Guide to Navigating this Post:
- Summarized Benefits: don’t have time to read the whole article? This quick recap is all you need!
- Everything You Need to Know When Talking GMO: abbreviations and scientific terms explained!
- A BRIEF History: When did we start breeding plants and altering their DNA?
- The Benefits of GM: why GE is better than traditional breeding and how has it positively effected our world?
- Addressing Your Concerns: If you still have some reservations about GMOs, I try to address them here!
- The Danger of Lobbying Against GMO: why it is actually harmful to lobby against this very important technology
- Decreased greenhouse gas emissions from machinery used to apply insecticide/herbicide, and from reduced soil cultivation
- Fewer negative health/environmental impacts associated with herbicides/insecticides
- Alleviate poverty and health issues by making farming practices more accessible and profitable
- Promote biodiversity by reducing land required to grow crops
- Increase crop productivity
Everything You Need to Know When Talking GMO:
Genetically Modified (GM): (of an organism or crop) containing genetic material that has been artificially altered so as to produce a desired characteristic. Synonymous terms cited in literature include GE (genetically engineered), GMO (genetically modified organism), transgene, and biotechnology. (From Oxford Language Dictionary)
Herbicide Tolerant (HT): a plant’s ability to withstand herbicides. Farmers will use herbicides such as glyphosate against weeds in their crops. HT plants are resistant to specific herbicides so only the unwanted weeds get killed
Insect Resistant (IR): crops that are able to resist damage caused by insects. GM IR crops reduce the need for pesticides
Genetically modified crops emerged a mere 24 years ago and have slowly infiltrated farming practices around the world. As often is the case with new technologies, GM was a source of controversy; and decades later, people are still choosing ‘organic’ over GMO because they believe it is healthier to do so. Biotech activists are quick to judge these individuals, suggesting that cultural and political ideologies hinder shoppers from supporting GM foods. However, it is these advocates that make it impossible to decide which bag of corn chips to buy. The bombardment of information from both sides of the debate can become so confusing that it leaves shoppers reaching for products they are most familiar with; and those are usually non-GMO. So, let’s get educated. What does it really mean to modify a plant and what are the alternatives? To answer this question, we’ll have to go back a few thousand years in history.
A BRIEF History:
Modifying a plant’s DNA or really any organism’s DNA sounds like something out of science fiction. Yet, what tends to be overlooked is that humans have been doing it for millennia – in fact, for about 11000 years. Traditional breeding methods involve scouring crops for individual plants that show more promise than others. These plants may better withstand dry seasons, or even survive an infestation because of a genetic mutation. Once the desired traits are identified, farmers pollinate crops in the hope that new ones would fare better than the original. Needless to say, this type of breeding generates the same results as genetically modifying a plant. However, while the method has withstood the test of time, it is tedious and can take decades to achieve desired outcomes. This is where biotechnology becomes very useful. Modifying plant DNA in the lab takes only 1-3 years and is a much more targeted approach that alters very specific characteristics. Traditional breeding, on the other hand, is much less selective and can cause unwanted changes to the plant.
The Benefits of GM:
The reduced time required to genetically engineer a crop is especially essential today. As our climate continues to change at increasing rates, farmers are going to have to adapt quickly and efficiently. Over a very short period of time, climates will be warmer and drier which will cause reduced crop productivity. Traditional breeding methods will not be able to keep up and biotechnology will be vital in ensuring that enough food is produced to satisfy increasing demands. However, efficiency is just one of the benefits of GMOs. Since their inaugural use in 1996, GM plants have increased crop productivity by 657.6 million tons, lowered crop land use by 183 billion hectares, reduced CO2 emission by 27.1 billion kg (the same as removing 16.7 million cars off the road) and provided $186.1 billion of global economic gains. Insect resistant GM plants have also allowed farmers to decrease their pesticide use by more than 671 million kg. Everyone, even strong supporters of the organics industry should celebrate this, given the known negative effects of pesticides. Despite all the benefits listed above, however, many still hold valid concerns about GMOs, so let’s discuss them.
Addressing Your Concerns:
1. Aren’t there health risks associated with consuming GM products?
The Committee on Genetically Engineered Crops performed an in-depth review of most research papers regarding GM crops. They found no link to cancer, obesity, celiac, type 2 diabetes, food allergies, autism, or chronic kidney failure. These results have been replicated by other credible articles published in respected, peer-reviewed, journals.
