According to a study done by the Pew Research Center, around half of the Americans surveyed say that they believe genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are detrimental to their health. Moreover, people with negative sentiments towards GMOs believe that they will have long-term detrimental effects on the environment. These surveys gauge the opinions of respondents which often correlate to their feelings. Many Americans are “wary” over the use of GMOs in agriculture, but what exactly about the GMOs are they so concerned about? We often fear what we do not know, and I hope to clear the muddied sentiments surrounding GMOs in this article.
A GMO is defined by the United Nations’ Cartagena Protocol as a “living modified organism.” There are two requirements for this definition to work. One, the plant must contain newly edited genetic material. Two, the plant must be modified using modern biotechnology. Modern biotechnology is essentially defined as copying a desired trait from a particular source into the object we want to modify.
With that definition in mind, many of our foods we eat today have been altered in some form or the other. Traditionally, people cross-bred crops in an attempt to produce crops with more desirable traits. Strawberries from the market, for example, look and taste the way they do thanks to years of crossbreeding strawberries native to North and South America.
Traditional breeding is not always better, as it comes with some drawbacks. Though traditional crossbreeding may produce a crop with a better genetic outcome, it does not always filter out their less than desirable traits, like the tendency to attract weeds or pests for example. Moreover, traditional crossbreeding to filter out a better result takes up a lot of time, generations of plants perhaps. To reduce the time to guarantee a desired outcome, scientists have taken to adopting practices of genetically altering plants for a better genetic outcome.
According to this research article, crops such as soybeans, maize(corn), cotton, and canola are able to be mass-produced because of GMOs. One may question what exactly goes on during the genetic modification process. According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), during the process, a scientist first identifies a desirable trait from a plant, like pest-resistance found naturally in a soil bacterium known as Bacillus Thuringiensis (Bt). After copying that desired trait, they insert this into the organism they want to grow, like corn. Before being mass-produced, the new genetically modified (GM) corn must undergo a few tests. Scientists must ensure the corn grows properly—in addition to passing safety tests—before distributing to farmers and consumers. The rest of the corn’s DNA stays untouched. The only difference is that farmers do not have to worry about pests ruining their crops, thus increasing their yield. Furthermore, GM corn and others produced like it can actually be healthier to ingest, being that farmers would not need to spray the crops over with pesticides. This high yield of corn is useful in many sectors, whether it comes to producing the food itself, corn syrup found in many soft drinks, or even ethanol. This leads me to my next point regarding the efficacy of GMOs in agricultural production.
One of the main concerns brought up in the Pew Research Center study was the effect GMOs would have on the agricultural sector. A strong majority of the group who believed GMOs were detrimental to human health (88%) believed that they would cause environmental issues. According to an article from Alliance For Science “EU’s refusal to permit GMO crops led to millions of tonnes of additional CO2, scientists reveal,” the reluctance to use GMOs in Europe actually had more detrimental effects on the environment. Europe pushed for a more organic approach to farming because politicians and activists were strongly against the idea of GM farming. For Europe, this decision was actually a turn for the worse. Organic farming leaves crops with their best and worst traits, meaning that they are more susceptible to dying from unwanted pests and weeds. In turn, this results in less plant yield from organic farming. Plus, more unused land deemed wastelands since farmland is usually plowed from occupied forests, which raises the amount of carbon emissions gone into plowing the land. Had Europe approved the use of GMOs for their agricultural practices, they would be seeing higher crop retention (pest and weed wise), and thus less carbon emissions because plowed land would be more efficient by producing more food.
The term GMO may sound a little scary, but how they can benefit our society is far from that. Producing the same, tasty fruits and vegetables albeit modified to withstand pest control sounds a whole lot better than organic farmers spraying their plants with pesticides in addition to having their crops get damaged from external factors, wasting valuable farmland in the process. Today, scientists are developing ways to modify the plants’ genomes, meaning they could directly change the crop’s genetic makeup as opposed to copying a likable gene from another plant. In the future, we could soon be eating corn that could be more nutritious for us than it already is!