GMOs – Top 3 Pros and Cons

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Source: Lindsay Eyink, “Hybrid Corn Yellow Springs, Ohio,”, Aug. 1, 2013, creative commons license

Selective breeding techniques have been used to alter the genetic makeup of plants for thousands of years. The earliest form of selective breeding were simple and have persisted: farmers save and plant only the seeds of plants that produced the most tasty or largest (or otherwise preferable) results. In 1866, Gregor Mendel, an Austrian monk, discovered and developed the basics of DNA by crossbreeding peas. More recently, genetic engineering has allowed DNA from one species to be inserted into a different species to create genetically modified organisms (GMOs). [1] [2] [53] [55]

To create a GMO plant, scientists follow these basic steps over several years:

  1. Identify the desired trait and find an animal or plant with that trait. For example, scientists were looking to make corn more insect-resistant. They identified a gene in a soil bacterium (Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt), that naturally produces an insecticide commonly used in organic agriculture.
  2. Copy the specific gene for the desired trait.
  3. Insert the specific gene into the DNA of the plant scientists want to change. In the above example, the insecticide gene from Bacillus thuringiensis was inserted into corn.
  4. Grow the new plant and perform tests for safety and the desired trait. [55]

According to the Genetic Literacy Project, “The most recent data from the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) shows that more than 18 million farmers in 29 countries, including 19 developing nations, planted over 190 million hectares (469.5 million acres) of GMO crops in 2019.” The organization stated that a “majority” of European countries and Russia, among other countries, ban the crops. However, most countries that ban the growth of GMO crops, allow their import. Europe, for example, imports 30 million tons of corn and soy animal feeds every year, much of which is GMO. [58]

In the United States, the health and environmental safety standards for GM crops are regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). Between 1985 and Sep. 2013, the USDA approved over 17,000 different GM crops for field trials, including varieties of corn, soybean, potato, tomato, wheat, canola, and rice, with various genetic modifications such as herbicide tolerance; insect, fungal, and drought resistance; and flavor or nutrition enhancement. [44] [45]

In 1994, the “FLAVR SAVR” tomato became the first genetically modified food to be approved for public consumption by the FDA. The tomato was genetically modified to increase its firmness and extend its shelf life. [51]

Recently, the term “bioengineered” food has come into popularity, under the argument that almost all food has been “genetically modified” via selective breeding or other basic growing methods. Bioengineered food refers specifically to food that has undergone modification using rDNA technology, but does not include food genetically modified by basic cross-breeding or selective breeding. As of Jan. 10, 2022, the USDA listed 12 bioengineered products available in the US: alfalfa, Arctic apples, canola, corn, cotton, BARI Bt Begun varieties of eggplant, ringspot virus-resistant varieties of papaya, pink flesh varieties of pineapple, potato, AquAdvantage salmon, soybean, summer squash, and sugarbeet. [56] [57]

The National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard established mandatory national standards for labeling foods with genetically engineered ingredients in the United States. The Standard was implemented on Jan. 1, 2020 and compliance became mandatory on Jan. 1, 2022. [46]

49% of US adults believe that eating GMO foods are “worse” for one’s health, 44% say they are “neither better nor worse,” and 5% believe they are “better,” according to a 2018 Pew Research Center report. [9]

Should Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) Be Grown?

Pro 1

Genetically modified (GM) crops have been proven safe through testing and use, and can even increase the safety of common foods.

