GMOs, or Genetically Modified Organisms, seem to cause quite a ruckus wherever they go. Safeway and Kroger just announced that they will not carry GMO Salmon in their stores, Starbucks was recently slammed for serving its customers milk from cows that were fed with GMOs, and there calls to label all GMO products in the US. GMOs are in an estimated 60-80% of the food we eat, including canned soup, baby formula, juice, and tofu. So what’s the big deal? After all, almost all the foods we eat today have been modified from their original form for thousands of years through careful breeding of individuals that contained characteristics we wanted. The difference: technology.
While farmers have traditionally practiced artificial selection for desired traits like increased yield or improved taste, genetic engineering consists of adding genes from other species that would not ever occur naturally. However, just because something is natural doesn’t mean it’s good for you, and just because something is not natural doesn’t mean it’s bad for you. Arsenic and poison ivy are natural and you don’t see anyone touting their merits. So is this non-natural genetic modification of the foods we eat bad for us or the environment?
In short: we don’t know for sure. Many risks have been discussed, including:
-Unintentional introduction of allergens or toxins
-Gene transfer to non-target species
-Adverse change in the nutrient content
-Creation of “super weeds” through overuse of certain herbicides
Many botanists contend that it would be unlikely to introduce a new allergen or toxin through genetic modification and we have yet to find a case of this occurring. I would also note that there is no scientifically valid cases that gene transfer or adverse change in nutrient content has occurred over the decades that we have been growing GMOs. Since genetic engineering was needed to insert a “new” gene into an organism’s DNA, we have no reason to think that the gene in question could transfer itself to a non-target species without such help. As for the creation of “super weeds” that are resistant to herbicides, this would undoubtedly happen with or without herbicide-resistant GMOs. The presences of herbicide-resistant GMO crops and the overuse of that herbicide probably increases the rate at which naturally herbicide-resistant weeds occur, but are not their sole cause.
In a world where the human population is still increasing and natural habitats are being converted to agricultural land, GMOs could arguably be seen as our savior. GMO crops can be made pest and disease resistant, drought tolerant, cold tolerant, or have increased yield over their non-GMO relatives. This allows producers to grow more food, in more places, with fewer chemicals, and less land. Any quick internet search will lead you to plenty of people advocating against GMO crops, but I think that it is important to note that the loudest opinion is not always the right opinion. We should never stop questioning the safety of the things we put in our bodies, but fear of the unknown or hypothetical is not a reason to avoid GMO products. While we should not blindly embrace GMOs, we also shouldn’t condone them for crimes they have yet to commit. I, for one, certainly look forward to seeing more research on the subject.
This is, in my opinion, one of the best articles out there on the subject. I encourage everyone interested in GMOs to take a look: