The use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) has been on the rise since its invention in 1996. It is estimated that upwards of 75% of foods in the United States’ food supply contain genetically modified ingredients (Gruere and Rao 3). Although many studies have been done, there has been no consensus from the scientific community on the long term impact of GMOs. This has been a cause for concern for many Americans due to possible impacts on human health. However, any GMOs on the market are tested and controlled by the EPA and FDA, so they are generally recognized as safe.
Due to the regulations and testing by the EPA and FDA, GMOs that are currently on the market are considered safe for consumption and have a positive impact on economy and food security.
To understand how the use of GMOs is being implemented into current farming techniques, it is important to know how they differ from traditional agriculture. Traditionally, farmers will cultivate their land using seeds from previous harvests.
In doing so, they will often choose the stronger, bigger, or more appealing plants in an attempt to pass on those specific traits to future generations. An ideal situation would involve all crops in the future to contain these genes, to create a superior crop from the original generation. This sort of agriculture, commonly known as selective breeding, has been used for many years. Genetic engineering on the other hand, simply tries to expedite this process by inserting the gene directly instead of waiting.
Genetic engineering is the process which changes part of the DNA in an organism to make it display a certain desirable trait. This is what makes genetically modified food different than ‘normal’ food. There are two different kinds of genetic modification: Genetic engineering and selective breeding. Genetic engineering works by splicing the gene or trait that you would like from an organism already containing that trait. That DNA of that organism is copied many times so that the selected gene can be sliced from the resulting genomes (Higley). Once the selected gene has been cut from the DNA, a similar section of DNA is cut from the destination organism and the copied DNA is inserted.
Finally, the organism with the newly desired traits is bred with other organisms with that trait to ensure the offspring will show the specified trait (Higley). The last step, also known as selective breeding, has been done for centuries. Selective breeding is breeding individuals from a population who both contain a certain set of traits that is seen to be desirable. If you were to look in nature versus your supermarket, some products would look very different. Take tomatoes for example. Wild tomatoes are much smaller, wider color variety and many different species. Tomatoes bought in the store are much bigger, mostly the same shade of red, and are often a selected species of tomato. These make it to the super market because they are more profitable. Another example that may hit close to home for many, are many breeds of dogs.
There are many dogs that have been bred to have certain traits, such as a golden coat or a superior hunting ability. I became very interested in genetic engineering in general after taking an Advanced Placement Biology course and realizing my dog is technically genetically modified. Background in the process is necessary to understanding the possible risks and controversies involved with their use in food.
The use of genetically modified organisms in the food supply has dramatically increase in the last fifteen to twenty years. Over that period of time, many new GM foods have been added to supermarkets around the globe. GM foods include but are not limited to corn, soybeans, cotton and tomatoes. These foods often are bigger, have a higher yield and in turn, are more profitable for companies. The genes needed to produce these ‘superior’ crops also must be regulated to ensure safety to the general public. There have been many controversies over the labeling of GMOs in the food supply. There are many people on both sides of this issue.
However, there is no consensus from the scientific community yet. Due to the lack of consensus, there have been numerous court cases dismissed with regards to enforced labeling on GM foods. Those against labeling often cite court cases such as Alliance for Bio-Integrity v. Shalala. The 1992 court case challenged the FDA’s “generally recognized as safe” statement (Acosta). GRAS is a term used in the food industry that references a food additive that is said to be safe by experts (Wikipedia). The court ruled that “FDA’s interpretation of the FFDCA’s labeling requirement was reasonable” and “genetic modification does not ‘materially’ alter foods” (Acosta). Those for mandatory labeling however cite that most of Europe has regulations regarding labeling food products.
Although labels are required, there is little effect on the economics of GM food in Europe (Gruère and Rao 5). Therefore, if there is no economic difference between a labeled GM food and unlabeled product, enforcing legislation would be a waste. To enforce something that still will not deter consumers and to spend millions if not billions would be irresponsible.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are two of the foremost regulators of GM foods within the United States. The EPA regulates the possible toxins from the genetically modified organisms as well as pesticides used (FAS). This is necessary to protect the general population from adverse effects from the engineering process.
