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Should We Care About Genetically Modified Foods?

Genetically modified foods have recently garnered more attention as the issue becomes a hotly debated and popular subject.  Several environmental organizations and public interest groups have actively protested against Genetically Modified Foods (also, Genetically Modified Organisms or GMOs) for various reasons.  The main question many have asked is, “should we support or oppose GMOs?”

Deborah Whitman sheds some light on this subject and does an excellent job summarizing the issues involving GM foods in her article “Genetically Modified Foods: Harmful or Helpful?” Whitman presents numerous advantages and criticisms for GMOs.

In my opinion, the advantages of GMOs versus the cons are overwhelming.  Although some believe GM foods impinge on consumers’ health, I believe this is de minimis–so small or minimal in difference that it does not matter.  In order to understand my opinion on this issue, I submit that I am no scientist; merely an interested student.

Although GMOs are often the subject of controversy, a number of people do not understand exactly what they are and why their use is debated.  GMOs are foods derived from genetically modified organisms. The term GMO is used to refer to crop plants created for human or animal consumption using the latest molecular biology techniques.  These plants have been modified in the laboratory to enhance desired traits such as increased resistance to herbicides or improved nutritional content.  The enhancement of desired traits has traditionally been undertaken through breeding, but conventional plant breeding methods can be very time-consuming and are often not very accurate.  However, genetic engineering can create plants with the exact desired trait very rapidly and with great accuracy.

What are some advantages? Most advantages appear to be diminutive; however, they have an enormous impact on our society and food supply.  Some of the advantages include pest resistance, herbicide tolerance, disease resistance, cold tolerance, drought tolerance, nutrition, and pharmaceuticals.  These advantages are listed below in further detail:

  • Pest resistance can be extremely costly, requiring farmers to spend a lot of time and money on pesticides.  Additionally, these pesticides bring about numerous hazards and can encroach on consumers’ health.  GMOs can help eliminate pesticides and reduce costs.  These advantages can mean reduced costs for farmers that are eventually passed along to consumers.  Further, crop losses from insect pests can be staggering, resulting in devastating financial loss for farmers and starvation in developing countries.
  • Another important advantage of GMOs is the fact that biologists are working to create plants with genetically engineered resistance to plant viruses, fungi, and bacteria. This would also help farmers and others be more efficient and save money. 
  • An antifreeze gene has been introduced into several plants, giving the plants the ability to tolerate colder temperatures that normally would kill unmodified seedlings. 
  • Researchers are working to create a strain of “golden” rice that contains several vitamins and nutrients. This is significant because it could improve the diet of populations dependent on rice while reducing malnutrition in countries that don’t have access to other crops.
  • GMOs help lower costs for much needed medicines and vaccines that are too expensive for impoverished countries.

Although the advantages of GMOs seem to make the case for their use a “no brainer” at this point, there are several criticisms and concerns.  Critics often include environmental activists, religious organizations, public interest groups, professional associations, and other scientists and government officials.  Their main concerns are comprised of a belief that private corporations are pursuing profits without concern for potential hazards and a belief that the government is failing to exercise adequate regulatory oversight.  Whitman states that GM food concerns generally fall into three categories:  1) environmental hazards, 2) human health risks, and 3) economic concerns.

  1. The environmental hazards consist of unintended harm to other organisms. For example, a study showed that pollen from Bt corn, corn bioengineered to resist the European corn borer, a crop pest which can cause significant damage to crops, caused high mortality rates in monarch butterfly caterpillars. Although the killing of insects may be the goal in pest resistance, it flows into other unintended species. Additionally, some populations of mosquitoes and other insects may become resistant to crops that have been genetically modified.
  2. Human health risks are an enormous concern. The main argument against GMOs is that there are several possible unknown risks. Two main concerns are that introducing foreign genes into food plants COULD have a negative impact on human health by introducing a new allergen or that ingesting these foods could cause problems with consumers’ intestines. However, this is up for debate and critics claim that the concerns are not warranted. 
  3. The economic concerns, and probably the most warranted, claim that the process of bringing a GMO to the market is a lengthy and costly process in which companies pursue a profitable return on their investment. The problem occurs when companies patent these new plants and raise the price of seeds.  

