Understanding GMOs: The Big Picture

Jan 27, 2016 | Global Food and You, Sustainable Agriculture |

The Dirt:
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are the most heavily-tested food in history. They have been approved by the FDA, WHO, USDA, ESFA, and EPA.  Not only do GMO crops help our farmers produce more, they also conserve water and reduce pesticide use. So why are they so heavily criticized?

Admittedly, when Dirt-to-Dinner first started, most of us were unsure if we should buy products labeled as ‘GMO-free’? While technology has redefined the health industry, there is a lot of misinformation when it comes technological advancements in modern agriculture. FitBits, fitness trackers, and calorie counters make it easier for us to be active and make smart choices. Technology has also enabled many medical advancements. For example, insulin is now made with a gene from a faster growing E. coli bacteria, as opposed to the formerly used cow or pig pancreas! But, when it comes to technology on the farm, consumers tend to lose their faith…

Some consumers believe that “big agriculture” is unhealthy and pollutes the environment. And the debate surrounding GMOs is especially spirited. GMOs should be considered a significant advancement to food technology, but they are constantly being dragged through the mud. Research indicates that 57% of the population think GMOs are unsafe to eat and 67% do not understand their benefits. Although it is easy to be persuaded by the groups that are the most outspoken— GMOs are safe for consumption and better for the environment.

GMOs are the single most tested food ever created. As of September 2015, 271 global scientific institutions and organizations are in favor of GMOs. One team of scientists, lead by Alessandro Nicolia, an applied biologist at the University of Perugia, Italy, pulled together over 1,700 studies analyzing GMOs. All of them assure us of their safety.

It is impossible to discuss GMOs without addressing all the negative press. Google ‘GMOs’ and out of the 19 million hits, the vast majority are negative. Many non Government Organizations and proponents of the organic industry believe that consuming GMOs will result in health issues. Large grocer corporations, like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, indicate that their branded products contain no GMOs. And governments are now getting involved in the debate. Jackson County in Oregon banned the GMO crops, citing “soil fertility and use of pesticides and herbicides” as the issues.

But, given the validity of the research on GMOs, should their intentions be called into question?

The argument against GMOs must be turned on its head, as most consumers have no idea what a GMO really is. Mark Lynas, an original crusader for the anti-GMO campaign, has amended his original opinion and become a supporter of GMOs based on scientific analysis and review. Mark Tercek, CEO of the Nature Conservancy, also agrees that GMOs are a sustainable way to increase global food production. Patrick Moore, former Greenpeace President, and then ‘Dropout’, has proclaimed his support for GMOs:
The campaign against GM science is both intellectually and morally bankrupt. If it were not such a serious issue, one that means life or death for millions of people, the opposition to genetic engineering would be laughable. In reality it is enough to make one weep. Patrick Moore

Former President, Greenpeace

Because of their complexity and lack of public understanding, GMOs are blamed for everything from cancer to heart disease. However, these claims are unfounded. In the U.S., organizations such as the FDA, USDA, and EPA frequently and thoroughly test GMOs for human toxins, allergens, and environmental impact, including potential mutations. In addition to the approval received from these government organizations, the National Academy of Sciences, American Dietetic Association, The Institute of Food Technology, the American Medical Association, WHO, FAO, European Food Safety Authority, and finally, CODEX, an organization in Rome that sets the international food standards, have ALL endorsed GMOs.

How did genetically modified crops come to be?

