GMOs are usually used as a reference for food products, but it is an abbreviation that stands for “genetically modified organism.” A GMO is created when the genes from one species are artificially forced, in laboratory conditions, into the gene structures of unrelated plants or animals. These genes can originate from any living being, plant, or creature, including humans, and be forced into the genetic structure of any other living organism.
Sometimes GMOs are referred to as transgenic products. That is because of the genetic transfer which occurs during modern GMO research. The process may also be referred to as genetic modification or genetic engineering, but all these terms lead to the same approach to organism modification.
And the reason why GMOs are usually referenced to food products is because that is where most GMOs are found.
Since the 1990s, when the first GMOs were introduced into the human food supply chain, the advantages and disadvantages of this technology and its outcomes have been debated. The US has somewhat embraced GMOs, while the rest of the world has treated them with great hesitation.
Here are the key advantages and disadvantages of GMOs to think about.
What Are the Advantages of GMOs?
1. GMO crops can be tailored to provide better health benefits.
GMO foods can be modified so that they provide a complete nutritional profile. Multiple vitamins and minerals can be built into the crops as they grown by adjusting the genetic profile of the plant, making it possible for people to get what they need with fewer foods and lower costs. That makes it possible to provide more people who are living in poverty with the food resources they need to maintain their health.
2. There is the possibility of an increased shelf life.
GMO crops can be engineered to last longer once harvested, which makes it possible to extend the distribution life of the food product. That makes it possible to use the existing infrastructure for food distribution to send healthy foods further around the world. That means locations which are experiencing food deserts or shortages can still receive affordable foods that can benefit the general population.
3. It takes less land to grow more food.
GMO crops can be engineered to produce higher yields from the same croplands. In some instances, the crop yields can potentially double when the transition from traditional crops to GMO crops is completed by local farmers. That makes it possible to meet the food demands that future generations are going to face. By 2050, upwards of 10 billion people are expected to be living on our planet. Oxfam currently estimates that global food production is enough to feed about 8 billion people.
4. Genetically modified crops can conserve energy, soil, and water resources.
That allows our food distribution networks to make less of an impact on the environment. Food can be grown in areas that receive very little rainfall and have zero irrigation with proper genetic modifications. Crops can be grown on fields with little soil. Because the crops have an increased resistance to disease, weeds, and pests, there is greater consistency in the yields that can be produced. That makes it easier to budget food resources for a larger population base.
5. Simple changes to certain crops can have a major impact.
The United Nations, through their Food and Agriculture Organization, suggests that the easiest way to decrease vitamin A deficiencies is to genetically modify rice to have higher levels of this nutrient. Because half of the world’s population consumes rice on a daily basis, the high rates of this vitamin deficiency could be resolved with this one simple change. Bananas in Uganda are being looked at for this vitamin enhancement as well, while soybeans provide higher levels of Omega-3s without trans-fats.
6. Fewer harmful agents need to be applied to crops.
GMO crops are more resistant to pests, weeds, and other threats. That means farmers have less of a need to apply pesticides or herbicides to their crops, which saves them money and potentially increases the health benefits of the food being grown. Farmers can also make more money from their existing croplands because there are greater yields with GMO crops. Even the sustainability benefits, such as drought-resistance, can maintain yields so that fewer subsidies are required.
7. It can save core crops from extinction.
Many of the foods we eat today are products of a single initial resource. Every naval orange, for example, is essentially a clone of one original tree that was grafted to created additional trees. That lack of genetic variation puts the crop at-risk should a virus or bacteria be able to attack the basic genome of the crop. We’ve already seen that happen with the Hawaiian Rainbow Papaya and genetic engineering helped to save the industry. Something similar could happen to naval oranges or any other crop.
8. Farmers can use better ground-care methods.
Because GMO crops have a greater overall tolerance, no-till farming methods become a possibility. Even if tilling is required, less may be necessary to successfully plant a crop. That means less irrigation may be necessary. Less nutrient runoff may be experienced. Soil erosion can be reduced. At the same time, the safety and nutritional value of the crops are not placed at-risk.
9. Future GMOs could eliminate food allergies or intolerance issues.
Current genetic engineering research is focused on removing the allergen triggers that are present in common foods, like peanuts. Intolerance issues that are caused by gluten-containing foods or other triggers are also being examined. The future of food science in the world of GMOs could make it possible for people with food allergies or intolerance issues be able to safely eat foods they love in the future.
10. GMO crops use less water.
From 1980 to 2011, the amount of irrigation water required for fields planted with corn decreased by 53%. For cotton fields the amount of irrigation water decreased by 75%. Soybeans, rice, and potatoes all saw decreases of at least 38%. Even wheat fields saw a 12% decrease in irrigation water consumption when planted with GMO crops compared to traditional crops.
11. There may be a positive environmental impact with GMO crops.
In general terms, GMO crops require fewer in-field operations and applications to maintain the quality of the yield. Because of this, fewer passes over the field are required. That reduces the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that are created through fossil fuel combustion with tractors, combines, and other farming equipment. Carbon dioxide is also stored in the soil, so fewer passes means less of a release occurs there as well.
12. GMO foods must meet the same standards as traditional foods.
For GMO food products to be sold in the United States, they must meet the same quality and safety standards as any other food product. When compared to organic foods, Stanford University has even found that there are no additional health risks when eating GMO foods or organic foods. Although there are food allergy concerns, especially in children, any food at any time has the potential of creating an allergy. From a pure nutritional standpoint, GMO foods are equal or greater than what is found at the average grocery store.
