GMOs — Okay for consumption?

Dear Alice,

What are the pros and cons for considering GMOs? (Especially in our daily food consumption?)

Dear Reader,

Though it may seem like a hot new topic for debate, GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, have been around for thousands of years. GMOs are organisms in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that doesn't occur naturally. Historically, farmers have created genetically modified plants and animals through selective mating and cross-breeding methods, pairing the “best” ones up with each other to yield better results. Today, there are many methods to improve the beneficial traits and characteristics of plants using genetic modifications (GM).

Genetic engineering, or the process in which genes from one organism are inserted into another organism in order to produce a useful trait, is often used in combination with traditional breeding methods to produce the GMOs you see at grocery stores and markets. The process involves:

  1. Identifying the gene that gives an organism its desired trait such as a gene related to drought resistance or insect repellant
  2. Copying the information from an organism that has the desired trait
  3. Inserting the desired trait gene into another organism’s DNA
  4. Growing this new modified organism. This process is monitored and done with a smaller batch before expanding to ensure proper growth

In addition to this well-established method for genetic engineering, new methods to create GMOs are constantly in development. For example, genetic editing, such as the direct removal of an undesired gene, has made this process quicker and easier. Though improvements for the GMO process are in constant development, there are guidelines and agencies that oversee this process in order to ensure that the best quality food makes it to your table. In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) makes sure that GMOs meet the same strict safety requirements as all other foods, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) ensures that GMOs don’t adversely affect other plants, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates substances/pesticides used to protect GMOs.

Why bother with this controversial and lengthy process of creating and consuming GMOs? GMOs are a powerful tool to help address concerns of undernutrition as they have the potential to harness genes that make foods richer in nutrients and resistant to poor climate conditions. For example, researchers have developed “Golden Rice” rich in beta-carotene, beneficial to those lacking sufficient vitamin A. Additionally, many GMOs are bioengineered to process their own pesticide and herbicide capabilities, reducing the need for chemicals to be sprayed all over crops. This decreases the contribution of farming to water waste and carbon emissions. Genetically engineered foods are often designed to be even safer for human consumption than their natural counterparts, by reducing natural allergens and toxins. For example, scientists have engineered a hypoallergenic peanut that doesn't provoke a deadly adverse reaction in those with peanut allergies. Ultimately, there are many possibilities for GMOs to help diversify agriculture and improve food options.

While GMOs harness great potential, many have environmental, agricultural, economic, and social justice concerns related to their development and usage. Environmentalists are concerned that GM crops may result in a “super-weed” product, resistant to herbicides and pesticides. Treatment of such GMO would drive up the need for stronger chemicals that may be harmful to the environment. Additionally, many fear that by tampering with the genetic makeup of food, there may be an accidental trigger of the oppositely desired effect such as the introduction of new toxins or a new allergy. While many clinical trials have shown that GMOs don't cause adverse effects in humans, many have failed to prove that they are, in fact, beneficial and therefore worth all the money and effort. Further research and long-term studies are necessary to make a formal conclusion to this effect. As more is learned about GMOs, the policies and organizations that regulate the process continually adapt. Recently, for example, the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard was established to require food labels to disclose GMO status on products in the US. No matter where you stand on the debate, the identification of these products allows you to make conscious choices that are right for you.

If you've been buying GMOs — fear not! Hundreds of studies, food agencies, and scientific institutions have praised the safety of GMOs. Since this research is currently ongoing, there's so much more to learn about each individual genetically modified product on the market. If you want to stay as up to date as possible on GMO research, you can learn more from the FDA website

Last updated Jun 10, 2022
Originally published Feb 14, 2014

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