to the public’s perception of GMOs, meaning genetically modified organisms¹. Perhaps intuitively the idea of breeding organisms whose genetic material has been altered using genetic engineering techniques does not sound very appealing. The fact is however that humans have been tampering with the genetic code of our seeds, plants and animals for centuries. When humans started domesticating animals and breeding some with others we were essentially changing the genetic make-up of those animals to produce offspring that met some criteria better than others. What radically changed in the 20th century was that this process of change that took years if not decades to complete on the basis of trial and error, could now be done fast and in principle, much more effectively².
But the controversy over GMOs, particularly in food continues: scientists are split, governments are pursuing different regulatory approaches, farmers and the food industry do not always agree and environmentalists and consumer groups remain unconvinced about the safety of GMOs. In a debate that has so far generated over 2,000 studies documenting that GMO technology does not pose an unusual threat to human health³ and probably just as many supporting the opposite, it is perhaps difficult to strip arguments back to the basic facts and get a fresh look at the issues.
But we at Greentumble decided we were up for the challenge and are giving you below our best analysis of the pros and cons of GMOs.
Benefits of GMOs
It is suggested that GMO crops can deliver higher crop yields which could help in the fight towards food security across the globe⁴. With about 795 million people in the world not having enough food to lead a healthy active life⁵, the possibility that some crops might help produce more foods sounds very appealing. However, a recent study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service indicated that this may not be necessarily the case⁶. Specifically, the report concluded that “over the first 15 years of commercial use, GMO seeds have not been shown to definitively increase yield potential” and “in fact, the yields of herbicide-tolerant or insect-resistant seeds may be occasionally lower than the yields of conventional varieties”⁶.
Beyond increased yields, GMOs are pitched as more economical. Despite the higher costs of the seeds, GMO seeds don’t need as many pesticides or herbicides and because the crops are meant to grow more easily, they require fewer members of staff to help them grow⁴. Generally speaking, according to experts GMOs are considered to be more resistant to pests as well as some weather conditions, which helps minimise crop failure⁷.
Lastly, GM foods are associated with improved food quality. For example, GM technology can insert genes responsible for producing specific vitamins to food staples. Golden Rice is a variety of rice which has been modified to include the genes responsible for producing the precursor of vitamin A. This would be an effective way of countering global vitamin A deficiency rates given more than half of the world’s population has rice as a core part of their diet⁷.
Concerns with GMOs
While it is often argued that GMOs can be beneficial to the environment as the effectiveness of GM crops is such that future use of land for agricultural purposes will not be as great, GMOs can create a series of problems for local ecosystems⁴,⁷. More specifically, GMOs can have a detrimental effect to local biodiversity. Typically, a variety of organisms in farms can help control pests. In GM farms though, the genetic homogeneity of the crops, contributes to the decline in biodiversity and increases the vulnerability of crops to climate change, pests and diseases. In addition, when GM crops are planted they can spread of their transgenes to other non-target species such as weeds or local plants⁸.
A further worry with GMOs is that the changes in genetic code that might make them better in nutritional terms might also create potential allergies to people. More specifically, according to Brown University, making GM seeds requires the mixing and adding of proteins that don’t naturally occur to the original plant or animal. So it is possible that this process adds an allergen to a food product that would have not otherwise had it. In addition, this process could create new allergens and even more worryingly, could even potentially lead to the emergence of new diseases⁹.
Similarly, because some GM foods have antibiotic properties built into them to help make the crops resistant to diseases or viruses, the antibiotics are transferred to our body and stay there well after we have eaten them, which in turn can decrease our own body’s response to antibiotics, making the medicine less effective⁹.