In conclusion, Genetically Modified foods have enormous potential to save money, eliminate poverty, reduce hunger and malnutrition, and promote innovative practices. Some individuals believe GM foods infringe on the environment and human health, however, I believe these concerns are de minimis and unwarranted.  Although we must proceed with much caution and detailed research, technology is constantly pushing the boundaries of what’s possible.  Consumers should weigh the positives with the negatives and embrace this innovative process to help rid the world of numerous problems.  

Additional references:

1. “GM corn poses little threat to monarch larvae” (Nature, Vol. 399, No 6733, p. 214, May 1999).
2. “Genetically Modified Foods: Harmful or Helpful?” Deborah  B. Whitman, 2000.
Found at: http://www.csa.com/discoveryguides/gmfood/overview.php
3. FDA; Federal FD&C Act. See “http://www.fda.gov/NewsEvents/Testimony/ucm115032.htm
4. http://www.healingdaily.com/detoxification-diet/genetically-engineered-foods.htm

© Food Safety News
  • http://bereagardens.org Bob Gregory

    I regret that the content of this article is sophomoric in its analysis of both the processes of creating GM foods and the benefits derived from them. Articles you cite relating to the supposed benefits of GMO’s are a decade old and many of the theoretical advantages that are suggested have either not come to fruition or have been disputed by both research and reality. I am startled to find such a simple treatment of this topic here and must conclude that the information presented is little more than lopsided, pro-GM propaganda.

  • Angela902

    I’m with Bob. This article is so bad, I don’t even know where to start. I could spend my entire morning pointing out its flaws– which would probably mean writing a whole new article on the subject, but I have a life to lead (and I just wasted a few minutes of it already).
    This is the first time I’ve been to this website, and the first article I’ve read here. I am not impressed.

  • Jim Larsen

    For many GMO crops the purpose of the genetic engineering is to allow higher doses of a toxic herbicide to be applied. How is pouring billions of tons of Roundup poison into the earth every year a good thing? In places like Argentina where this is happening the children who run barefoot are developing new diseases. In India Monsanto took over the cotton seed industry and now charge these dirt poor farmers 4 times as much for the seed that has not proven over time to provide a higher yield. Studies of the harmful effects of eating GMO food are being released, even though Monsanto does its best to prevent such release. The author of the above article must be on the payroll of a PR firm hired by Monsanto. Spreading mis-information is a common tactic Monsanto learned from the tobacco companies.

  • Shana

    I agree with Bob and Angela. I urge the author to report such issues without bias, utilize current (primary!) sources, and certainly fact check all statements before publishing. These online articles, and the many other websites like them, are an important source of information for the general public. Our society is composed of many citizens who don’t have the background knowledge to delve into jargon-laden scientific literature when making important lifestyle decisions. As the intermediate between complicated scientific findings and an anxious reader, it is critical that the author understands the field and reports pertinent information in a simple, engaging, and most importantly, accurate manner.

  • Russ Stevens

    You have done a good job of summarizing Whitman’s book here, however her book is extremely outdated, over 10 years old, and therefore most of her conclusions and all of her facts cited are extremely outdated. However, the “benefits of GM crops” you cite brings up an excellent critique of the use of biotechnology in agriculture. Out of the entire list of advantages you mention, the only crops that are currently grown are herbicide-tolerant or Bt-crops. No disease resistance, cold tolerance, drought tolerance, added-nutrition, or pharmaceuticals are commercially available. Yet, these same traits have been touted by the biotech industry as “just around the corner” since the 80′s.
    Why don’t we just rephrase your conclusion a bit to see what the other, arguably more realistic, conclusion could be…..
    In conclusion, Genetically Modified foods have enormous potential to increase costs, exacerbate poverty, increase hunger and malnutrition, and decrease innovation due to monopolistic practices.