As  astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson explained, “Practically every food you buy in a store for consumption by humans is genetically modified food. There are no wild, seedless watermelons. There’s no wild cows… We have systematically genetically modified all the foods, the vegetables and animals that we have eaten ever since we cultivated them. It’s called artificial selection.” [54]

A single health risk associated with GMO consumption has not been discovered in over 30 years of lab testing and over 15 years of field research. Martina Newell-McGoughlin, Director of the University of California Systemwide Biotechnology Research and Education Program, said that “GMOs are more thoroughly tested than any product produced in the history of agriculture.” [8]

Over 2,000 global studies have affirmed the safety of GM crops. Trillions of meals containing GMO ingredients have been eaten by humans, with zero verified cases of illness related to the food being genetically altered. [10] [11]

GM crops can even be engineered to reduce natural allergens and toxins, making them safer and healthier. Molecular biologist Hortense Dodo, genetically engineered a hypoallergenic peanut by suppressing the protein that can lead to a deadly reaction in people with peanut allergies. [12]

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Pro 2

GMO crops lower the price of food and increase nutritional content, helping to alleviate world hunger.

The World Food Programme, a humanitarian organization, between 720 and 811 million people face hunger globally. Population growth, climate change, over-farming, and water shortages all contribute to food scarcity. GMOs can help address those problems with genetic engineering to improve crop yields and help farmers grow food in drought regions or on depleted soil, thereby lowering food prices and feeding more people. [13] [14] [15] [16]

David Zilberman, Professor of Agricultural and Resource Economics at UC Berkeley, said that GMO crops have “raised the output of corn, cotton and soy by 20 to 30 percent, allowing some people to survive who would not have without it. If it were more widely adopted around the world, the price [of food] would go lower, and fewer people would die of hunger.” [17]

To combat Vitamin A deficiency, the main cause of childhood blindness in developing countries, researchers developed a GMO ‘Golden Rice’ that produces high levels of beta-carotene. A report by Australia and New Zealand’s food safety regulator found that Golden Rice “is considered to be as safe for human consumption as food derived from conventional rice.” [18] [19] [20]

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Pro 3

Growing GMO crops leads to environmental benefits such as reduced pesticide use, less water waste, and lower carbon emissions.

The two main types of GMO crops in use are bioengineered to either produce their own pesticides or to be herbicide-tolerant. More than 80% of corn grown in the US is GMO Bt corn, which produces its own Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) insecticide. This has reduced the need for spraying insecticides over corn fields by 35%, and dozens of studies have shown there are no environmental or health concerns with Bt corn. [21] [22] [23] [59]

Drought-tolerant varieties of GMO corn have been shown to reduce transpiration (evaporation of water off of plants) by up to 17.5%, resulting in less water waste. [24]

Herbicide-tolerant (Ht) GMO soy crops have reduced the need to till the soil to remove weeds. Tilling is a process that involves breaking up the soil, which brings carbon to the surface. When that carbon mixes with oxygen in the atmosphere, it becomes carbon dioxide and contributes to global warming. Reduced tilling preserves topsoil, reduces soil erosion and water runoff (keeping fertilizers out of the water supply), and lowers carbon emissions. The decreased use of fuel and tilling as a result of growing GM crops can lower greenhouse gas emissions as much as removing 12 million cars from the roads each year. [25] [26] [27] [28] [29] [30]

The global population is expected to increase by two billion by 2050. Andrew Allan, a plant biologist at the University of Auckland, explained, “So where’s that extra food going to come from? It can’t come from using more land, because if we use more land, then we’ve got to deforest more, and the [global] temperature goes up even more. So what we really need is more productivity. And that, in all likelihood, will require G.M.O.s.” [59]

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Con 1

Genetically modified (GM) crops have not been proven safe for human consumption through human clinical trials.

Scientists still don’t know what the long-term effects of significant GMO consumption could be. Robert Gould, pathologist at the UC San Francisco School of Medicine, said, “the contention that GMOs pose no risks to human health can’t be supported by studies that have measured a time frame that is too short to determine the effects of exposure over a lifetime.” [33]

Genetically modified ingredients are in 70-80% of food eaten in the United States, even though there haven’t been any long term clinical trials on humans to determine whether GMO foods are safe. [31] [32]

According to the Center for Food Safety, a US-based nonprofit organization, “Each genetic insertion creates the added possibility that formerly nontoxic elements in the food could become toxic.” The group says that resistance to antibiotics, cancer, and suppressed immune function are among potential risks of genetic modification using viral DNA. [34]

Megan Westgate, Executive Director of the Non-GMO Project, explained, “Anyone who knows about genetics knows that there’s a lot we don’t understand. We’re always discovering new things or finding out that things we believed aren’t actually right.” Because of the lack of testing, we may not have found the particular dangers in GMO foods yet, but that doesn’t make them safe to consume. [59]

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Con 2

Tinkering with the genetic makeup of plants may result in changes to the food supply that introduce toxins or trigger allergic reactions.

An article in Food Science and Human Welfare said, “Three major health risks potentially associated with GM foods are: toxicity, allergenicity and genetic hazards.” The authors raised concerns that the GMO process could disrupt a plant’s genetic integrity, with the potential to activate toxins or change metabolic toxin levels in a ripple effect beyond detection. [35]

A joint commission of the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) identified two potential unintended effects of genetic modification of food sources: higher levels of allergens in a host plant that contains known allergenic properties, and new proteins created by the gene insertion that could cause allergic reactions. [36]

The insertion of a gene to modify a plant can cause problems in the resulting food. After StarLink corn was genetically altered to be insect-resistant, there were several reported cases of allergic reactions in consumers. The reactions ranged from abdominal pain and diarrhea to skin rashes to life-threatening issues. [37]

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Con 3

Certain GM crops harm the environment through the increased use of toxic herbicides and pesticides.

An “epidemic of super-weeds” has developed resistance to the herbicides that GM crops were designed to tolerate since herbicide-resistant GM crop varieties were developed in 1996. Those weeds choke crops on over 60 million acres of US croplands, and the solution being presented to farmers is to use more herbicides. This has led to a tenfold increase in the use of the weed killer Roundup, which is made by Monsanto, the largest GMO seed producer. [33][38]

The increased use of the weed killer glyphosate (created by Monsanto) to kill the weeds that compete with crops can harm pollinating insects. Scientists blame Roundup (the active ingredient of which is glyphosate) for a 90% decrease in the US monarch butterfly population. The weed killer potentially create health risks for humans who ingest traces of herbicides used on GM crops. When glyphosate is used near rivers, local wildlife is impacted, including a higher mortality rates among amphibians.  [38] [41] [42]

A report from the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network found that “Herbicide-tolerant crops reduce weed diversity in and around fields, which in turn reduces habitat and food for other important species.” [43]

Melissa Waddell, Editor of Living Non-GMO, explained, “Most GMO crops are engineered for herbicide resistance, so fields can be sprayed liberally with weedkillers that eliminate everything but the cash crop. Weeds are a huge problem for farmers — they compete with cash crops for nutrients, water and light. But diverse plant life also protects the soil from erosion and nutrient loss. It supports the pollinators and other beneficial insects that do so much of our agricultural labor. While ‘welcoming the weeds’ isn’t a practical solution, neither is wiping out plant life with toxic chemicals. Between herbicide tolerance and built-in pesticides, GMOs are a double-decker biodiversity-wrecker.” [60]

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Click for an Encyclopaedia Britannica video answering the top questions about GMOs

Discussion Questions

1.Should GMOs be grown and used in foods? Why or why not?

2. Should food labels include whether GMO plants have been included in the products? Why or why not?

3. What other ways can world hunger be alleviated if not via GMOs? Explain your answers.

Take Action

1. Consider Megan L. Norris’ answer to the question “Will GMOs Hurt My Body?

2. Discover “Science and History of GMOs and Other Food Modification Processes” according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

3. Explore Farm Aid’s argument to change the GMO status quo.

4. Consider how you felt about the issue before reading this article. After reading the pros and cons on this topic, has your thinking changed? If so, how? List two to three ways. If your thoughts have not changed, list two to three ways your better understanding of the “other side of the issue” now helps you better argue your position.

5. Push for the position and policies you support by writing US national senators and representatives.


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