Are GMOs Bad? Experts Pick Sides
The debate over genetically modified organisms brings together a number of pressing socioeconomic trends, from the populist backlash against globalization, science and the media, to fears of resource wars caused by climate change and population growth, to our cultural shift in favor of so-called natural and organic foods. But while there are vocal supporters on both sides of this important issue, roughly 58% of Americans don’t know enough about it to generate a truly informed opinion, according to the results of a recent study by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Most of our bodies know GMOs quite well, however. Genetically engineered crops have quietly assumed a dominant position in the U.S. agricultural landscape since their debut in 1996. And as you can see from the following table, over 90% of the country’s top three crops – which collectively account for more than $90 billion in annual production, according to the USDA – are now genetically modified.
|Top U.S. Crops||% Genetically Modified - 2000||% Genetically Modified - 2016|
Source: United States Department of Agriculture
Congress thinks we deserve to know whether our food is conceived in a laboratory or by Mother Nature, at least to a certain extent. A July 2016 law will require food packaging to feature either a label disclosing GMO ingredients or an electronic code that consumers can scan with their smartphones to get the same information. But is that enough?
Is the trend toward increased use of GMOs something that we should be more concerned about and, perhaps, fighting harder? Or is it a sign of societal development that will help stave off hunger around the globe while leading to greater prosperity in the farming industry? We at WalletHub care because food and health care represent two of the average American’s biggest spending categories. But we aren’t agricultural scientists or food-safety professionals, so we’ll let the experts fill you in.
We posed the fundamental question – Are GMOs Bad? – to a panel of leading experts with the qualifications needed to speak on the matter. You can check out their bios and responses below. And if you’d like to join the debate, feel free to share your thoughts in the Comments section at the bottom of the page.
No, GMOs Are Good
- "GM uses micro-organisms to make important food and medical products like insulin and chymosin (the cheese-clotting enzyme), which are then generally cheaper, more consistent and purer."
Joe M. Regenstein, Ph.D - Professor Emeritus of Food Science at Cornell University
- "No one has ever gotten ill by eating food from crops that were designed with inserted genes. This is a tremendous use of science, with little human side effects."
Dan Curry – Director of Seed Services at Oregon State University
- "Approximately, 28,000 children die from starvation and malnutrition every day. Since its discovery in 1996, GMC’s have been contributing to food security in many counties around the world."
Sabry G. Elias, Ph.D – Associate Professor of Seed Science & Technology at Oregon State University
- "It is right to have worries about new technologies, which is why the safety assessment of genetically engineered foods is rigorous; in fact, far more rigorous than that of conventional foods. By safety I include both safety for human health, and for environmental health. With the right safeguards in place, GMOs can play a key role in feeding the world and saving the planet."
John R. Krebs, Ph.D – Professor in the Department of Zoology at University of Oxford
- "With the global population poised to increase by an additional 2-3 billion people by 2050, agricultural scientists are continuing to develop and refine technologies to ensure that we can feed the population, while reducing the impact of agriculture on the environment. The latest generation of gene editing tools has arrived at a time, and in a way, that offers the great promise of allowing even the poorest countries to develop local solutions to feeding their people."
Troy L. Ott, Ph.D – Professor of Reproductive Physiology and Associate Director of the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences at the Center for Reproductive Biology and Health at College of Agricultural Sciences Penn State
The right question is: How do we get rid of any government obstacles that undermine the development of this critical innovation?
For thousands of years, humans have changed the genetic makeup of their food, including introducing genes from other species. Genetic engineering is just one method that humans can use to change the genetic makeup of food. Since the 1990s, genetically engineered food has been in the U.S. food supply. Through the genetic engineering process, scientists can more efficiently and precisely introduce desired traits into a crop plant.
And let’s dispel one harmful myth from the outset: Major scientific organizations from the World Health Organization to the National Academy of Sciences agree that genetically engineered foods for sale are safe. The National Academy of Sciences recently released another report again confirming that genetically engineered food is just as safe as non-genetically engineered food.
GMOs and their many benefits are simply too important to allow bad science and scare tactics to dictate their role in agricultural production. There are many concrete examples of this incredible potential.
For example, in the late 1990’s, the ringspot virus had almost completely wiped out Hawaii’s papaya industry. But genetic engineering created the Rainbow papaya. Resistant to the ringspot virus, this genetically improved papaya helped save the Hawaiian papaya industry.
Millions of children and pregnant women in Africa and Southeast Asia suffer from Vitamin A deficiency, a major cause of malnutrition in developing nations. This deficiency can lead to serious problems, including blindness and death. In response, Golden Rice was developed. This rice is infused with beta-carotene genes that help the body produce Vitamin A. Unfortunately, this new crop that could save many lives is being blocked from use due to extreme GMO opponents. In June, 2016, over 100 Nobel Laureates signed a letter calling for opponents to stop blocking the introduction of Golden Rice.
In a recent article, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack discussed biotechnology developments such as a process for removing “98% of the allergens in peanuts without affecting the flavor, thereby diminishing a severe health threat to some 2.8 million Americans who suffer from peanut allergies.”
These examples are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the many benefits provided by GMOs. The U.S. should take a leadership role on GMOs by allowing innovation to flourish.
Genetic modification by artificial means, in which specific genes that code for desired traits are spliced into the genome of a plant deficient in that trait, is more precise and can be accomplished faster than conventional breeding. But the language of genetic modification is complicated to those who don’t live with it in the laboratory, and where understanding is lacking, trust may also be lacking.
