GMO: three simple letters that inspire riots and revolutions in today’s health community. Some claim they cause organ toxicity, allergic reactions, runaway mutations, and destruction of the environment, among a slew of other problems. Scientists, on the other hand, claim that GMOs are completely safe, and that they offer powerful new ways of making ourselves and our environment healthier and safer in the long term. Who is correct here, and how do we make sense of such opposing statements?
The problem with this debate is that the scientific community and the general public are locked in a battle in which neither side is speaking the same language, and neither tries to understand the perspective of the other. Scientists see GMOs as not only harmless, but able to provide a huge benefit to our species and to the environment. While this is indeed correct, it doesn’t change how the rest of society perceives this technology.
GMOs are not fully understood by most people outside the scientific community, and to many represent a perversion of natural processes – anti-GMO groups have even denounced them as ‘Frankenfoods.’ For the average person, all of the jargon involved in the science of genetic engineering can make it seem vague and just kind of sketchy.
If you don’t understand the science behind GMOs, that’s okay. If you don’t understand the possible risks and benefits of using this technology, that’s okay too. Let’s talk about it.
What are GMOs?
Genetically modified organisms (GMO) are organisms that we have changed slightly by implanting genetic information from another organism to allow it to do a certain thing. The organism we take genetic information from can be the same type of organism or an entirely different species; considering all life on earth is built using DNA as a blueprint, we can “cut” this code from anywhere and “paste” it somewhere else without much difficulty.
But the key here is that we are doing this specifically: we identify the gene that codes for a certain function, take that gene, and put it into an organism to allow it to also be able to carry out that function. A great example of this is frost-tolerant spinach, a type of GMO spinach that was modified by adding a gene from an Arctic fish that confers frost-tolerance and allows the spinach to remain fresh even in freezing temperatures.
What’s important here is that genetically modifying spinach with a piece of DNA from a fish does NOT make the spinach taste like fish, nor does it change the spinach much at all. It simply takes a piece of DNA that codes for a certain trait, like the ability to withstand cold temperatures, and puts it into another organism.
Think about it like this: if you took one sentence from the book Treasure Island and put it in Harry Potter: The Prisoner of Azkaban, you have not created an entirely new book in the series; it is still Harry Potter. Words make up a story similarly to how pieces of DNA (or genes) make up our genome; taking one small piece and putting it into another organism does not make it a new entity, it just gives it new meaning.
In reality, we have been tampering with the genes of food for thousands of years through selective breeding and artificial selection; these processes have given us dairy cows, dogs and just about every crop in use today. All of these looked drastically different before we got involved, but our modifications have allowed these organisms to thrive in environments they never would have before, and to be exponentially more successful. A few decades ago, scientists added another set of genetic engineering tools to their arsenal, using radiation and toxic chemicals to induce gene mutations in foods in the attempt to produce crops with different abilities. These methods are non-specific, dangerous and are based on guesswork, yet despite being used widely around the world, they received very little backlash from the public.
Modern genetic modification, on the other hand, offers a targeted, specific means by which we can produce crops with desired characteristics, with none of the side effects of these outdated methods. Out of all the hundreds of studies conducted on GMO foods, not one study has found evidence that GMOs can cause organ toxicity, allergic reactions, mutations, or any other illness or condition. Yet, GMO crops are met with more resistance than almost any other modern technology.
Some of this resistance comes from a lack of understanding of the science, but most of it comes from other people: the rumors circulating the internet and gallivanting as “science” are maybe the biggest challenge this technology faces today.
With every claim reporting the risk of a GMO, the scientific community spends years and unimaginable amounts of money proving to the public that the danger is unfounded. Scientists are thorough, and have been able to refute all of the reports of GMO-causing illnesses so far. But with the rise of social media, these claims are coming too frequently for science to be able to efficiently combat them with research. Rumors about GMOs are becoming increasingly more ridiculous, but as those engaged in spreading pseudoscience dilute the truth about GMOs in a slurry of myths and “sciencey-sounding” fabrications, the distance between scientists and the general public grows wider, and it becomes harder to separate fact from fiction.
Let’s talk about some of the things that GMOs actually allow us to do.
