Significant controversy surrounds foods produced with genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Simply put, GMO foods are genetically modified plant crops developed for consumption. Advances in biotechnology and molecular biology have made it possible for scientists to introduce foreign genes into plants. These genes are usually code for “favorable” traits such as resistance to diseases, herbicides, droughts, and increased nutrition content. Certain companies (e.g. Monsanto, Dow AgroSciences, etc.), scientists, and the FDA have portrayed GMO foods as a boon. Critics, however, lambast GMO foods because of the possible negative consequences that could result from genetic tampering with food crops. For better or worse, the United States leads the world in GMO food production with almost 165 million acres under cultivation. The prevalence of GMO foods in the United States is serious: Experts say 60% to 70% of processed foods on U.S. grocery shelves have genetically modified ingredients.
While genetic engineering is a recent innovation, farmers in the past selectively bred favorable crops. While this method is more “natural” and less radical than genetic engineering, it is a much slower and more cumbersome process for farmers. Proponents hold that by genetically modifying foods, scientists can make food cheaper, more resistant to droughts, disease, and pests, and make certain foods more prevalent in parts of the world where it is challenging to farm.
For instance, the Bt crystal protein gene is derived from bacteria (Bacillus thuringiensis) that allows plants to produce proteins which are lethal to certain insects. Instead of using pesticides to prevent insects from eating crops, scientists have inserted these genes into plants, essentially making them pest-resistant or herbicide-resistant, making the crops healthier and more economical to produce. It has been estimated that the United States has been able to save approximately $92 million by using Bt-protected cotton.
In developing nations where a single crop or a few crops make up the mainstay of people’s diets, GMO foods offer the unique ability to fortify crops with vitamins and minerals, thus helping to reduce malnutrition and vitamin deficiencies.
On the other hand, critics tout many possible harms that can result from farming and eating GMO foods. They oppose GMO foods for a myriad of reasons, such as placing corporations in control of significant amount of the food supply, cancer*, a rise in childhood allergies, out of control super weeds, genetic contamination, an overuse of pesticides, the [increased]disappearance of certain insects (e.g. butterflies, caterpillars) and harm to animals.
The American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM) maintains that certain studies have raised concerns over the safety of GMO foods. Crops which result from genetic modifications and are resistant to chemicals are classified as safe but “with few long term studies available to provide an evidence base. Multiple animal studies have shown that GMO foods cause damage to various organ systems in the body,” said Dr. Amy Dean, PR chair and Board Member of the AAEM.
Another immediate health concern with eating genetically modified foods is the possibility of creating new allergens. Opponents of GMO foods highlight an incident involving Starlink modified corn. In 2000, StarLink corn, which was approved by the EPA exclusively for animal feed, appeared in many Kraft products, including their Taco Bell corn shells, because corn crops were accidentally contaminated with the StarLink seed. Due to the StarLink exposure, many people reported severe allergic reactions, leading to major recalls. (WebMD).
GMO foods may also harm beneficial insects. Take for example a study by Nature, which showed that pollen from B.t corn was lethal to monarch butterfly caterpillars. These insects have a vital role in pollinating plants and serving as a food source for birds and other animals. Another study published in the Journal of Organic Systems, found that “pigs raised on a mixed diet of GM corn and GM soy had higher rates of intestinal problems, including inflammation of the stomach and small intestine, stomach ulcers, a thinning of intestinal walls and an increase in hemorrhagic bowel disease, where a pig can rapidly ‘bleed-out’ from their bowel and die.” (Huffington Post).
Furthermore, the possibility of creating ‘super weeds’ is another risk inherent to growing GMO crops. Since many GMO crops have genetic resistance to herbicides, there is the risk that weeds and GMO crops will breed and result herbicide-resistant weeds, which are a nuisance and take up valuable farm area. The problem is most apparent amongst “cotton farmers in the southeast, [and] super weeds are starting to show up in fields in the Midwest as well…some are as tall as 8 feet and must be physically removed” (US News) which is an arduous, expensive, and inefficient process that comes as a result of chemical resistance to herbicides.
Finally, critics are also concerned about the effect of GMO foods’ effect on the economy. Large companies such as Monsanto, Dow, etc., possess the money and ability to patent their biotechnology and seeds. Critics point to the increasing power of biotech companies, their willingness to raise their prices at will, and their willingness to sue farmers for reusing genetically modified seeds. There have been cases in which a GMO company’s seeds spread inadvertently to another farmer’s crops, and the company sues the farmer because his crops are contaminated with genetically modified seeds that were not purchased from the biotech company. Organic farmers and others have worried about this for years because of the increasing number of lawsuits against farms whose crops become contaminated. In one notable case, an Australian organic farmer lost his license as an organic grower after “GMO canola seed heads blew onto his property” (Reuters). In the United States, the Supreme Court upheld Monsanto’s ability to sue farmers whose fields are inadvertently contaminated with Monsanto materials and its genetically engineered seeds (RT).
These reasons have led many to oppose the use of GMOs. Several European countries, including France, Spain, and Portugal, have banned certain types of GMO foods; In the Middle East and Asia, countries such as Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Thailand, and others have also banned certain GMO foods (Organic Consumers). Even in the United States, critics have been pushing for legislation to reduce the presence of GMOs and to require manufacturers to clearly label genetically modified foods. For example, Vermont is “the first state in the country, where new legislation requires all food sold within the state’s borders to label whether or not GMO ingredients are used. Connecticut, Maine, and other states plan to adopt measures in order to label GMO foods. There are currently 84 bills on GMO labeling in 29 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, as well as dueling bills in Congress” (LA Times). Even certain food companies have pledged to start labeling GM ingredients. Whole Foods has pledged that by 2018 it will replace some foods containing genetically modified ingredients and label others. General Mills announced it would stop using genetically modified ingredients in its Cheerios. Conversely, GMO food companies have poured millions of dollars into blocking GMO labeling efforts.
Ultimately, the decision rests with the consumer as to whether the risks outweigh the benefits or vice versa. There is important evidence on both side of the issue. For consumers who wish to avoid GMO foods, the Coppell Farmers Market offers the opportunity to buy from non-GMO farmers, ranchers and artisan producers.
*(The Séralini study, one of the first long term studies, was met with sharp criticism, retracted, but later republished in June 2014)
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