Understanding GMOs: The Big Picture

Jan 27, 2016 | Global Food and You, Sustainable Agriculture | 0 comments

The Dirt:

Genetically modified organisms are the most heavily tested food in history. They have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the World Health Organization, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the European Food Safety Authority, the US Environmental Protection Agency, and more. Not only do genetically modified crops help our farmers produce more, they also reduce water use and pesticides. Why are they so heavily criticized?

In today’s society, maintaining good health is heavily reliant on technological advancements. We are frequently presented with new devices that help us achieve a healthier lifestyle. These days, you can track your physical activity without much thought! Wearing a Fitbit helps to monitor your steps, heart rate, and sleep. There is also the “Health App”, a new fixture on your iPhone, which aims to keep your daily movement at high levels, as well as various food trackers that help to you monitor your daily caloric intake. And the advancements certainly don’t stop there… For those of us whose joints are becoming problematic, we can have our own blood platelets injected into our joints to instigate cartilage growth. Insulin for diabetics is now made with a gene from a faster growing e coli bacteria, as opposed to the formerly and commonly used cow or pig pancreas.

For all the developments in technology that help you monitor everything from your weight, to heart rate to sleep cycles and caloric intake; and for all the developments in medicinal science that help with blood platelet injections and new sources of insulin, where is the acceptance of advancements in our food?

Our modern society is actually rejecting modern agricultural technology. In fact—we are going backwards! It is being argued that “big agriculture” is unhealthy for humans and pollutes the environment. The debate surrounding genetically modified organisms is especially spirited. GMOs should be considered a significant advancement to food technology, however they are being dragged through the mud. Research states that roughly 57% of the population think GMO’s are unsafe to eat and roughly 67% do not understand their benefits. Although it is easy to be persuaded by those who stand on the loudest soapbox, it is important to acknowledge that GMOs are safe for humans and are actually 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.

The anti-GMO snowball has turned into an emotional avalanche. You can’t discuss GMOs without addressing all the negative press. Just google ‘GMOs’ and out of the 19 million hits, the vast majority are negative. Non Government Organizations such as Green Peace Initiatives, Environmentalists, Organic Food advocates, and celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow and Oprah Winfrey all think that consuming GMOs will result in health issues.

Based on the public’s opinion of GMO’s, grocery corporations and restaurant chains, like Chipotle, are trying to serve food that is GMO free. Whole Foods, for example, is in the process of having its own 365 products certified ‘non-GMO’. Trader Joe’s also indicates that their branded products contain no GMOs. Additionally, governments have recently been getting involved in the debate. Jackson County in Oregon banned GMOs from being grown citing ‘soil fertility and use of pesticides and herbicides as the issues’. Even Venezuela hopped aboard the non-GMO train and passed one of the most stringent laws against GMOs.

But the argument against GMOs needs to be turned on its head. The general population doesn’t even know what they are being avidly told to avoid! When asked, most people have no idea what a GMO is and why they select a product labeled ‘GMO-free’ at the grocery store. Mark Lynas, the original crusader for the anti-GMO campaign, has switched his allegiance and become an avid supporter of GMOs based on recent 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, GMOs are blamed for everything from cancer to heart disease. GMOs are targeted for their “supposed” negative health effects because they are entirely misunderstood.

In the United States, 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 at least 1,000 years—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 and how to create the ideal plant through multiple generations. This process can take a very a long time – about 15 to 20 years to commercialize, to be exact. Luckily, the ingenuity of impatient scientists’ sped up the process. One advancement that was created was the use of “marker genes”. Marker genes are used to identify the ideal genes from a specific plant and 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 the GMO option.

Luckily for us, the creation of GMOs is far less shocking. In order 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. Quite honestly, all plant breeding is 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 United States, 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. Corn is a food ingredient in many products under different names such as Citric Acid, High fructose Corn Syrup, Xylitol, the list goes on… GMO cotton from India is actually 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.

Every single day, you eat protein, carbohydrates, fats, oils, glucose, acids, and, whether you realize it or not, genes. Each day you probably eat billions of genes. A gene is a protein, broken down into amino acid. Eating a gene is not going to change your genetic code, or give you cancer. If you eat a banana gene – you are not going to grow yellow skin.

Now, whether you are a gardener or not, you are probably 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 genetically modified crops require significantly less chemicals.

A meta-analysis of 147 independent (not sponsored) studies was completed by Matin Qaim, Professor of International Food Economics and Rural Development, Germany (2014). This analysis compared pesticide usage, yield, and profits of GM and non GM crops over a period of 18 years.

  • 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 just 2013, 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! (Source: 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 healthy bread that would reduce our cholesterol and blood pressure. For those people who are nutrient deficient, there is genetically modified rice with beta carotene to prevent night blindness. What if you ate a tomato – given to you by your Doctor – and you could be vaccinated against the flu?

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 we agree that new technologies should always be questioned and tested to ensure environmental and human safety. It is important to maintain a discussion about the right science. But in the case of GMOs, the majority of us are rejecting a technology based out of fear, not on science. 


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>.