Since the early days of genetic engineering, its products have been highly scrutinized – engineered crop varieties are tested and re-tested to assure that they do not cause harm. But are genetically modified plants risk-free? The answer is that nothing is completely free of risk – the greater question is whether the risk is greater or less than the benefit. Food seems to be held to a different standard than, for example, many pharmaceutical products. Insulin is produced by GMO bacteria, but people who need it take their insulin despite the way it is produced, because the risk of not taking it is very high. Perhaps in the case of crop plants, the benefits of GMOs are not always clear to the general public.
In the United States, we have the luxury of an abundant and varied food supply – so, the fact that producing crops is a risky business, is pretty much hidden from most consumers. In particular, plant pathogens and pests can pose a serious threat to crop plants. There are a number of different approaches to managing pests and diseases, and include cultural practices, pesticides and varieties that are resistant to, and therefore not damaged by, pests and pathogens. The latter is the preferred method, but breeding plants for resistance is a long and expensive process, and not always successful. So, transgenic crops can be a critical tool in the fight against pests and diseases of crops.
One often-cited example is the development of the ‘Rainbow’ papaya in the 1990s that saved the papaya industry in Hawaii. The transgenic ‘Rainbow’ papaya is resistant to Papaya ringspot virus, which was introduced into Hawaii in the early 1990s and killed nearly all of the papaya produced there. ‘Rainbow’ allowed farmers to continue farming sustainably, and has been widely consumed since its introduction.
In the developing world, pest and pathogen pressure is often high and a failed crop can mean economic disaster to smallholder farm families. In Uganda, plantains are a staple food crop, as important as rice in Asia and potatoes in Europe and North America. A bacterium causing a disease called Banana Xanthomonas Wilt entered the country more than a decade ago, and destroyed plantation after plantation, as it spread throughout Uganda and into neighboring countries. There is no cure for this crop disease, and cultural practices developed to minimize its spread are only partially effective. Transgenic plantains resistant to this deadly bacterium and currently in the testing phase, now hold the greatest hope for farmers and consumers of plantain in Uganda and other parts of East Africa where the disease continues to spread.
There are many other examples of GMO crops that serve a real and important purpose in crop production, and ultimately benefit both farmers and consumers. Concerns about the means of introducing traits – gene splicing – may soon be eased by new technology – genome editing - that works within the plant’s own genome to alter its characteristics. Whatever the approach, it is imperative that plant science must continue to develop to meet the challenge of producing enough safe, nutritious food to meet the needs of earth’s growing population.
The simple, straight answer is, “no.” In fact, they’re safe and ultimately lifesaving. But I empathize with an uninformed individual’s anxiety and I’ll share our farm family’s story to maybe ease some concerns. Then, I’ll give a little armchair science on the subject and together I hope this will help.
I come from a generational farm family that grew cotton, wheat and alfalfa as main crops in Arizona, Murphree Farms in Maricopa. In the late 1990s, when biotech cotton became commercially available to farmers across the country, my family planted our first GMO cotton crop and we never looked back.
The cotton plant is complex, and has a long growing season. In central Arizona, we typically begin planting April 1 and often do not harvest until late October and early November. Imagine the difference between 70-day harvests for leafy green crops compared to a 7- to 8-month harvest wait for cotton harvests. And, because cotton is actually a fruit, insects love it. Between a long growing season and an appetizing plant to pests, it’s a dedicated battle for farmers from planting to harvest. As a result, non-biotech cotton must be sprayed with pesticides and average of 8 times in a season, sometimes more.
Farmers are judicious in their application of pesticides. As an industry, we’re highly regulated, must adhere to all label requirements and use only approved pesticides. Plus, farmers and applicators must go through regular renewals of their pesticide application licenses. Finally, the less we can use any type of application, we save not only money (an input cost), but we know we’re saving the planet.
The first year Dad planted biotech cotton, his pesticide applications dropped to zero. Today, farmers I regularly talk to have either completely eliminated pesticide applications and/or only need one application in a given growing season.
Additionally, we found we increased our cotton yields, because the biotech cotton was not only resistant to pests but herbicide resistant, resulting in our ability to more easily eliminate weeds.
Some Armchair Science
But, enough about Murphree Farms and how it helped us. What about the science? The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NAS) in a 2016 report reaffirmed that, yes, GMOs are safe. Over 900 studies and publications were examined by NAS. Plus, more than 20 scientists, researchers and agricultural and industry experts over a 2-year period reviewed animal studies, allergenicity testing (yes, that’s a word), North American and European health data and more. This was all based on more than 20 years of data, since GMO crops were introduced. Some of these studies I’ve read myself. Every GMO crops goes through a 12- to 13-year process and must initially be approved by the EPA, USDA and FDA, while other scientific bodies are included in the review to ensure a fully vetted crop is ready for approval. Non-GMO crops are not required to be put under this same scrutiny.
Ultimately, no substantiated evidence of a difference exists in risks to human health between current commercially available genetically engineered crops and conventionally bred crops. The full report is worth the read if someone still has doubts after hearing my testimony.
Personally, I believe the development of GMO crops for human well-being will begin to actually improve health. Certainly, you’ve heard of Golden Rice. The B-Carotene in Golden Rice (that is trans-genetically engineered) is as good as the B-Carotene in oil at providing vitamin A to children. If this improved trait in golden rice is ever brought to the market for farmers around the globe, we will not only help to eliminate rampant blindness in diet-deficient children in developing nations, we will save lives too.
