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.
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3. FDA; Federal FD&C Act. See “