Whether we realize it or not, we have been tweaking and selectively breeding our food for millennia, as we have evolved from “hunters and gatherers” to ‘“farmers”. Bananas, strawberries, corn, and tomatoes are common examples of produce that share no resemblance to their predecessor due to many generations of crossbreeding, which have made them edible and rich in nutrients. How was that done?
It’s all in the genes. In the 19th century, Gregor Mendel and Charles Darwin taught us about cross-breeding and natural selection, specifically which plants can mutate or be bred to have the best genetics. This process can take a very a long time – about 15 to 20 years to commercialize, to be exact. Luckily, scientific research sped up the process. One advancement was the use of “marker genes”, which identify the ideal genes from a specific plant. We can then link the DNA together to create a new, more sustainable strand of DNA. Fast forward to the creation of ‘protoplast fusion’ which breaks down the cell walls and ‘fuses’ genes together via chemical treatment or electric shocks.
GMOs are also critical to keep some of our favorite fruits and vegetables on the grocery shelves. Can you imagine your morning without Florida orange juice? What about Hawaii without papaya? Or India without access to eggplant? All three of these are at risk for extinction without a GMO counterpart.
Luckily for us, the creation of GMOs is far less shocking. To create a genetically modified organism, scientists take a gene from one organism and use it to specifically change one genetic component, rather than several. The reality here is that GMO science is NO different from traditional breeding methods. No question, GMOs are complicated and hard to understand. But GMOs often add to the public’s confusion because they are used to create both simple and complex organisms. Simple GMOs are considered single trait organisms, while other GMOs are stacked, meaning they contain three or four traits.
2014 ISAAA Report on Global Status of Biotech/GM Crops
Dr. Clive James, Founder and Emeritus Chair, ISAAA
The U.S., Brazil, Argentina, India, and Canada grow the top GMO crops of soybeans, corn, cotton, and canola. Corn and soybeans are mostly grown to feed cattle, dairy cows, chickens, and hogs. GMO cotton from India is used to make clothes. Innovations to GMOs continue to expand to other crops as well.
Even potatoes can now be grown with less chance of bruising, thus reducing waste. Additionally, GMO potatoes can be cooked at high temperatures without the fear of acrylamide, a potential carcinogen. GMO eggplants, grown in India, are met with great relief because they reduce exposure to insecticides by 70-90%. Genetically modified Golden Delicious and Granny Smith apples are now grown without the enzyme that turns them brown after you cut them open, thus reducing waste.

GMOs are not responsible for cancer, obesity, diabetes, or any other major health issue.

Whether you realize it or not, each day you eat billions of genes. A gene is a protein, broken down into amino acids. Eating a gene is not going to change your genetic code, or give you cancer. For instance, if you eat to many banana genes, you are not going to grow yellow skin!

GMOs reduced pesticide usage.

You may be aware of the constant battle against insects and weeds. Farmers around the world are no different and both large and small-scale farmers struggle with water conservation, chemical application, mutations, soil fertility, soil nutrients, and uncertain weather. The health of a crop and its surrounding environment is up to the skill of the farmer. Farmers must constantly manage the delicate balance between overspending and over-spraying chemicals on crops to maximize yield. GMOs have increased the overall yield of a crop by 21% because the crop is not fighting off as many insects or competing for soil nutrients with weeds. AND GMO crops require significantly fewer chemicals.
A meta-analysis of 147 independent studies was completed by Matin Qaim, Professor of International Food Economics and Rural Development in Germany. This analysis compared pesticide usage, yield, and profits of GM and non-GM crops over a period of 18 years and found the following results:

  • GM technology has increased crop yields by 21%.
  • GM crops have reduced chemical pesticide quantity by 37% and pesticide cost by 39%…imagine a 50 mile train full of chemicals NOT put in the soil!
  • In 2013, GMO crops reduced CO2 emissions by 28 billion kg, similar to taking 12.4 million cars off the road for one year.
In the rest of the world, 90% of the farmers have less than 25 acres. These small-scale family farms do not have access to, nor can they afford to win the insect and weed war. As a result, their crops can barely feed their families, not to mention supplement their income. By protecting these farms against crop diseases, GMOs have helped 16.5 million farmers pull themselves out of poverty! (www.isaaa.org)
Up until now, GMOs have been mainly used to treat insects and weeds. But when applied for health reasons, the future of food can look quite promising. GMOs can help create heart healthier bread to reduce our cholesterol and blood pressure. For those who are deficient in Vitamin A, a GMO crop called “golden rice” prevents its effects, which can be as serious as death.

It is not only the benefits to our food that make GMOs helpful and reliable, but also their contribution to land conservation and farm productivity. We can now grow more food on the same amount of land with less water.

The Bottom Line:

Accepting changes to food is a long process and new technologies should always be tested to ensure environmental and human safety. However, GMOs are being rejected based out of fear, not on science. 

Sources:

Rocero, Regina. “Myths and Facts about Agricultural Biotechnology.” ISAAA SE Asia Center (1987): n. pag. ISAAA. The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, July 2015. Web. <http://www.isaaa.org/resources/publications/mythsandfacts/download/2014-Myths-and-Facts.pdf>.

“Questions & Answers on Food from Genetically Engineered Plants.” FDA. U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 23 Nov. 2015. Web. 25 Jan. 2016. <http://www.fda.gov/Food/FoodScienceResearch/GEPlants/ucm346030.htm>.