Hi friends! Today on the blog, we are talking about GMOs. GMOs (or genetically modified organisms), have gathered quite a clout of controversy in recent years. Depending on who you ask, GMOs are either horrific, potentially useful, unnatural, necessary, toxic, harmful, helpful, and everything in between. With all the noise surrounding GMOs, it can be hard to decipher the truth. So what are GMOs? Are GMOs bad for you? Or are GMOs safe? Are GMOs bad for the environment? And Can GMOs be useful? Read on for all the details.
What are GMOs?
There is actually no universally agreed-upon scientific definition for the phrase “GMO,” nor is there any regulation around its use for labeling in the US.
That means things that are labeled “non-GMO,” have not had to meet any specific standards or regulations. The FDA has released voluntary guidelines, but there is no formal inspection or enforcement of the phrase “Non-GMO” on food labels.
The FDA doesn’t even use the phrase “GMO,” as most crops we eat today are genetically modified in some way. The FDA does recognize some foods as “genetically engineered” (GE), which it states is a “more precise term.”
Genetic engineering refers to genetic modification practices that utilize modern biotechnology to target a plant’s genetic makeup to give the plant a desirable trait.
This brings up an important point: there are actually very few genetically modified/engineered crops allowed.
In the US, the list includes things like alfalfa, canola, cotton, maize, papaya, rice, soybeans, roses, sugarcane, wheat and a few varieties of “Arctic” potatoes and apples, as well as FLAVRSVR tomatoes, which are rarely grown these days. Besides the major crops (rice, wheat, soy, etc), it’s actually very unlikely the produce you buy at the grocery store is a ‘GMO.’
Yup, that’s right. A vast majority of what you find in the produce section of US grocery stores is not genetically modified (the exception being papayas, which are always genetically modified in the US, read on for details).
The process for a crop to get “GM” approved costs millions to billions of dollars, and the import/export taxes upon them are also steep. Thus, even if the technology exists, very few GM crops are approved to be grown, unless they are going to be utilized widely, because of the high cost barrier for approval.
Many crops may have been selectively bred to foster certain flavors or growth characteristics, but this is not the same as genetic modification. Humans have used selective breeding techniques for thousands of years to develop crops with a range of desirable features, including various sizes, shapes, and colors of crop foods.
Perhaps you did experiments with pea plants growing up that required you to cross pollinate different pea plants to get different color flowers, etc. This is sort of like what plant breeders do to create different varieties of produce.
For example: say you see an apple in the store that’s new-to-you. You read the description. It says it’s a mix of honeycrisp and another variety (Hi, Snapdragon apples!). This is not a genetically modified apple. It’s a result of plant breeding.
Are GMOs Safe?
To date, existing evidence suggests that genetically engineered crops are safe for human consumption.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science, WHO, National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, and FDA have all stated that genetically modified crops are safe for consumption, based on the plethora of available data.
In the US, the FDA holds foods from GE plants to the same food safety standards and requirements as foods derived from traditionally bred plants.
There is no strong evidence to suggest elsewise. I don’t know how or why the safety of GMOs is so strongly questioned by the public. My guess is that it’s natural to fear things that are foreign and/or unfamiliar, and the idea of eating food that has been genetically altered may seem alarming.
I also think the phrase “Genetically modified organism” sounds much more alarming than what it is in reality.
And largely, I think there has been an immense amount of fear-mongering around GMOs, based on incredible science, which has sent waves of fear into the public.
Although GMO plants have yet not been around for hundreds of years, there is at present no credible reason to be afraid to consume genetically engineered foods. Furthermore, as noted above, there is no regulation around using the phrase “Non-GMO” on foods, so even if something is labeled as such, it may contain genetically engineered foods.
Are Genetically Engineered Plants Useful? How might they impact the environment?
Yes. Genetic engineered plants may have uses. For example, the use of genetic engineering has been shown to increase crop yields, reduce pesticide use, increase farmer income in low-income countries, and improve crop ability to withstand harsh weather extremes.
This means that crops have higher success rates and decrease their reliance on pesticides (read about chlorpyrifos, here).
Furthermore, genetic engineering can help solve issues of malnutrition in. A classic example is “golden rice,” which is a staple crop (rice) with beta-carotene added to it. Golden rice has been deemed effective in decreasing rates of vitamin A deficiency in developing countries.
Genetic engineering has also helped create other micronutrient-rich staple crops, including high-zinc rice, aimed at reducing zinc deficiencies.
In addition to being cost-effective, micronutrient-enhancement of staple crops requires lesser behavior change compared to other interventions, such as diet change or supplementation (so long as populations accept crops of slightly different color and/or texture).
Genetic modification can even save crops. For example, the papaya fruit was previously threatened for extinction by the papaya ringspot virus. A plant geneticist at Cornell was able to insert a gene modification into the fruit that made it resistant to the disease, thereby essentially saving the papaya industry.
It’s also interesting to note that while Hawaii as a state does not allow cultivation of genetically modified crops, they make an exception for papayas, as without the genetic modification, there wound likely be no papayas to speak of.
While genetic modification is not allowed on organic crops, some argue that allowing genetic engineering would allow for higher crop yields without pesticide use in organic crops.
Importantly, being able to produce higher volumes of food crops with fewer resources and pesticides in a wider range of weather conditions may become hugely important as climate change poses an increasingly large threat on the human food supply.
So should I avoid GMOs?
There is no reason to avoid consuming genetically engineered or ‘modified’ organisms. So are GMOs safe? Yes, I would say they are based on available evidence.
There is lots of evidence to suggest other things – like trans fatty acids and excessive consumption of HFCS – are not beneficial to human health. But genetically engineered crops are currently considered safe for human consumption.
Genetic engineering may even be potentially useful to create more weather and pest-resistant, higher yielding crops, which may be beneficial as we face the threat of climate change. It can also be used to save crops from extinction, as it did with the papaya.
If you feel more comfortable avoiding GMOs, I say you do you. But know that if you feel uneasy or uncertain consuming them, that there is currently no evidence to suggest a need to worry.
I hope that helped answer the question: “Are GMOs Safe?” as well asa questions you may have had about genetically engineered foods. As always, please feel free to leave questions or comments below, and/or reach out to me on Instagram, Twitter, or YouTube!
If you enjoyed “Are GMOs Safe?”…You may also like:
- Air Pollution and Human Health
- How Climate Change Impacts Crop Nutrient Density
- What is Chlorpyrifos? Is chlorpyrifos dangerous? Here’s what you need to know about the most widely-used pesticide in the US