May 21, 2018 Intensive Agriculture Written by Greentumble
Pros and cons of GMO's
There is widespread skepticism when it

comes to the public’s perception of GMOs, meaning genetically modified organisms [1]. 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 that humans have been tampering with the genetic code of our seeds, plants and animals for centuries.

When humans started domesticating animals and breeding them 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, which previously took years if not decades to complete on the basis of trial and error, could now be done fast and in principle, much more effectively [2].

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, which has so far generated over 2,000 studies, documenting that GMO technology does not pose an unusual threat to human health [3], and probably involves just as many people supporting the opposite idea, 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.

What Is GMO? Understanding Genetically Modified Organisms

A Genetically Modified Organism is one in which its genes have been altered in a laboratory.

When speaking of plants, it is different from a hybrid plant in that a hybrid plant is one which has been crossed with another of its own species, for instance two grapevines. The resulting hybrid of the two plants contains some of the characteristics of each, for example a more cold-hardy grapevine might be the result of the cross.

Plants are genetically modified to achieve specific results, primarily to make the crop resistant to pests or to herbicides sprayed on neighboring weeds. 

An example of a genetically modified plant is Bt corn. Monsanto chemical company, a major agricultural chemical supplier and producer of GMO products crossed genetic material in a laboratory from a pest-resistant bacteria (bacillus thuringiensis or Bt) naturally occurring in many soils with corn.

The resultant product, Bt corn contains the insecticidal compounds commonly called Bt toxins within its every cell. The plant itself is a pesticide registered with the EPA. It kills the corn rootworm who tries to feed on it.

The EPA has concluded that it is safe to all mammals, birds and fish and is only toxic to selective insects [4].

Millions of acres of Bt crops, including cotton and potatoes are currently grown in the United States.

Advantages of GMOs

#1 Increased pest resistance of crops

Crops genetically modified to kill pests will not require additional application of pesticides. The application of pesticides is a very large environmental concern and any measure to reduce their use will result in favorable environmental consequences to soil health and water purity and all of the life forms that depend upon healthy soil, air and water.

In fact, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reported in 2016 that Bt crops have reduced insecticide applications by 123 million pounds [5].

#2 Less pesticide residues in foods

Crops genetically modified to kill pests translates to less pesticide residue in foods. USDA data for the year 2015 showed 85 percent of foods tested had pesticide residues [6].

Pesticide residues on crops

Sample foods tested change each year, so a year-by-year comparison is not exceptionally meaningful. Still, to provide an idea of the extensive use of pesticides on crops, 77 percent of the foods tested in 2016 had pesticide residues.

The EPA summarizes this same data differently, minimizing the concern about consuming toxins.

It opens its overview with the claim that in 2016, over 99 percent of the samples tested had residues well below the tolerances established by the EPA [7]. Its conclusion is that 99 percent of the food tested, while most of it still containing measurable fungicides, herbicides and insecticides is safe to eat.

Even though the US EPA does not believe that consuming pesticides is harmful, it is safe to say that most consumers would prefer not to ingest pesticides.

#3 Reduction of agricultural runoff

Using fewer pesticides is not only beneficial to butterflies, bees, birds, animals who feed on the crop and us but is also helpful to soil organisms, water supplies and aquatic life.

Pesticides destroy soil microorganisms that contribute to plant nutrition. Growers then supplement the soil with chemical fertilizers.  Both the pesticide runoff and fertilizer runoff get into the water table and waterways, making water unfit for drinking and for aquatic life.

#4 Lower risk of pesticide crop contamination

Pesticide drift caused by wind currents and cross-pollination contaminates neighboring cropland as well, so any reduction in pesticide use lessens this destructive unintended consequence.

#5 Higher crop yield

It is suggested that GMO crops can deliver higher crop yields which could help in the fight towards food security across the globe [8]. With about 795 million people in the world not having enough food to lead a healthy active life [9], the possibility that some crops might help produce more foods sounds very appealing.

For example, if a gene is found that is responsible for making a crop drought-resistant, that could be injected into the host crop planted where drought threatens.

However, a recent study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service indicated that this may not be necessarily the case [10].

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 [10].”

#6 Smaller risk of crop failure

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 grow [8].

According to experts, GMOs are considered to be more resistant to pests as well as some weather conditions, which helps minimize crop failure [11].

#7 Enriched nutritional value

Genetically modified crops are associated with improved food quality. A modified gene can increase or decrease the vitamin, mineral or fatty acid content of the crop.

Golden rice is modified to increase its beta carotene content which gives it a deeper hue. This would be an effective way of countering global vitamin A deficiency rates, given that more than half of the world’s population has rice as a core part of their diet [11]. But the science is a bit amorphous. It has been discovered that sometimes when one vitamin is increased, another will decrease as an unintended consequence.

GMO high yield rice

For example, canola oil engineered to contain vitamin A has reduced vitamin E levels [12]. Vitamin and mineral fortification can be accomplished without genetic engineering.

Too, genetic modification can ostensibly be used to produce a product with an increased shelf life without the use of preservatives. Studies show unintended consequences of reduced nutritional value in crops genetically modified for other purposes [13].


Disadvantages of GMOs

#1 Increased use of herbicides

If the crop in question was genetically modified to withstand herbicides, then there is no incentive to lessen the use of herbicides. The reason for engineering such a plant is so that chemical sprays can be applied indiscriminately in broad swaths across the fields.