Genetic modification (GM) of organisms is on the one hand a fundamental change of technology, and on the other hand, a natural progression of breeding. Humans have been genetically modifying organisms since the beginning of agriculture. Before GM, plant breeders were, and still are, using mutagens and radiation to change chromosomes. These toxic procedures are used without any regulatory oversight. The mutated crops are grown, and a few that have interesting traits are further screened, but it is impossible to determine if they have any mutated genes that were not expressed during the testing. I find this process more concerning than GM.
With GM we add single genes, knowing what their impact will be. By law we need to go through extensive testing to meet extensive regulatory requirements. And products have failed, e.g., a product with an allergen gene.
GM uses micro-organisms to make important food and medical products like insulin and chymosin, the cheese clotting enzyme, which are then generally cheaper, more consistent, and purer. For example, almost all “commercial” cheeses use GM chymosin.
With plants, we started with traits that make farming easier, safer, more productive, and/or more profitable for farmers. They, of necessity, had to be the first adopters. We are now seeing traits being approved that serve consumer needs, e.g., apples that do not brown and potatoes that produce less acrylamide during frying.
And finally, AquaBounty salmon is the first GM animal approved. It has a growth hormone gene that allows it to grow faster. As we move forward, we’ll see more products that address major agricultural and consumer needs, such as drought tolerance, and cold and high temperature resistance, so that we can address the decrease in available agricultural land, as the world’s population increases.
Is GM the total answer? Absolutely not. It is an important part but we also need lots of other agricultural changes: precision agriculture to decrease water, fertilizer and pesticide use (with safer pesticides).
Is it safe? Working with Dr. Robert Blair at the University of British Columbia, we reviewed all of the peer reviewed literature on the food quality and safety of GM foods. This was a very comprehensive review. What was surprising was that almost no peer-reviewed literature suggest any food quality or safety problems. (Blair and Regenstein, “Genetic Modification and Food Quality: A Down-to-Earth Analysis, Wiley Blackwell, 2015.)
Newer technology has emerged, called gene editing. Genes can be modified in situ. And under current law, this is again an unregulated change – even though some of the consequences may be more dramatic and impact humans directly.
It is also important to note that over 50% of our GM crops this year were grown in countries with an emerging economy, where the impacts of GM are more dramatic. So, moving forward, we need to balance our regulatory schemes to balance issues like food safety and environmental outcomes, with the benefits obtained regardless of the technology used.
Thousands of years ago, our ancestors invented agriculture by starting to select specific traits to improve flavor, texture, and quantity of nutritious food. In doing so, they ultimately modified the genetic makeup of crops, such as corn and wheat, which are still part of our main food sources today.
As it is unlikely that this debate would choose to focus on the topic, "are the products of conventional plant breeding bad?", we should shift our focus to the question, "are the products of genetically engineered technologies bad?". To do so, we need to recognize that the universe of genetically-engineering products is predominated by those used to advance biomedical research, when compared to products used in agriculture. Genetically-engineered products have been developed to treat such medical conditions as hemophilia, genetic growth disorders, multiple sclerosis, cystic fibrosis, the aftermaths of a stroke or a heart attack, the consequences of undergoing chemotherapy for cancer, and lactose-intolerance.
So, let’s limit our focus to the products of genetically-engineered technologies that can affect our food supply. Several decades ago, one of the earliest applications was the development of “golden rice”, which was engineered to contain beta-carotene, and could be used to overcome vitamin A deficiency. It has been estimated that up to 500,000 children lose their sight every year, due to vitamin A deficiency, with half of them dying within twelve months of going blind. Consumption of “golden rice” has been shown to prevent these consequences of vitamin A deficiency. Unfortunately, because of concerns over the applications of “GMOs”, the benefits of “golden rice” have never been fully realized.
Perhaps we should circle back to the NAS report, which focused on two principle traits of genetic engineering – insect resistance and herbicide resistance. These traits are now in widespread use in the US, and other parts of the world. In the report’s Executive Summary, it was emphasized that “sweeping statements about GE crops are problematic because the issues are multidimensional”. Nonetheless, the NAS report indicated that there was “no conclusive evidence of cause-and-effect relationships between GE crops and environmental problems”, and “concluded that no differences have been found that implicate a higher risk to human health safety from these GE foods than from their non-GE counterparts”.
So, based on the conclusions of the NAS report, my position would be that the products of genetically-engineered technologies are not bad.
No one has ever gotten ill by eating food from crops that were designed with inserted genes. This is a tremendous use of science, with little human side effects. However, there can be unintended consequences. Pollen can be blown to other fields - this could affect the market value of the neighboring fields, so, “adventitious presence” must be avoided.
We could also ask: are vaccines bad, is fluoridated water bad, and is processing crude oil into gasoline bad? In each case, we have used our understanding of science to provide a benefit to all. When these products or techniques are used properly, they are considered “good.” When misused or used to an extreme, then it could be considered “bad.”
The beauty of our food system is that we can choose to worry about food with GMO’s, or not. Both types of food are safe to eat. If one is concerned, choosing organic foods may be a good option, but you may find that your food bill is a bit higher at the end of the month. I choose food that tastes good and is healthy for me. I don’t choose food as to whether or not it has GMO’s.
So, we all have two good choices to make, which answers our primary question about GMO’s.
