Genetically modified foods (GMOs) are something we’ve all likely eaten at least once. They are foods that have benefited from genetic engineering. Many strands of corn, soybeans, cotton and similar crops are frequently planted in US fields every year. According to the US Department of Agriculture, GMOs account for 90% or more of the most common crops that are grown by American farmers.
Many believe that GMO foods are perfectly safe to eat and can be grown in greater yields than non-modified crops. There are also many that believe GMOs are unsafe to eat and could be contributing to an increase in common health issues. The pros and cons of GMOs are quite complex, so here are the key points to consider.
What Are the Pros of GMOs?
1. GMOs improve the quality of the food that is grown.
Genetically modified foods can be engineered to have a longer shelf life, which can limit food waste. It can be used to create stronger colors, eliminate seeds, or have the crop be more tolerant to severe weather changes. Many foods have been genetically modified to improve nutrient content, including calcium and protein.
2. GMOs are easier for farmers to grow.
Genetically modified foods can also be engineered to grow in specific, sometimes challenging environments. Crops can be created that have a greater resistance to insects. They may be engineered to have a better tolerance to various herbicides that may be used. In return, farmers can typically receive a better crop yield at the end of the growing season, which increases their profits.
3. It increases the food yields that we can produce on existing croplands.
By the year 2050, the human population on our planet is expected to top 10 billion people. This means we’ll need more food to be produced with our existing resources in order to support this increase. GMOs give us the potential to do so without changing the cost structures of food.
4. GMOs can be shipped to remote areas of the planet.
The planet currently produces 17% more food than it needs for current population levels. At issue is how food can be distributed to rural populations that have few local food resources. The amount of time it takes for food to arrive in these areas is enough for it to spoil before it can be consumed. GMOs improve the lifespan of the food and its durability, allowing for them to be shipped greater distances with less waste to those who have the greatest hunger needs.
5. Herbicide use on GMO crops is lower than other crops.
In a study by PG Economics which looked at pesticide use on GMO cotton from 1996-2011, it found that there had been a 6.1% decrease in the number of herbicides that had been used compared to how much was expected to be used. More than 1.5 kg of herbicide is still used per hectare, however, and this figure is expected to rise to 3.5 kg per hectare by 2025.
6. The FDA requires GMO foods to meet the same requirements as all other foods.
Stanford University compared organic foods to GMO foods and found that there was no strong evidence that one or the other is either more nutritious or more likely to carry with it additional health risks that are associated with its consumption.
What Are the Cons of GMOs?
1. They may contribute to an increase in food-related allergies.
Information from the CDC shows that food allergies in children have increased from 3.4% to 5.1% in the last decade. Although there is no evidence that supports the idea that GMOs can contribute to an increase in food-related allergies, the idea that it can happen has been firmly planted. This idea causes many people to avoid products which contain GMOs.
2. Genetic engineering can trigger allergies from alternative foods.
GMOs that contained proteins from Brazil nuts were found to trigger an allergic reaction in people who are allergic to them. Because of this, any proteins that come from a different food item must be listed as part of the ingredients or growing process and be tested to determine their ability to cause an allergic reaction.
3. GMOs may contribute to antibiotic resistance.
GMOs are often incorporated with antibiotic-resistant genes in order to strengthen the crops that will grow. There is speculation, but no confirmed facts or correlations, that this process could be contributing to the formation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
4. One research paper connects GMOs to cancer formation.
A paper that was first published in 2013 linked the herbicide that is found in Roundup-tolerant crops to cancer development in rats. This paper was retracted by the initial journal that published it for having invalid or misleading information, but it has been republished by other journals since the retraction. This has caused many to believe that consuming GMO corn could be hazardous to their health.
5. Just 6 companies control almost the entire GMO seed market and 70% of the global pesticide market.
Much of the negative energy which surrounds GMOs tends to involve Monsanto. There are 5 other companies that, along with Monsanto, control nearly all of the GMO seed market. This include Sungenta, Dow Agrosciences, Bayer, BASF, and DuPont. This means a majority of corn and soybean products are not only profiting the farmer, but they are profiting companies as well. To protect these profits, patents are sought on certain seeds, which has caused legal troubles for some farmers who have had GMO seeds cross-pollinate with their crops, despite not planting GMOs.
6. Herbicide resistance happens naturally without the need for genetic engineering.
There are currently 64 different types of weeds which have been proven to be resistant to atrazine. This is despite the fact that none of these weeds have been paired with GMO crops to encourage such a resistance. Some farmers in the Southeastern United States can lose up to half of their yield, even when planting GMO crops, to atrazine-resistant weeds.
7. Independent research is not allowed with GMO seeds from half of today’s controlling organizations.
User agreements with half of today’s leading GMO seed producers prohibit the use of independent research on the final product. This helps to protect the royalties that the companies earn when farmers are able to harvest a yield through the use of their seeds. Since the seeds are considered company property, even the unintended growing of a GMO crop can result in the need to pay a royalty.
In the pros and cons of GMOs, we find that there is just as much disinformation as there are facts. They may be able to feed a hungry world, but they may also cause digestive issues in doing so. What really needs to be addresses is how GMO seeds are treated. Farmers shouldn’t need to purchase seeds every year or fear a lawsuit because another farmer planted GMO crops that spread to their fields. This would allow us to benefit from the efforts of everyone in the agricultural field.