The acronym “GMO” stands for “genetically modified organism.”
The practice of “modifying” organisms began as soon as we learned how to farm. It started with small changes, like breeding the largest tomatoes to produce bigger offspring.
In recent decades, scientists have discovered ways of altering an organism’s DNA to make it stronger; for example, introducing genes that enable corn to resist bugs or enable apples to resist browning.
You can think of it like forced natural selection to drive a specific evolution.
Not only have these genetic tweaks made foods more nutritious, but they have reduced the need for pesticides and improved work conditions for farmers.
Despite the obvious benefits of GMOs, there is a widespread belief that GMOs are “unnatural” and therefore “unhealthy.” This belief possibly stems from a lack of understanding about what GMOs actually are.
Congress in 2016 responded to the widespread fear of GMOs by passing a law that requires uniform labeling of all food products containing GMOs.
While it’s important to know what you’re eating, these labels can be very misleading.
“Farmers and agricultural scientists have been genetically engineering the foods we eat for centuries through breeding programs that result in large and largely uncontrolled exchanges of genetic material,” explains New York Times journalist Jane E. Brody.
“In addition to traditional crossbreeding, agricultural scientists have used radiation and chemicals to induce gene mutations in edible crops in attempts to achieve desired characteristics.”
Modern genetic engineering is far more controlled in that it involves a small number of genes with known functions. These genes sometimes come from unrelated species; for example, DNA meant to improve a crop’s frost tolerance might come from a fish that lives in a cold climate.
Science v. Hearsay
Forcing manufacturers to label foods that contain GMOs somewhat implies that GMOs are dangerous – and some customers avoid these products as if they were labeled “contains pesticides” or “contains cancer.”
GMOs have been on the market since 1994, and and we have yet to find any evidence of adverse health effects. In fact, about 90% of scientists are convinced GMOs are safe.
This opinion has been endorsed by:
• The National Academy of Sciences
• The American Association for the Advancement of Science
• The American Medical Association
• The World Health Organization
“I have yet to see any evidence that suggests that GM crops are any more dangerous than their conventional counterparts,” says University of California food toxicologist Carl Winter.
Despite the statistics, nearly 70% of consumers believe GMOs are or could be harmful. While none of the following claims have been demonstrated in any way, consumers have associated GMOs with:
• Changes in nutritional content
• Toxic effects on organs
• Creation of allergies
Such beliefs persist despite “hundreds of millions of genetic experiments involving every type of organism on Earth and people eating billions of meals without a problem,” says University of California plant molecular biologist Robert Goldberg.
Unfortunately, there is no surefire way to “prove” that a food is safe other than showing evidence that no hazards have been shown to exist.
What we can prove, however, are the benefits of GMOs.
According to a report published in February, GM corn has significantly fewer toxins than “traditional” corn. This effect was achieved by adding DNA that enabled corn to resist the western corn rootworm – a pest that facilitates the growth of toxin-producing fungi on corn.
The benefits of this one small change include:
• No effect on other insects
• Higher crop yields
• Safer conditions for farms
• Reduced use of pesticides
• Reduced prices for consumers
As Brody points out, the wider implementation of genetic engineering could be a real game-changer for countries facing famine and malnutrition, and growing GMOs will likely become a necessity as climate change takes a bigger toll on food supplies.
“I continue to be distressed by the resistance to Golden Rice – a crop genetically engineered to supply more Vitamin A than spinach that could prevent irreversible blindness and more than a million deaths a year,” writes Brody.
The bottom line here is that consumers should base their food choices on science, not on rumor. Before you adopt a blanket opposition to any food with a scary label, take some time to learn more about GMOs and their effects on the environment.