In order to feed that population, we must embrace the tremendous benefits that genetic modification provides, and we must educate people about the safety of these products. We may be close to editing corn genes to create plants that enhance photosynthesis dramatically. Think what it would do to world food production, if we could plant corn 18 inches apart instead of 36. We would double our yields per acre, just by planting the right seeds.
Genetic modification has been around since 1974’s transgenic mouse, but due to extensive testing, the first commercial products didn’t appear until 1994 (FLAVR SAVR tomato) and 1996 (Roundup Ready soybeans). The research and marketing efforts that produced the FLAVR SAVR, resulted in scientific success, temporary sales success and then commercial failure. The story reveals how difficult it can be to bring genetically engineered products to market, how objections with little or no scientific merit can influence the outcome, and how important public opinion is in determining commercial success.
Plants have been genetically engineered to enhance the growth or the nutritional value of food crops. GM crops also exist for herbicide tolerance and insect resistance. Some crops are modified to be drought resistant, or to require less fertilizer and other inputs. We already have seen the value of such crops in action, but the future of new products is uncertain because of public reaction.
Cotton, corn and soybeans are the most common GM crops in the United States - GM cotton accounts for approximately 94 percent of all cotton planted, GM soybeans account for 93 percent of soybeans planted and GM corn varieties account for 88 percent of corn planted (2012 figures). To go back to non-modified forms of these plants would be devastating to world food production, and because of pervasive use, nearly impossible to accomplish.
The regulatory and approval process for GM crops and foods containing GM ingredients involves three federal agencies: the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Genetically modified foods must adhere to the same standards of safety that apply to all foods. According to scientists at the FDA, there is no reliable scientific evidence that foods containing GMO ingredients differ in terms of food quality, safety or nutritional value, from foods produced through other techniques. A recent comprehensive study by the National Academy of Science confirmed earlier findings of safety.
I repeat, can we afford not to utilize this safe and beneficial technology? Let’s let science, not public opinion, be our guide.
Almost any new technology has its benefits and drawbacks. When aviation was discovered at the first part of the 20th century, airplanes were not as safe as today and some people lost their lives. Inventors were left with two options, to quit the new invention and call it a failure or to improve safety and work on the problems. Genetically modified crops (GMC’s) are not an exception. We have to keep in mind that without innovation, there is no progress.
The GMC’s were created to improve crop productivity and add values to many food crops. Today, there are over 7 billion people on earth and will reach 9 billion by 2050. The cultivated land is decreasing because of the expansion of cities to accommodate the ever- growing population. Without improving the productivity of the arable land, the world can face starvation. Approximately, 28,000 children die from starvation and malnutrition every day. Since its discovery in 1996, GMC’s have been contributing to food security in many counties around the world.
The negative perception of GMC’s and the unfounded fear of its consumption have no scientific evidence to support it. Many studies have concluded that no significant hazards have been directly connected to GMC’s. These findings agree with those of the World Health Organization, the FDA, and the American Medical Association. It is worthy to note that before introducing any GMC’s, the USDA requires extensive supporting evidence on its safety for human, animals, birds and the environment.
Today, over 90% of the areas planted with soybean, corn, and cotton in the US are GMC varieties. The GMC’s are created by inserting a gene that carry a desirable trait, such as resistance to disease or tolerance to herbicide, to an existing crop without any chemical involvement. The only change in the existing crop would be the new added trait. Examples of the useful applications of the GMC’s are: soybean with high protein content, rice that is reach in iron and vitamin A, banana that include hepatitis B vaccine.
The GMC’s are environmentally friendly, because it reduces pesticide applications since GMC varieties have built-in genes for herbicide tolerance, disease and insect resistance. The few drawbacks of the GMC’s are: creating weeds that are resistant to Roundup herbicide and potential gene flow to neighboring fields.
In summary, GMC’s have great potential to alleviate human hunger, improve food security systems, increase crop productivity, simplify crop management, reduce production cost, add nutritional value to existing crops, and reduce the need for pesticides and their subsequent hazards to human and environment. Efforts will continue to keep improving the few downsides of GMC’s technology, just like any other innovations.
The Global Panel on Agriculture’s report on Food Systems and Diets states that malnutrition is now the number one risk factor in the global burden of disease: poor diets pose a greater risk that the combined risks of unsafe sex, alcohol, drugs and tobacco.
The FAO’s report on Climate Change and Food Security highlights the fact that climate change is already having a significant effect on food security, and that in the future its effects will be felt most by the poorest people on the planet.
Many changes will be needed to our food system in order to tackle these challenges. Should genetic engineering be part of the tool-box? I think the answer is an unequivocal yes. Even its most passionate advocates would not argue that genetic engineering is a panacea. But it has the potential to improve the nutrition quality of staple crops such as rice, millet, cassava and plantain, to generate crops that are resistant to disease and tolerant of harsh conditions such as drought and salinity.
The Green Revolution of the second half of the 20th century brought us more food, but at the expense of the environment. It involved increasing our use of agrochemicals, intensive irrigation and mechanisation, as well as improved crop varieties. But as a result, water has become scarce in many places, pollution has increased and biodiversity has suffered. As we attempt to fix our food system, we need to be smarter, growing more with less, and genetic engineering can help us. It can go alongside other technologies, such as precision agriculture and ecological knowledge, to work with the grain of nature, rather than against it.
The boundaries between conventional breeding of improved crops and livestock, and genetic engineering, are becoming blurred as new techniques, especially gene editing, come into play. They are the equivalent of the watchmaker’s forceps, when compared with the blunt, crude instruments of conventional breeding.