2. What about the research articles that have found a link to health risks?
Sánchez and Parrot reviewed much of the research seeking to demonstrate that GM foods had negative health effects. Of the 35 articles selected, 11 were co-authored by the same individual, several more had conflicts of interest because they were written by someone with ties to anti-GM groups, and many had significant flaws in their methodology. Furthermore, all 35 articles were written in disreputable journals. Only one was written in a distinguished journal and its authors later revealed their methodology was flawed and should not be taken seriously.
3. Should we be worried about the Glyphosate Herbicide that farmers use in conjunction with GM crops?
Glyphosate is an herbicide used in conjunction with GM HT plants, as it only targets weeds and does not damage the crop. Many have suggested that it causes cancer and has other negative health effects. However, Zhang’s research found no such link and rather demonstrated that it was less dangerous than non-glyphosate herbicides.
4. Can you get an allergic reaction from consuming GM foods?
To date, there has been no allergic reaction linked to GM foods. It is unlikely that a consumer will experience a reaction, given that allergy and toxicity tests are part of the rigorous risk assessment performed on all GE crops before they reach the market.
5. Can weeds and insects become resistant to GM crops?
Over time, weeds and insects can and will become resistant to GM crops which will render these products less effective. However, resistance development is part of nature and is bound to happen with any implemented pest management protocols. Many farmers have reported that glyphosate is no longer effective, as weeds can survive in spite of its use. While this is to be expected, the on-set of resistance can be mediated by incorporating different herbicides and using rescue crops.
6. Can the genes be transferred to me?
Genes of a GM food cannot be incorporated into your DNA. Think about it this way: When you eat non-GM foods, you never worry about the DNA getting ‘mixed-up’ with yours. The same thinking can be applied to foods that have had their DNA altered. Your stomach acid does an excellent job of breaking down DNA molecules whether they are modified or not. If there was a risk of getting ‘transformed’ by our food, it would already be evident.
The Dangers of Lobbying Against GMOs:
Biotechnology will continue to be essential as climates change, and our population grows. It is especially important in developing nations where individuals deal with extreme hardships in the face of persistent food insecurity. Making GM products readily available allows for more efficient farming practices and the development of foods that have higher nutritional value.
However, a significant problem remains in the quest to provide disenfranchised communities with this technology: funding. It is still very expensive to create GMOs, which leaves developing nations dependent on non-profit organizations to access them. These countries are thus drastically under-supplied and malnourished, which causes severe negative health effects. Anti-GMO corporations and lobbyers must be held at least somewhat accountable for this. They create unnecessary obstacles by inciting fear in governments with poorly sourced and biased data. They are not saving a life, but rather putting someone else’s at risk.
This is not to say biotech companies should be free to proceed unencumbered. They must be held to high standards and subjected to intense risk assessments, as this is the only way populations will feel at ease consuming their products. However, governments must develop a more progressive attitude towards the cause by financially supporting companies dedicated to genetic engineering. This will not only make transgene farming more accessible, but also help to grow economies and mitigate environmental decay.
Brookes, G. & Barfoot, P. (2014). GM Crops: global socio-economic and environmental impacts 1996-2014. PG Economics Ltd. Dochester, U.K.
Biotechnology and Climate Change. (2013). Global Knowledge Center on Crop Biotechnology: Pocket K: 43. Retrieved from: http://www.isaaa.org/kc\
Committee on Genetically Engineered Crops: Past Experience and Future Prospects. (2016). Genetically engineered crops: Experiences and prospects. National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/23395
Global status of commercialized biotech/GM crops in 2018: Biotech crops continue to help meet challenges of increased population and climate change. (2018). ISAA: Brief 54. Retrieved from: http://www.isaa.org
Klümper, W. & Qaim, M. (2014). A meta-analysis of the impact of genetically modified crops. PLoS ONE 9(11): e111629. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0111
Sánchez, M. A. & Parrott, W. A. (2017). Characterization of scientific studies usually cited as evidence of adverse effects of GM food/feed. Plant Biotechnology Journal. https://doi.org/10.1111/pbi.12798
Zhang, C., Hu, R., Huang, J., Huang, X., Shi, G., Li, Y., Yin, Y., Chen, Z. (2016). Health effect of agricultural pesticide use in China: implications for the development of GM crops. Scientific Reports, 6: 34918. doi: 10.1038/srep349