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If you're confused about the pros and cons of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), you're not alone. While this relatively new technology is riddled with bioethics questions, the arguments for and against GMOs are difficult to weigh because it's hard to know what the risks are-until something goes wrong.
GMOs may not be natural, but not everything natural is good for us, and not everything unnatural is bad for us. For example, poisonous mushrooms are natural, but we shouldn't eat them. Washing food before eating it isn't natural (unless you're a raccoon), but it is healthier for us.
GMO Is a Broad Term
GMOs have been on the market since 1996, so if all of them were an immediate health threat, you'd think we would know it by now. Part of the confusion regarding GMOs results from the broad scope the term "genetically modified organism" includes (although the definition has narrowed and no longer includes genetic alterations that result from the processes of natural mating and mutation). The general consensus among food producers and many consumers is that "not all GMOs" are bad. Scientific breakthroughs in manipulating plant genetics are actually largely responsible for the commercial success of crops in the United States, especially corn and soy.
While increased production is considered a plus by many, studies on the longterm health impact of consuming GMO goods are yet to be conclusive. New legislation initiatives in the United States are seeking to force producers to label goods as genetically modified. But whether such labeling will lead to a better understanding or further confusion regarding a product's GMO status remains to be seen.
GMOs and Labeling
Proponents of GMO labeling believe consumers should be able to decide for themselves whether or not they wish to consume GMO products. In the European Union, the legal definition of a genetically modified organism is "an organism, with the exception of human beings, in which the genetic material has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination." It is illegal in the E.U. to deliberately release a GMO into the environment, and food items containing more than 1% GMOs must be labeled as such.
In 2017 the U.S. government passed a national Genetically Modified Foods (GMO) labeling law to ensure a uniform standard for labeling GMOs (also referred to as BE/bioengineered foods). The previous year, Congress passed the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard Act that required the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to establish a labeling standard for GMOs.
While the requirements were set to take effect by July 2018, after a public comment period, the USDA extended the implementation deadline for two years. The law will go into effect at the beginning of 2020 and will require food companies to be in compliance by January 1, 2022.
Why Knowing What's in Your Food Matters
This alteration of the genes usually entails inserting genetic material into an organism in a laboratory without the aegis of natural mating, breeding, or reproduction. In other words, instead of breeding two plants or animals together to encourage certain traits in their offspring, the plant, animal, or microbe has DNA from another organism inserted.
Genetically modified products contain novel proteins that could trigger allergic reactions in people who are either allergic to one of the components of the GMO or in people who are allergic only to the new substance. Further, food additives that are Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) do not have to undergo rigorous toxicity testing to prove their safety. Instead, their safety is generally based on published past toxicity studies. The FDA has awarded GRAS status to 95% of the GMOs that have been submitted.
Arguments for GMO Use
GMO technology can develop crops that have higher yields and more nutrients while using less fertilizer and fewer pesticides. If you live in the United States, you are most likely eating GMOs or livestock that was fed GMOs: 88% of the corn and 94% of the soy grown in the U.S. has been genetically modified to be herbicide-resistant and/or insect-resistant.
In addition to increased production, GMO technology also speeds evolution. With traditional breeding, it can take several generations before the desired trait is sufficiently brought out in offspring, and each new generation must reach sexual maturity before they can be bred as part of the cycle.
With GMO technology, however, the desired genotype can be created instantly in the current generation and, since genetic engineering moves discrete genes or blocks of genes at a time, GMO technology is actually more predictable than traditional breeding during which thousands of genes from each parent are randomly transferred to their offspring.
Arguments Against GMO Use
The most common arguments against GMOs are that they have not been tested thoroughly, have less predictable outcomes, and can be potentially harmful to human, animal, and crop health as a result. Studies have already shown that GMOs are dangerous to rats. A 2011 review in Environmental Sciences Europe of 19 studies in which genetically modified soy and corn were fed to mammals found that a GMO diet often led to liver and kidney problems.
Another concern is that genetically modified plants or animals could interbreed with wild populations, creating problems such as population explosions or crashes or offspring with dangerous traits that would go further into harming the delicate ecosystem. In terms of agriculture, it's feared that GMOs will inevitably lead to a decline in mixed cropping and an increase in monoculture, which is dangerous because it threatens the biological diversity of our food supply.
GMOs are transferring genes in a much more unpredictable way than natural breeding allows. That doesn't necessarily sound bad until you consider that creating GMOs is a type of genetic engineering that can be further broken down into different subcategories. While cisgenic organisms contain DNA from a member of the same species and are, therefore, generally regarded as less risky, transgenic organisms contain DNA from another species-and that's where you run into trouble.
One of the built-in safeguards of natural breeding is that a member of one species will not produce fertile offspring with a member of another species. With transgenic technology, scientists are transferring genes not just across species but across kingdoms-inserting animal genes into microbes or plants. The resulting genotypes could never exist in nature-and the process is far more unpredictable than crossing a Macintosh apple with a Red Delicious apple.
GMOs vs. Animal Rights
Animal rights activists believe that animals have an intrinsic value separate from any value they have to humans and that animals have a right to be free of human use, oppression, confinement, and exploitation. While GMOs can make agriculture more efficient, thereby reducing human impact on wildlife and wild habitats, genetically modified organisms raise some specific animal rights concerns.
GMO technology often involves experimenting on animals. Animals are used as either a source for genetic material or as the recipient of genetic material, as was the case when jellyfish and coral were used to create genetically modified glowing mice, fish, and rabbits for the novelty pet trade.
The patenting of genetically modified animals is also of concern to animal rights activists. Patenting animals is tantamount to treating them as property rather than sentient, living beings. Animal advocates believe the reverses-that animals are sentient, living beings as opposed to things people own-and view the patenting of animals as a step in the wrong direction.
Under the U.S. Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act, new food additives must be proven safe. While there are no required tests, the FDA offers Guidelines for Toxicity Studies that include rodents and non-rodents, usually dogs. Although some opponents of GMOs are demanding more long-term tests, animal advocates should refrain from doing so as more tests will mean more animals suffering in laboratories.
- Philpott, Tom. "Are Genetically Modified Foods Safe to Eat?" Mother Jones. September 30, 2011.
- Séralini, Gilles-Eric; Mesnage, Robin; Clair, Emilie; Gress, Steeve; Spiroux de Vendômois, Joël; Cellier, Dominique. "Genetically Modified Crops Safety Assessments: Present Limits and Possible Improvements." SpringerOpen: Environmental Sciences Europe. March 1, 2011.
- "On Patented Mouse: Let Reason Rule." Chicago Tribune. April 17, 1988.
- "Everything You Need to Know About GMO Labeling in 2019." Illinois Farm Families Blog. 2019.