  • http://www.foodsafetynews.com sschreck

    The views and opinions expressed in the Contributed Articles section of Food Safety News are strictly those of the author. We invite you to submit opinion pieces with alternate views, as we strive to present all sides of all issues related to food safety. Please contact us at info@foodsafetynews.com if you are interested in contributing articles to Food Safety News.

  • JNS

    First off, I appreciate all of you reading my “opinion” article and waxing so eloquently with such an open mind (it is an opinion article). I realize that several of you may be highly qualified (albeit, some maybe self-proclaimed) to write such scathing critiques on GM foods, but my opinion article was nothing more than an interested student’s opinion. As to the sophomoric comment, this short “opinion” article was only meant for the average reader who knows little about GM Foods, not a dissertation submitted Yale law school. Further, please notice I did not state the content as “fact.” Instead, I aptly stated “in my opinion.” This “opinion” article is solely intended to outline some of the positives, as well as concerns. As to Angela, Bob, and others, I’m still trying to figure out what part is bad of an opinion article that just discuses the barebones outline and how I believe saving money, reducing poverty and malnutrition is a good thing? Although I realize the article was not written yesterday, my opinion is not based solely on her article and I was not aware of the extreme evolution of GM foods that would turn all of GM positives into negatives. Additionally, I ended by stating “GM foods have enormous POTENTIAL….” I submit if you have a different stance, present your own opinion article with facts backing it up instead of criticizing without any reasons as to why.

  • Van Lyman

    I, like many of the others who have commented on your piece, don’t really know where to begin. It’s pretty hard to take seriously. On this subject and to this audience, it’s pretty bankrupt rhetorically (If I had to guess, I’d say that it’s a recycled paper from a college course on public policy.).I suppose the best I can do is try to tell you why. I’ll start with a metaphor to illustrate.
    GMO food has intrinsic qualities…much like an orange does. One of the intrinsic qualities of an orange is its color. You’re welcome to opine all day long that the color of oranges is blue, but that won’t change two things: 1) It’s still orange; and, 2) You won’t be taken seriously by people who can see. Irrespective of your opinion, an orange is still orange. So, too, is it with questions of science–in this case with genetic engineering. To continue with the metaphor, we then necessarily ask: are GMO crops safe as-is to the extent that we should plant them without further questions; do they require more study; or, are they dangerous? In short, what color is GMO? It’s an empirical question and it’s one that we have more answers to than we did in 1999 and 2000. To the metaphor’s second conclusion: It’s clear from your piece that you don’t understand much about genetic science…or writing to an informed audience for that matter. When discussing genetics with an informed audience, for example, it’s not enough to read a couple of pap pieces, determine you understand the issue, and then spew. On this issue and in this climate, even a paid GMO shill wouldn’t have been foolish/careless enough to cite 10+ year old articles…even an opinion piece. Moreover, it’s clear that you have not been following the conversation on the subject. By this, I mean the development (or lack of) of GMO laws and regulations within the U.S., requirements for FDA approval (read “substantially equivalent”), the approval process (and backstories) in other regions/countries, etc. The common theme in the comments to your article, thus far, have been that you are not taken seriously by people who are knowledgeable on this issue in ways that you are not. In my critique, I’ve tried to point out why. Until you educate yourself better, you will have no credibility. I suggest that you start with some basic research into current thought, research, and even opinion on the subject. Specifically, find some data answering the questions that you raise and assertions that you make—on both the potential advantages and potential harms. You assert so many benefits, but offer no evidence to support your assertions. Three of the four sources that you cite are 10+ years old and the fourth is of an indeterminate age from, to be generous, a non-scientific source. Parenthetically, you’d have more credibility providing no citations in this piece. Finally, if you’re going to discuss matters of public policy vis a vis food safety, you should acquaint or reacquaint yourself with what is known as the “Precautionary Principle”. It’s a useful decision rule when it comes to food policy. Start with some basic research into current thought on the subject and see where your opinions end up:

  • http://www.foodsafetynews.com Suzanne Schreck

    The views and opinions expressed in the Contributed Articles section of Food Safety News are strictly those of the author. We invite you to submit opinion pieces with alternate views, as we strive to present all sides of all issues related to food safety. Please contact us at info@foodsafetynews.com if you are interested in contributing articles to Food Safety News.