It is right to have worries about new technologies, which is why the safety assessment of genetically engineered foods is rigorous; in fact, far more rigorous than that of conventional foods. By safety I include both safety for human health, and for environmental health. With the right safeguards in place, GMOs can play a key role in feeding the world and saving the planet.
The process of genetic modification can be used to make a crop or animal that reduces the impact of farming on the environment, that enhances the nutritional value of the food or that makes farming easier or more profitable. Like many other tools in agriculture, however, GMO crops need to be used based on sustainability principles. Otherwise, GMO crops could promote poor agronomic practices such as over-reliance on chemical inputs like herbicides.
The process of genetic modification of plants and animals is as old as farming itself. The vast majority of the food we eat has been greatly modified from their wild counterparts. Most would not recognize the wild version of corn (Teosinte), and the progenitors of Brussels sprouts, carrots and potatoes appear to be only distant relatives to their farmed cousins. These, and most other farmed foods have had their traits (DNA) changed dramatically over thousands of years of slow and imprecise genetic modification by selective breeding. As we understood more about how deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) codes for different traits, we quickly began to develop hybrids that would not occur normally in nature. We mixed and duplicated entire genomes and developed better, more efficient crops.
We learned that introduction of widespread random mutations followed by screening for the one-in-a-million beneficial outcome could result in a crop with a new desirable trait. Many are surprised to learn that over 2000 crops have been modified by widespread random DNA mutation. For example, several varieties of wheat and the Ruby Red grapefruit were produced using this approach.
With the global population poised to increase by an additional 2-3 billion people by 2050, agricultural scientists are continuing to develop and refine technologies - to ensure that we can feed the population - while reducing the impact of agriculture on the environment. The latest generation of gene editing tools has arrived at a time and in a way that offers the great promise of allowing even the poorest countries to develop local solutions to feeding their people.
These tools are even more precise in their ability to change specific traits. For example, crops that are drought or flood resistant, animals that grow more efficiently and both animals and plants that are more disease resistant. Of course, each new gene edited crop and animal should be carefully scrutinized to evaluate benefits and risks. We need to be careful to deploy these crops in culturally, regionally and environmentally sound ways. Their use needs to be consistent with good agronomic practices that value the broad spectrum of production practices that consumers demand.
Furthermore, the scientific community needs to listen to those who express concern over their use and to be careful to ask the correct scientific questions. But, in the end, there is little doubt that with a thoughtful, science-based approach that values the social, cultural and economic impacts of these technologies, GMOs are and will continue help feed the planet, while protecting the environment.
Humans have been genetically modifying organisms, since early civilization (dogs from wolves, etc.). This type of modification is called artificial selection, and it created the numerous dog breeds we have today. The same is true for most of our food sources, plant or animal. This type of genetic modification is very, very old news, and therefore, non-buzz worthy. The popular notion of genetic modification includes inserting specific genes, sometimes from different species, in the laboratory. While this method is much more sensational, it is really a very similar process to traditional breeding, but with a greater accuracy.
Unfortunately, the complexity and physical limitations have not been described well to the general public. Images of some sort of laboratory abomination being released into the wild, and transferring genetic material into the environment is pure science fiction. There is no basis for the belief that human health can somehow be negatively impacted by eating wheat or corn that has been modified to make bigger kernels or be resistant to disease. Plants have been modifying their genome for millions of years, to protect against predators and improve their survivability. Genetic modification in the laboratory is the next evolution, removing thousands of years of chance to enhance our lives now.
While I see the reasons those fighting GMO’s do so, I want to tell the rest of the story, as Paul Harvey would say.
As a farmer, I remember being a kid during the growing season back in the 60’s and 70’s. We were an expanding farm, working in 5 counties in Indiana. I remember planting season when we had to fill the insecticide boxes on the planter. Dad always told us to stay away from the dust and wash our hands really well after doing so. Great advice! Excepts sometimes, we were miles away from fresh water to do so. Then, I remember later in the season, when the flying insects season was upon us. Again, we used pretty nasty stuff to control those earworms and bean beetles. Weeds were a whole different issue. We used paraquat to burn fields down, then used a combination of chemistries during the season, sometimes twice. It wasn’t a safe way to farm, but it was necessary to have a crop.
Now, as a seed control official and former seedsman, I have a fuller perspective on those days, as compared to our modern agriculture. We no longer have to fill the insecticide box and spread those toxic chemicals, again, during earworm or bean beetle flights we don’t need to spray the toxic chemicals. Every farmer I know well is against using chemicals for the sake of using them. In my current role, we test for GMO proteins in seeds. This is to verify they are not in the conventional crops or the organic crops. What I see is that farmers are applying less chemicals than once were common, more of these pests are more easily controlled or eliminated due to GMO’s. That cannot be argued. So the battle comes down to this.
We live in a great area of the corn belt with rich soils, but that comes with pests and weeds. Organic is a niche program and will never viably replace large acres. Just the facts. So, if you are against GMO’s I respect that, but I need your help. Would you rather let agriculture apply many more chemicals, potentially polluting the air and water? Or, use GMO crops? Those truly are the only options with today’s scale of farming.