13. GMOs can even safe beneficial insects.
When Bt proteins are used in genetic engineering, it targets a specific group of insect pests that are dangerous to that specific crop. Other beneficial insects that would be killed when spraying a general pesticide are saved. Those included proteins have a minimal effect on them. Although there are stories of shepherds letting loose sheep into Bt fields and losing thousands of head of livestock because of it, there are often more positives than negatives to find here.
What Are the Disadvantages of GMOs?
1. In the US, the FDA does not require GMO labeling.
GMO ingredients can be placed into food products and US shoppers wouldn’t even know it. There are currently no national-level labeling requirements for foods that have GMO ingredients. Some states have looked at creating labeling laws to require GMO information, but for the most part, only non-GMO foods tend to be labelled right now. The Non-GMO Project reports that 64 countries, including the entirety of the European Union, Japan, and Australia all require labeling.
2. Most core foods have some level of genetic modification.
Commercialized crops include cotton, corn, and soybeans. More than 90% of these crops being grown today have some level of genetic modification. Even sugar beets, grown at commercial levels, are more than 90% GMO. Any products that are derived from these core foods, such as corn syrup or soybean oil, still contain the genetic changes from the core ingredient used to make the item.
3. There may be an increased risk of allergies or food intolerance.
Animal testing may be highly controversial, but it should be noted that GMO foods studied in animals have found organ impacts in virtually every circumstance. In humans, there may be an increased trend of food allergies and digestive intolerance because of genetic modification. When plants produce pesticides inside of the plant to kill insects, by basic definition, that plant is toxic.
4. GMO crops can contaminate other fields.
The crops may be genetically modified, but they still grow the same way as any other crop. That means pollination is required for the crop to produce the “fruit” that is being grown. Bees do much of the pollination work, which means they are exposed to the genetic changes of the plant. Seeds are produced by these GMO crops as well in many instances, which can be spread to other fields and contaminate them. If cross-pollination occurs, there is no predictable outcome for both fields, though soybeans are an exception since they don’t cross-pollinate.
5. Animal proteins could be affected by GMO crops.
The vast majority of the core crops in the US that are grown are GMO crops. These crops are then fed to livestock, aquaculture, and apiculture, which impacts groceries that are based on animal proteins. GMO ingredients can be found in milk, seafood, eggs, and animal muscle tissues. Even honey can have GMO ingredients when bees are pollinating genetically modified crops to produce it.
6. Many GMO crops are trademarked, patented, and legally protected.
Farmers that grow GMO crops may be required to sign an agreement to exclusively grow a specific product. They may be asked to take steps that protect the crops being grown from contamination. Farmers that don’t take these steps could be taken to court because of breeching that contract. Some companies have even sued farmers who have patented crops growing in their fields because of natural pollination or distribution patterns, despite the fact that no seeds were ever planted by them.
7. It encourages the use of additional herbicides.
More than 80% of GMO crops grown around the world are created to be tolerant to herbicides. Farmers have increased the number of toxic herbicides because of this by more than 1500% since the first GMO crops were introduced. One of those most common herbicides being used, glyphosate, has been listed by the World Health Organization since 2015 as being a probable carcinogenic.
8. GMOs create super weeds.
If nature knows how to do one thing well, it is to adapt. As crops have grown more resistant to weeds, the weeds have grown stronger and more resilient to the chemicals applied to them that try to kill them. Because of this, some farmers have resorted to using ingredients such as 2, 4-D, which is one of the primary ingredients found in Agent Orange. The US Veteran’s Administration has a long list of presumptive diseases associated with Agent Orange exposure, with many of them being cancers.
9. GMOs create super bugs.
As pesticides are applied to insects that provide a threat to crops, a few of them tend to survive the application. Each subsequent generation becomes more resilient to the pesticide. That means either more needs to be applied or a stronger agent needs to be applied. When something stronger is placed on the crops, the cycle of resilience begins again. Although GMO crops reduced pesticide use by over 1 billion pounds from 1996-2010, the threat of resilient super bugs that could destroy entire croplands without being affected by a pesticide could reduce food supplies instead of increasing them.
10. There are concerns that GMO foods may help to create antibiotic resistance.
One of the ways that crops are modified to be more resilient to disease is to artificially place antibiotic genes within the DNA of the crops. Because there is evidence to suggest that continuing exposure to an antibiotic can lead to disease resistance, the GMO efforts to create a safer food supply could be a contributing factor to the “super bacteria,” such as MRSA, that are increasing in regularity.
11. Genetic engineering doesn’t solve everything.
Atrazine is one of the most common herbicides that is applied to US croplands. According to the National Institutes of Health, atrazine resistance has been studied since the early 1970s. There are dozens of weed species that are already resistant to this herbicide, with research studies by Bettini, Shimabukuro, and Anderson showing over three decades that resistance is growing.
The advantages and disadvantages of GMOs is a necessary conversation we must have. At some point, we must figure out how to feed our growing population levels. New farming methods can only produce a limited amount of change. With this technology, we have the potential to maximize our resources. Of course, maximizing those resources while creating health problems for future generations may not be the right answer either. We should be working to prevent resistance instead of encouraging it.
How do you feel about GMO crops? Do you feel safe eating them? Why or why not?