  • LWC

    Yes, Mr. Shaw, we should care about genetically modified foods. I see from your bio that you were a “leadership Scholar” in 2007 and that you have a passion for food law, sports and outdoors. I would like to suggest a book for you to read. It does not necessarily provide the answers. It does however provide the conceptual tools “encompassing not only the scientific, but also the socioeconomic, cultural, policy, and regulatory spheres” required to “responsibly appraise these new technologies and their products.” Biosafety First – edited by Traavik, T and Lim, L.C. (2007) Tapir Academic Press Trondheim ISBN 978-519-2113-8. I would also like to invite you to visit the EPA website and view one, of the many, pesticide fact sheets on the foods we eat, which are registered as pesticides. For example, registered July 20, 2009.
    http://www.epa.gov/oppbppd1/biopesticides/pips/smartstax-factsheet.pdf

  • LMG

    This article is one-sided and not a true opinion as the facts are old. If someone is to give an educated opinion the person must be educated on the subject matter.
    GMO foods are having a negative impact on society, US agriculture and our neighbors to the North. The crops in the US, Canada and Mexico are being tainted by Monsanto’s seeds and the thought of the terminator gene that they are capable of using could wipe out society as a whole. It’s not surprising that other countries are refusing to accept our GMO foods and burning some of the shipments of GMO foods received.
    Maybe Mr. Shaw is on Monsanto’s payroll.

  • RAM
  • http://www.betterlivingsite.com Judy

    I have been researching genetically modified foods for several months now. It began when I started having a severe reaction to everything containing modified cornstarch. Consuming anything containing the modified corn resulted in 5-6 hours of excruciating abdominal pain for me. That cannot be good in any way! I have learned that eating the GMO foods destroys your organs as well as making your intestines toxic. I must agree with Jim Larson. You must be on the Monsanto payroll! These GMO crops will lead to world famine. You better do your homework. We are being overloaded with herbicides by Monsanto which will destroy the environment and run into our water supply. We should all know by now that herbicides are one of the known causes of cancer! Europe has outlawed these garbage seeds and they are watching to see what happens to our American children. This is the worst human experiment ever done on the American people! Check out http://www.thefutureoffood.com and get the book The world According to Monsanto-Pollution, Corruption, and the Control of our Food Supply by Marie-Monique Robin. It is time to learn the truth, before our whole planet is ruined. When you believe and spread Monsanto’s lies YOU contribute to the problem. They do not care about world hunger. Their plan is control and greed, and it is spreading rapidly like a science fiction monster! These crops are more susceptible to drought. Their roots are shallow and they are way less nutritious. They will not germinate without heavy dustings of herbicides and they contain sickening things like E-Coli and viruses. These are not health-promoting foods. These foods cause damage to the immune system, your organs, and by the third generation make people sterile. Hmmm? Perhaps genocide? Not my idea! Do your homework folks. The American Academy of Environmental
    Medicines is against the GMO foods. Check out their position by going to http:aaemonline.org/gmopost.html
    Judy

  • annie oconnor

    Who is vetting these articles? This article is biased and if aimed at a ‘non-informed’ public is dangerous in this way. I’m sure plenty of readers who are looking for facts and don’t have the ability to understand that this article is a poorly researched ‘opinion’ will take it as fact.
    I have to agree that the question, “Does this person work for Monsanto?” came to my mind when I read the article.

  • MATHIAS THOMAS

    This is the problem of most developing countries there fore there is need of another mechanisms from developed countries so as to combat the problem of food poverty in developing countries