automatically a danger to health. On one hand, scientists will say that because crops have been genetically modified, they can contain more nutrients than any unmodified crop. On the other hand, some have argued that changing the DNA in crops can create allergies in people who would have otherwise not been allergic. Most of the contention in the GMO conversation has been about the practice of making seeds tolerant to the chemicals in herbicides. While the genes in those seeds weren't inherently harmful, the crops being sprayed with toxic herbicides, thanks to their engineered tolerance, have been a major concern. Not to mention, some of the corporations that own bioengineered seeds also create and sell herbicides. Their bias in creating herbicide-tolerant crops potentially stems from the financial benefit of being able to sell both the modified seeds and the herbicides used on the seeds' crops. They get the benefit of financially gaining from two different agro-products.

A lot of the plants that were designed to grow in spite of these chemicals were still exposed to harmful ingredients like glyphosate. Glyphosate in herbicides came under fire after accusations that it was cancer-causing.

To make matters worse, there was also major controversy about the ingredients in those herbicides. A lot of the plants that were designed to grow in spite of these chemicals were still exposed to harmful ingredients like glyphosate. Glyphosate in herbicides came under fire after accusations that it was cancer-causing. Those most at risk were the laborers who worked in the fields and came into contact with the herbicide-covered crops. Research suggests that glyphosate could remain in the human body for as long as ten months. The uproar over GMOs has caused food corporations to respond by placing "non-GMO" labels on products. While transparency can help shoppers make a decision for themselves on whether they'd like to consume GMO products, a lot of the time, these labels are purely a marketing scheme. Companies will sometimes even put GMO-free labels on products that can't contain GMOs, like salt. 

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The Final Verdict

Our ability to modify the genes of any living organism is something that wouldn't have been thought possible a few hundred years ago. Like most industries in the world, the challenge of considering sustainability lies in the scale at which things are produced. The size of the global population and the need to meet demand has somewhat fed the dependency on GMOs. This, paired with the monopolization of the market, has put consumers and farmers in a tricky position. GMOs are nearly unavoidable, and while agencies like the FDA regulate the safety of GMO use, the control agrochemical companies have can be daunting. Because GMOs can be utilized for various purposes, deeming them as inherently good or bad will never be black or white. GMOs offer a way to grow a lot of food in a shorter amount of time, allowing the agricultural industry to meet the demands of the population. In some cases, they allow us to get the most nutrients out of the crops that are grown. Without them, we wouldn't have medical advances like modern insulin. The looming threat of the extinction of diverse crops, a loss of sustainable farming, and chemical exposure are major reasons why regulation is essential. GMOs don't have to be a danger if their production is handled properly and responsibly.

Key Takeaways
  • A majority of crops are genetically modified to be disease, insect, and herbicide-resistant.
  • Research shows that GMOs can offer a food supply that has more nutrients and higher output.
  • Genetically modified seeds have led to a drop in biodiversity and the extinction of some plant species.