In fact, genetic engineering (GE) has been used in science and medicine for decades, long before interest resurged in recent years. Do you know someone with diabetes who needs insulin? Chances are it was synthesized using genetic engineering, like many other life-saving medicines. Love cheese? Rennet is a collection of enzymes produced by mammals needed in cheese making but the majority is now synthesized animal-free using genetic engineering. This is the same technology that is used to create genetically modified foods. Many consumers enjoyed the Flavr Savr™tomato, which came to market in 1994, and wide-scale planting of GE corn, soybeans, and cotton followed in 1996. Because many food ingredients come from these crops, like corn syrup and soybean oil, there is likely no one in the US that hasn’t been consuming processed foods made from genetically modified ingredients, although few whole foods are currently available for human consumption, with the exception of papaya in Hawaii.
The first generation of GE crops was designed for the benefits of farmers, generally to increase efficiency and productivity. Some crops have met these goals, while others have contributed to the development of “super weeds”—although note that super weeds also develop through conventional breeding. Conversely, the second generation of GE crops is designed to benefit consumers. One notable example is rice biofortified to contain beta-carotene, a vital phytochemical converted to vitamin A in the body. Field trials of “golden rice” in the Philippines were sabotaged in 2013, although this food has the potential to prevent disease and death among an estimated 250 million preschool children in the developing world who suffer needlessly, up to half a million of whom will become blind or die. There are ever more developments underway to provide other health benefits to consumers, and I suspect eaters will have far less concern with GE—that is, the technology used to create those benefits—once a clear advantage is realized in their own lives.
There is much misinformation, myths, and junk-science surrounding genetic engineering, and it’s unfortunate because this technology holds great potential to address some of today’s major food and nutrition problems, such as increasing yield with finite precious resources such as land and water; reducing contaminants that harm the environment and farmers; or enhancing nutritional benefits to reduce disease and improve health. GMOs have been studied extensively and scientific organizations like the World Health Organization, the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, and the Center for Science in the Public Interest agree that the technology poses no greater risk to human health or the environment than does conventional breeding.
Our world faces complex challenges, and the need is urgent to explore all available avenues to promote health, prevent disease, and protect our planet. People have always been, and always will be, resistant to new technologies. Thinking critically about any novel technology can serve as a necessary check and balance to ensure adaption is thoughtful, reasonable, and safe, but disregarding powerful tools based on anti-science zealotry or conflation with food politics is misguided. Moreover, consumers must learn to dispel the misinformed belief that “natural” is better: cyanide, found in almonds, is perfectly natural—though it will still kill you. The proliferation of myths such as these is doing a disservice to food producers and consumers alike who might otherwise benefit greatly. Indeed, there is no logical reason (other than it’s currently prohibited by law) why a genetically engineered seed can’t be grown using organic methods, which are more sustainable for our shared planet and environment. Genetic engineering applied to food is simply another tool we have that has the potential to make the world a better place; it should be recognized as such.
P.K. Newby, ScD, MPH, MS (“The Nutrition Doctor”) is a scientist and gastronome with more than twenty years of experience researching diet-related diseases; studying how people make food choices; and teaching students and the public about why what we eat matters, farm to fork. Dr. Newby spends most of her time today writing, speaking, cooking, and educating to help build a healthier, more sustainable world, one delectable bite at a time. She is a thought leader who speaks locally, nationally, and internationally on all things food and nutrition and is the author of Superfoods (National Geographic, 2016) and coauthor of Foods for Health: Choose and Use the Very Best Foods for Your Family and Our Planet (National Geographic, 2014). She is currently working on her next books and communicates with the public on her blog, Cooking & Eating the PK Way. She is also an Adjunct Associate Professor of Nutrition at Harvard, where she is an award-winning educator for her class Food, Nutrition, and the Environment: The Science of Why What We Eat Matters. Dr. Newby's passion for nutrition stems from a life-long love affair with food developed from whipping up fabulous dishes in her own kitchen and working in the restaurant industry. She was one of the “best undiscovered cooks” on ABC’s The Taste (2014-2015), where she created globally inspired, plant-based cuisine. She dreams of having her own show one day, a fresh food personality for the 21st century, doing for globally inspired, plant based cuisine what Julia Child did for French fare.
- One-hundred-percent pure human insulin is produced in bacteria, and used by 40 million people.
- The main enzyme used in 95% of cheese making originates as a camel gene expressed in a fungus.
- Cotton and corn plants engineered to protect themselves with a bacterial protein targeting specific damaging insect larvae, have allowed farmers to cut insecticide use massively, while saving fuel and labor.
- Vitamin-fortified world food staples like rice, cassava and banana have been genetically engineered to produce needed nutrients that could save millions of lives in the developing world.
GE plants make the most tested food products on the planet. Their safety record is perfect, with some recognized environmental effects that were predicted and are being addressed. The world’s highest government and scientific authorities in food safety support this consensus view.
Like any technology, genetic engineering has its strengths and weaknesses. However, over thirty years of use in medicine and agriculture, the clear benefits for farmers, consumers, the environment and the developing world far outweigh any of its minor shortcomings.
In considering the question “Are GMO’s safe?”, my answer is YES. In May of this year, the National Academy of Sciences published a report titled “Genetically Engineered Crops: Experiences and Prospects.” The expert committee members’ very thorough review of the scientific evidence lead to the conclusion that human consumption of GMO foods was no riskier than consuming conventional foods. The American Medical Association and the World Health Organization have also reported the same conclusion.
I go back to the original question: Are GMOs bad? We have apples that don’t turn brown when cut, potatoes that don’t bruise and contain less of the known carcinogen acrylamide when cooked at a high temperature, and salmon that grows to grow market size in less time. There is evidence of increased farm yields, decreased use of fossil fuels, lower food prices for a rapidly growing world population, and improved nutrient profiles in some foods. There is no reliable evidence that GMO food pose any health risk. So this makes me lean towards thinking that GMOS are NOT bad.
