Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Genetically Modified Food: Pros and Cons

By Jonathan Mallon

Genetically Modified Organisms, or GMOs, are not trusted not only by people who care about their health, but those who also care about their impacts on the environment.  There are many websites dedicated to stopping the use of GMOs in products, listing all the things that are wrong with them.  However, they may already be in our food and many of our food products.  According to “Questions & Answers on Food from Genetically Engineered Plants” on the U.S Food and Drug Administration’s website, most GMO plants include “corn, canola, soybean, and cotton,” which are used in many major food and snack products. 

While I would still stay away from GMO products, there are two sides to every story, especially the use of GMOs and how much of an impact it has on both human health and the environment.

GMOs are precisely what they sound like.  According to the report “20 Questions on Genetically Modified (GM) Foods” by the World Health Organization, GMOs “can be defined as organisms in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally.” GM crops were made to better resist the plant diseases from pests and herbicide resistance, according to the WHO report.  The FDA webpage said that “genetically engineered plants were introduced into our food supply in the 1990s.”

GMO info-graphic  (courtesy of FDA)

It was reported by the Federation of American Scientists that by 2010, over 80 percent of U.S crops, such as soybeans, corn, and even sugar beets, were of genetically modified varieties, and that GM crop cultivation grew “from six countries in 1996 to 25 countries in 2009,” and was “expected to reach 40 countries (mostly in the developing world) by 2015.”  Overall, GMOs have been in the U.S for around 20 years, and its use has greatly grown internationally as well.

The safety of GMO products in the U.S, according to the FDA’s website, is regulated by meeting the same requirements as traditional food.  The FDA also said that they encourage GMO developers to consult with them before they take their product to market.  This agrees with what the WHO said about GMO safety, which stated that GMO foods and their safety “should be assessed on a case-by-case basis and that it is not possible to make general statements on the safety of all GM foods.”  The U.S regulates GMOs by the product, in contrast to the regulation of the process by the European Union, according to an article on GM crops by the Federation of American Scientists.

GMOs mainly benefit farmers with their produce and yields.  As stated before, the WHO report explained that the genetic modification of crops allowed them to be more resistant to insects, viruses, and even weeds.  This is meant to help reduce the use of insecticides and herbicides on those plants, as well as help “in higher crop yields.”  Also, the nutrition content of GMOs are supposed to be unchanged.  The FDA said that through their consultation process, GMO foods are “generally as nutritious as foods from comparable traditionally bred plants.”

This type of scientific genetic breeding brings a lot of questions and potential risks to the consumers.  Allergic reaction to GMOs is one concern, according to the WHO report, but through their organization’s own evaluations, they didn’t find any allergic effects related “to GM foods on the market.”  Gene transfer to human cells or bacteria upon consumption of GMOs was also a health concern, according to the WHO report. 

Health risks were also found in assessing animal tests using GMOs.  According to the article “GMO Dangers” on the Institute for Responsible Technology website, they found through other scientific studies that mice had fewer and smaller-sized offspring when they ate GM corn for a long time, and that the smaller mice from mothers who ate GM soy died “within three weeks.”  Other rodents that were tested by being fed GM soy and corn “showed immune system responses and signs of toxicity, according to the IRT article, as well as “excessive cell growth” of the stomach lining of rats after eating GM potatoes, “a condition that may lead to cancer.” 

Thierry Vrain, in the article “Former Pro-GMO Scientist Speaks Out On The Real Dangers of Genetically Engineered Food” on foodrevolution.org, said that he used to be a research scientist for a Canadian agricultural company promoting GMOs before he stopped supporting it.  While generally referring to the studies on rats, Vrain said that putting “a gene in a genome using this technology can and does result in damaged proteins.  The scientific literature is full of studies showing that engineered corn and soya contain toxic or allergenic proteins.”

There is also a concern about how it will affect the environment.  One major concern Vrain presented in his article was superweeds, created “when RoundUp crops pass their genes on to RoundUp resistant weeds.  Apparently over 50% of fields in the USA are now infested and the growers have to go back to using other toxic herbicides such as 2-4 D.”  Other environmental concerns, according to the WHO report, include the impact on other insects who aren’t a threat to the GM crop, “loss of biodiversity,” and how strong the gene is after farmers harvest the crop.

These are the two sides to the debate over the use of GMOs.  The U.S government considers them safe, as well as scientific organizations.  However, there is other scientific research that show that it may be detrimental to our health (according to animal studies), and there are concerns over how different aspects of the environment, such as nature and ecology, will be affected by the GM crops.  It may be difficult to avoid these types of crops in popular products, which is why labeling GM products in the U.S would be good idea.

“GMO Dangers.”  Institute for Responsible Technology.
“Genetically Modified Crops.”  Federation of American Scientists.
“Questions and Answers on Food from Genetically Engineered Plants.”  U.S Food and Drug Administration.  Updated 7 April, 2013.
“20 Questions on Genetically Modified (GM) Foods.”  World Health Organization.
Vrain, Thierry.  “Former Pro-GMO Scientist Speaks Out On the Real Dangers of Genetically Engineered Food.”  The Food Revolution Network.  11 May, 2013.

Jonathan Mallon is a student at Ramapo College of New Jersey.  He is studying Journalism, and hopes to find a position as a film or video game reviewer either at a publication or through making a blog.  He is scheduled to graduate this year.

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