In order for a new product to make it onto the market place, it must pass strict testing by the EPA. The FDA controls GMOs that are to be eaten by humans and/or animals. These foods must be equivalent to non-GM food” in nutritional value, structure [etc.]” (US Regulation 3). Furthermore, if the food is considered to be substantially different than a non-GM food, the FDA will require further testing. Any foods that show adverse effects will not be allowed on the market. Due to these precautions, genetically modified food on the market are safe to eat according to the FDA and EPA.
GMOs have been rigorously studied to ensure their safety. In a summary of hundreds of reports compiled by Angelika Hilbeck, she concludes that “on the basis of their studies, that a number of varieties of GM products (mainly maize and soybeans) are as safe and nutritious as the respective conventional non-GM plant” (Hilbeck 2).
However, those against GM foods claim that the studies saying GMOs are safe are exaggerated and not representative of the science. Hilbeck responds to that claim citing a report by the Royal Society of Canada. This report disavows the false distortions of scientific evidence that is: ‘scientifically unjustifiable’ to presume that GM foods are safe without rigorous scientific testing and that the ‘default prediction’ for every GM food should be that the introduction of a new gene will cause ‘unanticipated changes’ in the expression of other genes, the pattern of proteins produced, and/or metabolic activities’ (Hilbeck 3).
Hilbeck explains that the scientific evidence that has been produced should not be refuted. More simply, she believes it is necessary to consider all the facts and not necessarily what your personal beliefs tell you what to think. To err on the side of caution is never a bad thing. It is also reasonable and rational to be skeptical of some studies if something appears to be out of the ordinary. However, refuting years of scientific data simply based on hearsay and poor fact checking is not being skeptical, it is simply irresponsible. To ensure the safety of all GM food and those who consume them, continued research on the long term effects are not only necessary, but essential.
Not all GM organisms are created equal, contrary to public opinion. Many believe that GMO studies are “an artificial construct that has been falsely perpetuated” and hold no scientific value (Gurian-Sherman). However, the media often portrays one study that is contrary to the majority, and thus misinforming the general public. Michael Hansen calls on the media to “accurately report on the science of GMOs” and to avoid “[ignoring] the currently available scientific evidence” (Qtd. in Gurian-Sherman). It is important to note that if one genetic modification is found to be unsafe, it is not necessarily representative of all genetic modifications.
For example, mutations in cells that form cancer would be classified as unsafe. Furthermore, the gene that causes this possible mutation of certain cellular DNA would not necessarily be the same or be processed the same in other organisms. Insertion of this gene another organism might contain benefit for the consumer of the modified food. For example, milk treated with extra Vitamin D is beneficial to humans who need this vitamin daily. However, if the modified food contained a gene that was harmful to humans, it would not be allowed on the food market. That is why extensive and comprehensive research on GMO with respect to human health are not only necessary but essential to ensuring the safety of our food.
GM foods have the ability to polarize the court of public opinion. However, the benefits of GMOs are often thrown to the wayside because many people believe are unsafe due to the lack of scientific consensus. One of the most important aspects of GM food, is their ability to provide for the masses. According to S.J. Khan, a Pakistani scientist, GM foods are a possible solution to feeding our ever growing population. Each year around the globe, “over 13 million children under the age of five die because of hunger and malnutrition, whereas, one out of five babies is born underweight” (Borlaug qtd. in Khan 1). This alone shows that there is a stunning lack of food in some areas of the globe.
Therefore, it is important to be aware of the specific benefits and drawbacks of genetic modifications before implementing them. The current methods of cultivation and agriculture alone will not be enough to feed our growing population. Therefore, it is necessary to develop higher yielding and more economically responsible crops to benefit the globe. These new GM crops ” offer significant production advantages such as decreased and easier herbicide and/or pesticide use Baker and Preston qtd. In Khan 3).
This has a double advantage; first, it reduces the cost of production and second, it escapes environmental pollution due to the indiscriminate use of pesticides and herbicides” (Khan 1). This not only increases the amount of food available, but decreases the price and environmental pollution. In developing countries or countries that have climates that are not ideal for agriculture, these advancements in science and food have the possibility to lower the hunger rate. Having a sustainable food supply would be a breath of fresh air for many impoverished countries in Africa and Southeast Asia.