But I think there are two important reasons for caution in moving forward with GMO foods. First of all, we have no evidence of long-term safety of these foods. The first GMO food, the Flavr Savr® tomato, was introduced to consumers in 1996; that’s only 20 years ago. We don’t know if GMO crops are going to be environmentally sustainable. GMO crops like soybeans, corn and sugar are designed to be more resistant to herbicides that kill the weeds that grow in the fields. But there’s some evidence that some varieties of weeds are now becoming resistant to herbicides. So that means different herbicides (and GMO foods that are resistant to them) must be developed. The end result could be chemicals on our food.
The second issue is approval and labeling of new GMO seed varieties and foods. The current policy is that the FDA does not formally approve GMO foods or ingredients; it is totally voluntary. The labeling of GMO foods in the marketplace is also voluntary. The public cannot truly make informed choices about whether or not to purchase GMO foods. While many would argue against increased regulation and mandatory labeling, I think that these aspects of GMO foods are BAD.
We humans have been modifying the genetics of plants for a very long time. This started around 10,000 years ago, when early farmers began domesticating our major food crops. Genetic modification continued through the application of Mendel’s laws of inheritance, the development of the hybrid corn industry in the 1930’s, and the Green Revolution of the 1960’s. Thus, the commercialization of genetically engineered (GE, aka GMO) crops based on recombinant DNA technology in the 1990’s should be viewed in the context of this long history of intervention, rather than a drastic departure from “natural” crops in the pre-GMO era.
There is one big difference, however, between GMO crops and their conventional counterparts: the amount of testing and regulation that occurs before commercialization. Three federal agencies (U.S. Department of Agriculture, Environmental Protection Agency, and Food and Drug Administration) review extensive data about a proposed GMO crop before it enters the market, although the role of each agency differs depending on the nature of the GMO trait. In contrast, crop varieties developed via other methods require no food or environmental safety evaluation at all.
A major concern with GMO crops has been their potential effects on human health. A landmark report on GMO crops (“Genetically Engineered Crops: Experiences and Prospects”) was published by the National Academy of Sciences earlier this year. Among its many findings, the authors found “no differences that implicate a higher risk to human health from GE foods than from their non-GE counterparts.” Reflecting the balanced nature of the report, however, the authors called for continued monitoring of health effects and better methods to evaluate food safety.
Some of the benefits of GMO crops include reductions in chemical insecticide use; reduction of fungal infections in corn and viral infections in papaya; and facilitation of no-till agriculture, which conserves soil and water. Improved nutritional properties and stress tolerance are possibilities for GMO crops of the future.
There are certainly questions remaining about the risks of GMO crops. What is the most effective strategy to minimize the development of insect resistance to Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) crops and of weed resistance to Roundup herbicide used with most herbicide tolerant crops? What is the environmental impact of gene flow from GMO crops to related wild species? What are the best ways to ensure coexistence between GMO, conventional and organic crops?
Like any new technology, GMO crops have their pros and cons, which will differ with the specific crop and the growing environment. Let’s continue to evaluate and regulate them carefully, so we can reap the benefits while minimizing the potential risks.
Because of the non-GMO label, you might think that many foods are genetically engineered, when in reality there are only nine crops commercially available with one more coming soon. Those include corn, soybean, cotton, alfalfa, sugar beets, canola, papaya, squash, and potatoes. For example, I’ve seen non-GMO labels on foods like canned green beans or pinto beans when a GMO counterpart doesn’t even exist. A lot of the controversy regarding GMOs has been regarding safety or the argument that they are unnatural. However, there hasn’t been a single credible study that has shown GMOs to be unsafe. Even the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released a report this year concluding that GMOs are safe for consumption and that GMOs have generally had a positive effect on farmers and the environment. As a Registered Dietitian, I’m excited about the role GMOs can play in reducing food waste, improving nutrition and feeding a growing population.
Unfortunately, GMO's are often portrayed negatively in the media. As a science-based practitioner, I support the use of biotechnology and GMO crops because the scientific literature has shown in over 2000 studies that they are safe and nutritionally the same as their non-GMO counterparts. They are also better for the environment because farmers can grow more food on less land, with less water and less pesticides. GMO crops also have incredible implications for feeding a world population that is estimated to increase to 9 billion people by 2050. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is working in Africa to bring GMO corn and sweet potatoes to poor and hungry people.
GMO foods are one of the most analyzed subjects in science and thousands of studies have confirmed their safety. Many of the studies have been long-term and independently funded and virtually every mainstream science organization has come down on the side of safety.
Recent public debate is driven by a combination of issues that have polarized consumers. The issues surrounding GMO's are complex and will continue to be a topic for conversation. I think we can agree that we must all do what we can to ensure a better world for all people. Using GMO's can help create a better future for all.
Farmers have essentially been genetically modifying their crops for centuries, by growing their crops and saving the seeds coming from the plants with the most desirable traits. This is hugely beneficial when talking about biodynamic farming. By saving seeds from plants that survive pests, draught, fungus, etc. the plants grown from those seeds are also resistant to those dangers when the plants are grown in healthy soil. In a low-input biodynamic farm system, there is no need for chemical fertilizers, fungicides, herbicides or pesticides because the plants are healthy and healthy plants have their own immune system. By allowing a genetically diverse crop of wheat grow in the same environment, with a four year crop rotation in place, exposed to the same pests, ultimately what we have is a strong, healthy, stable crop. This is desirable. This is good GMO.