GMOs in society
First of all, genetically modified crops are more common than you think. 93% of all the soy grown is genetically modified to be resistant to herbicides, thanks to a gene that was taken from a soil bacterium. 88% of the corn we produce in the US gets its insect resistance gene from another bacteria, Bacillus thuringiensis. Genes encoding the production of fatty acids in the California Bay tree were used to create more fat-rich canola, a crop used to make vegetable oil.
One of these three crops is found in almost every form of processed food you can find in a store, and considering soy and corn are what we feed most livestock (and are therefore present in meats), GMOs make up a significant part of what we consume. Even so, there has been no evidence yet that these modifications cause health issues in people or animals.
These genetic changes are tiny and specific, but have allowed us to provide larger quantities of healthier food at a cheaper cost: these are all things we need to think about as our population continues to grow.
The benefits of GMO foods extend further than just our ability to grow them. ‘Golden rice,’ a type of rice engineered to contain more vitamin A than spinach, can be used to treat vitamin A deficiency, the cause of half a million cases of irreversible blindness and more than a million deaths every year. A gene from Newcastle Disease Virus (NDV) was implanted in a type of corn, and when fed to chickens, this corn made them immune to the virus! Strains of tobacco have even been developed that perform the same job as the Hepatitis B vaccine, which, when provided to underdeveloped countries, could eliminate the need for certain vaccines and reduce the spread of disease.
All of these have the potential to save countless lives around the world, and despite all the evidence pointing to their safety, public backlash has pushed politics (and legislation) even further away from widespread use of GMOs.
Many GMO foods currently in production also use targeted genes that allow the crops to mature faster and tolerate harsher conditions. This will be critical as climate change results in a changing environment, making our land more difficult to farm: crops that can better handle drought, salt, and frost will allow us to continue to produce enough food to support our population. The reality is that the environment is changing faster than these crops can keep up. Without assistance from us, we will reach a point where we lack the resources to support ourselves.
This global-scale food crisis can be prevented with GMO foods. These subtle manipulations of genetic code have allowed us to safely produce crops that are easier to grow, easier to maintain, cheaper to produce, and more nutritious than non-GMO foods. GM crops like corn, soybeans and canola have higher crop yields (we can get up to 20-30% more from a harvest), are more resistant to pests and disease, and have reduced the need for pesticides; this allows us to produce and distribute more food to starving, impoverished communities as well as an expanding population. So why do we see so much resistance to their use?
Addressing the concerns
Anti-GMO organizations across the nation claim genetically engineered foods are unnatural, carcinogenic and mutagenic (mutation-causing). Let’s address these claims.
First of all, GMO-DNA is not unnatural. It is no different than other DNA; in fact, it is the same DNA from one organism that we have relocated into another organism. To think that these genes, which are harmless in other organisms and only code for a specific function, could cause cancer or mutations in another just doesn’t make sense; the gene itself lacks the mechanism. The genes implanted in GMO foods are no more capable of causing cancer than the gene that codes for your eye color, or your ability to roll your tongue.
It is sometimes difficult, even for scientists, to morally justify tampering with the natural world. Some say we are playing God. Some say we don’t understand the risks. But GMOs themselves represent maybe the largest experiment ever conducted: out of the hundreds of billions of GMO meals that have been consumed by people all over the world, there has never arisen a disease or an illness that we can attribute to the small genetic modifications in these foods. While it is impossible to prove without a doubt that GMOs cannot cause damage, they have given us no reason to believe they could.
The reality is that these products have the ability to improve the quality and the availability of our food, and can contribute to a healthier environment. GMOs can help eliminate hunger and disease in countries that need it most around the globe. With the benefits obvious and the risks unverified, it would be unwise to ignore the benefits GMOs could have for our world: a more resilient ecosystem, higher incomes for farmers in developing countries, noninvasive disease treatments, and more full bellies.
While skepticism is understandable (and even encouraged), the fear of GMOs that anti-GMO organizations and pseudoscience have instilled in the general public is misplaced. Fear of the unknown is an inherent human quality, so in order to make informed decisions about your own health, you have to make those unknowns known. Do your research, and beware of information that lacks the rigor of evidence-based study.
Ultimately, everyone has, and should always have, the right to choose the foods they eat and the products they buy. If it is your prerogative to avoid GMO foods, happy shopping. But I urge you to make your decisions based on real information. Instead of blatantly rejecting GMO technology, take a moment to learn how it works, to separate fact from fiction, and to consider the idea that this technology may allow us to make our planet, and our people, better.