However, those opposing the widespread use of GMOs often believe that changing and inserting DNA into other organisms is humanity trying to play the role of God. That statement is not necessarily correct nor does it represent all people who are against the uses of genetic engineering. If the technology is available to benefit society as a whole and minimize the effects of hunger and starvation, why not use it? Furthermore, it is a similar situation as the use of vaccines to prevent disease. Injecting weakened or dead strains of a disease helps the human body to build antibodies that will later fight the disease or virus. This then can extend the lifespan of many humans because debilitating diseases such, as polio, have nearly been wiped off the face of the Earth.
Similarly, some GM foods contain a gene that produces a natural insecticide that virtually eliminates the need for outside pesticides and herbicides (Watson 6). That would in turn, benefit the environment which avoids excess pollution by chemical runoff. Therefore, it would seem to be irresponsible to not do what is scientifically possible to benefit the environment. Furthermore, genetic engineering is not that much different than natural selection and selective breeding. In nature, mutations that are beneficial to a particular species will be passed on. Over time, those with the beneficial trait will be seen as more attractive and will tend to pass on the gene.
Therefore, over many generations, the trait will be in the majority of the population. Genetically engineering this process simply cuts down the time this would take to occur naturally. I do see issues if people tried to genetically engineer other human beings to create a ‘super human’. That situation could lead to a host of other problems including moral and ethical dilemmas which have no true ‘benefit’ except to the individual.
The economic impact of GM food is yet another sticking point for those against the use of GM foods. They argue that since many big food companies have come to rely on GM ingredients in their food, they do not care about the possible impacts on human health and the environment. Many think that these companies would rather put their profits in front of the safety of their product. There have been numerous studies done by big food companies such as Kellogg and Pepsi-Cola that seem to contradict conclusions that are generally accepted by the scientific community (Stuckler and Nestle 15).
There would also be “no obvious, established, or legitimate mechanism through which public health professionals might increase Big Food’s profits” (Stuckler and Nestle 13). I do concede, this is a major issue. Transparency between big food companies and the general population is incredibly important. To that end, there have been many countermeasures by the EPA and FDA who control what is let into the food supply (Blanchard 5). Therefore, it is important to note that there are more people looking after our health than are typically shown in the media. Furthermore, if scientific evidence does prove that GM foods are harmful, this would not be the first time down this road.
A similar situation happened with the tobacco industry. Science and health studies were able to show a link between smoking and lung cancer and heart disease. After that discovery, all tobacco products were required to list the risks and consequences of using that product. If the same thing were to occur in GM foods, I believe this situation would be very similar. Due to the largely inconclusive data about GM food safety that appears, it will be harder to prove one side or another is correct. I do believe over time scientists will come to a consensus on GM safety.
Most certainly the biggest point of concern is the potential for harm with regards to human health. The lack of scientific consensus causes concern. However, the scientific process itself is based on repetition and does not make conclusions from one study. That one study cannot be trusted to be representative of all situations because “science is iterative” and “ideas [are] constantly reassessed and revised” (Trotter 5). Therefore, it could take many years before one conclusion can be reached, even for one specific situation. GMOs are a little more difficult due to the large variety of crops, genes and other confounding variables. It is then rather common to not have a definitive consensus, especially within diet and nutritional studies which have many confounding variables and errors attributed with them.
Additionally, the EPA and FDA are in control of the GM process and which products are introduced into the market place. It would then be safe to assume that the professional scientists and nutritionists that work there know quite a bit more than the average Joe. Letting politicians make decisions on issues they are not experts in is far from the best way to allow scientific advancements to prosper. Even though there may not be a definite answer the safety of GMOs as a whole, it is safe to say that those available for consumption have gone though and passed a gross amount of testing.
Genetic engineering and genetically modified foods are at the forefront of controversy in the food and nutrition world. A lot of conflict comes from a lack of reliable information portrayed by the media and personal views which may not align with the process as a whole. However, it cannot be understated that there are many benefits associated with the use of GMOs. Increasing the food supply, creating more bountiful crops and limiting the use of pesticides in some varieties is beneficial to millions all over the globe.
Although there is no consensus on the long term safety of some GMOs, it is important to remember the GM food in our food supply is strictly regulated by the EPA and FDA. So before you ignore GM foods all together, remember the wise words of Dr. Willett: “I suggest that you not make big changes in what or how you eat based on a single study” (Qtd. in Trotter 18).