In fact, agribusiness would have free reign to spray crops with more herbicides and wreak more environmental destruction. The financial incentive to lobby against GMO regulations, even just labeling foods made from GMOs and to assure the public that GMOs are safe is huge.

#2 Lack of scientific evidence proving that GMO foods are safe for consumption

If potatoes are created with a gene resistant to herbicides, there is absolutely nothing to say that the potatoes when consumed will not yield a mechanism that causes damage to the kidneys or liver, hormonal functions or otherwise reacts adversely to humans at the molecular level.

It is simply a giant question mark.

It is for this reason that many countries have full or partial bans on GMO foods and many more have significant restrictions and public disclosure requirements.

There are no studies showing GMOs are safe for human consumption.

Are these genetically altered crops really even food in the sense of providing nutritional value, or are they more accurately described as time bombs for the release of carcinogens?

Scientists argue that data on the cumulative effect of pesticide consumption over time is already sorely lacking. So what about foods that have been genetically altered so that they are essentially pesticides and have also been sprayed extensively with herbicides, a very likely scenario?

“We don’t know if you eat an apple that has multiple residues every day what will be the consequences 20 years down the road. They [agribusiness] want to assure everybody that this is safe but the science is quite inadequate. This is a big issue.”

Chensheng Lu

Associate Professor of environmental exposure biology at the Harvard School of Public Health [14]

Designing a study to test the effects of dietary exposures to pesticides is an expensive and complex effort. Long-term studies of the effects of exposure to organophosphate and pyrethroid pesticides, two commonly used pesticides on American children were begun in the 1990s.

These studies showed that the brains of children were far more sensitive to chemical uptake than those of the laboratory animals used in the initial studies showing the pesticides were safe for human consumption and concluded that the children’s exposures were high enough to cause subtle but lasting damage to their brains and nervous systems, including a greater likelihood of being diagnosed with ADHD [15].

Application of a pesticide on monocrop field.

Considering these results, in 2015 the EPA proposed banning the use of one of the organophosphate pesticides found to cause the brain damage, chlorpyrifos. The EPA found that banning it would not cause undue hardship on the 40,000 growers using it as they had access to alternative pesticides.  Agribusiness pushed back, arguing that the chemical was critical to the national supply of cereal, forage, fruit, nuts, vegetables and oil.

In March 2017, the Trump administration’s newly appointed EPA chief, Scott Pruitt, overrode the recommendation of the agency scientists to ban the commercial use of the pesticide [16].

We must reasonably evaluate the political interests at play in the United States presently, with a president in office who has openly expressed support for GMO foods and the biotechnology industry and is unlikely to support studies of health risks of agribusiness products [17].

#3 Introduction of new allergens into our food system

A further worry with GMOs is that the changes in genetic code that 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 in 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 could even potentially lead to the emergence of new diseases [18].

#4 Resistance to antibiotics

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 a genetically modified product.

This in turn decreases our own body’s response to antibiotics, making the medicine less effective [18].

#5 Other adverse environmental impacts

A GMO crop may have a toxic impact on other living things. For example, it was found that Bt corn destroyed the larvae of the monarch butterfly [19].

#6 The evolution of super pests and super weeds

For example, insects will evolve that are resistant to the Bt strain. They will not have predators in the natural environment and will likely require even stronger pesticides to kill.

As a public health issue, the EPA has already recognized this and is assuming the responsibility to manage and prevent increased insect resistance to Bt corn [20].

But should scarce government resources be spent on studies that benefit the company reaping the profits from the patented products? Should not the burden of addressing this consequent problem be on the company applying for registration?

Similar issues will arise for genetically altered herbicide-resistant crops. Other weeds will take the place of those killed with the herbicide and the cycle will simply repeat itself with higher stakes.

#7 Loss of biodiversity

A GMO crop reproduces via pollination and interacts genetically with natural varieties of the same crop, producing genetic contamination. When GMO crops are planted they can spread their transgenes to other non-target species, such as weeds or local plants, and change their genetic code, which can negatively affect the local ecosystem. For example, weed species can become resistant to pesticides [21].

Purple corn

Peru has banned the import, production and use of genetically modified foods. because they want to protect their unique crops like purple corn, giant white corn and the potato [22].

GMOs can have a detrimental effect to local biodiversity. Typically, a variety of organisms on 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.

#8 Increasing farmers’ dependency on seed and chemicals

The Egyptian Biodynamic Organization reports that although in the first years of GMO usage the need for pesticides decreased, due to increasing resistance, even more pesticides are needed now.

The cycle of buying expensive patented GMO seeds annually and the need for increased pesticides is proving financially disastrous to many growers.

The Vidharbra region in Maharashtra, India has the highest acreage of Monsanto’s Bt cotton and the highest suicide rate, 4000 farmers a year, ten a day.

“Monsanto’s GM seeds create a suicide economy by transforming seed from a renewable resource to a non-renewable input which must be bought every year at high prices [23].”

Responsible groups around the world were angered by the kudos awarded the inventors of GMOs. 81 Laureates of the Right Livelihood Award, as well as members of the esteemed World Future Council reacted strongly when the World Food Prize was awarded to the Monsanto biotechnology executives for creating GMOs.

They issued the following joint statement: “The choice of the 2013 World Food Prize is an affront to the growing international consensus on safe, ecological farming practices that have been scientifically proven to promote nutrition and sustainability [24].”