Alternatively, we have monocultures. These are plants genetically modified and produced with a ll the same genes, essentially they are the same plant. These are designed for a high-input, modern farm system. What is gained from these is a completely uniform, predictable crop. What is also gained is the need for glyphosate, chemical fertilizers and other chemicals that put the environment and our health in danger. But its easy. The farmer knows how the plant will grow and has specific instructions on when to apply their fertilizer, when to spray for weeds and when to harvest.
This system of farming, while efficient, does not provide flavorful, nutrient dense food. What it does provide is a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico from all of the herbicides draining into the Mississippi River, a malnourished populace and more money in the pocketbooks of Big Agriculture. This is not a problem we are keeping to ourselves, either. We have taken it overseas and introduced our efficient way of farming to places like the Caucuses region, where wheat is from. They no longer grow heritage, landrace varieties of wheat. They grow our monoculture wheat. We sell them the seeds, the equipment to grow and process the crop, the chemicals to make sure their crop is successful and then we buy back that crop at a staggeringly low margin.
Ultimately, we need to think about our desired result and how we are getting there. A strong plant and a strong crop is desirable. But we need to think about our methods and the overall impact of what we are doing. Sometimes the ends do not justify the means.
Yes, GMOs Are Bad
GMOs and their associated pesticides also contaminate the environment, create "super weeds," and hurt non-target species (e.g., bees, butterflies). Lastly, GMOs make agricultural much more expensive - not only through monopoly patents and technology use agreements, but also by requiring more pesticide applications, while also dragging down average crop yields - thus, belying the notion that they can better feed the world.
The vast majority of the humanity's food is still produced by smaller family farmers using agroecological methods, open source seeds, and conventional breeding techniques. That the Green/Gene Revolution has failed in its proclaimed mission shows hunger to be more an economic and political challenge, than a technical one. The real solution to our current crisis will be found by promoting food sovereignty instead.
In the last decade or so, the use of GMOs in common commodity grain crops such as corn and soybeans has increased to between 80-90% of the totals for these crops. This increase has been so rapid and so large over a relatively short period of time that it is difficult to say with certainty what the impact is on animal, human and landscape health.
However, anecdotes and studies suggest at least the need for caution. GMOs such as common commodities corn and soybean carry toxics and spark allergies and other more serious, negative effects on animal and human health. In addition to the usual health and environmental effects of monocrops, GMOs by their nature refract and sharpen these effects by creating organisms that are single purpose, not multifunctional, and reducing their adaptability.
As such, GMO crops require massive and expensive inputs like fertilizers that have multiple unintended, downstream costs both economically and environmentally. More expensive inputs create a reinforcing loop of higher cost, higher economic risk and consequent uncertainty for farmers. Higher use of fertilizers in turn create more nitrogen and phosphorus runoff that has deleterious effects on water bodies including the proliferation of oxygen-starved areas or dead zones.
Lastly, as single purpose plants that are not naturally occurring, GMOs both in their use in farms fields and when they risk spreading beyond them reduce the diversity and adaptability of plant and animal life. They also create another reinforcing loop of increased weed generation that in turn creates the conditions for use of more chemical weed control, more fertilizers and other high cost inputs.
GMOs thus reduce biodiversity and generally add to the conditions that make food growing more expensive and damaging to landscape, animal and human health. For the future of food and agriculture, what we need nationally and internationally are more multifunctional, sustainable agriculture enterprises that parallel and enhance natural biodiversity. This is for the well-being of humans, animals and the natural world.
- There is absolutely no safety testing required by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for any GM plant and none has been done for most of the GM products on the market. While nothing can be ‘proven safe’, one can demonstrate potential harm by studying toxicity in animals. This is the basis of the FDA drug approval process, and if there is any indication of toxicity at a therapeutic amount, the drug candidate fails. In the case of some GM crops and definitely with regard to the chemicals required to produce most of them, there is extensive animal data showing that they are toxic at current human exposure levels. For example, the production of GM soy requires large amounts of herbicides containing the chemical glyphosate. Glyphosate was declared a probable carcinogen by the World Health Organization (WHO). Importantly, herbicides such as glyphosate accumulate inside the GM food so they cannot be washed off.
Therefore, it is very likely that all of the herbicides, as well as the GM plants containing insecticidal BT toxins would fail if they were subjected to the FDA drug toxicology protocols. Yet we are increasingly forced to eat more of these products. Moreover, all GM plants are different from one another, therefore it is logically absurd to claim that all are safe. Furthermore, we have no way of knowing what will be introduced into our food chain in the future. Some of the so-called nutritionally enhanced plants, such as those overproducing beta carotene, are potentially very toxic because their chemistry is based upon compounds that are known to be biologically active in humans. The safety issue is made more problematic, because recent law has essentially given carte blanche to the GM food producers by legally redefining the very meaning of GM and moving its already limited oversight to the Department of Agriculture, an exceptionally pro-GM agency.
- The idea that GM technology increases yields is blatantly false, as proven by multiple recent studies published in excellent scientific journals. In fact, European farmers outperformed GM by using conventional breeding.
- Finally, there is a consensus among multiple world health organizations that feeding our growing population must be based upon small units of sustainable agriculture, not through chemically intensive, industrial GM agriculture.
Image: ANNECORDON / iStock.