What are GMOs?
GMO stands for Genetically Modified Organism. Also referred to as GE (genetically-engineered), genetic modification (GM) utilizes gene-splicing to overcome natural laws governing breeding. GMOs are organisms whose genetic material has been altered by modern genetic engineering techniques, rather than by traditional cross-breeding and hybridization, and which cannot occur in nature. For example, genes from different species can be combined to create agricultural products that are more resistant to certain exogenous (externally sourced) factors such as herbicides, fungus, and pests, or that have other reputed benefits over their natural counterparts.
While genetic engineering promises higher crop yields, more nutritious foods, and environmental benefits, these claims remain controversial and much more research is needed to gauge the true value and long term impact of GE crops and GM foods.
Why are GMOs controversial?
GMOs are controversial for a number of reasons including:
- Agricultural Issues:
- Ecology: Many GE crops may be designed to require the use of higher levels of agricultural chemicals that cause loss of natural habitats and pollute the environment.
- Monocropping: A lack of biological diversity not only reduces natural habitats, but may lead to higher risks of crop failure; this was a major contributing factor to the Irish Potato Famine in the mid-19th century.
- Unintended consequences: Some GE crops have reportedly had major problems by causing loss of protection from drought, insects, soil pests, changes to the plant structures, etc.; some of these have been documented in scientific journals Additionally, GMOs can be a threat to organic foods since very often there is drift from the spraying of adjacent fields with pesticides, or accidental co-mingling of organic and GMO crops that ruin the organic status of those crops. The development of “super weeds” that become resistant to the herbicides used with GE crops is an effect similar to the antibiotic resistance developed by microbes, where an increased tolerance to a chemical is developed after chronic exposure and the chemical treatment loses efficacy.
- Environmental Issues:
- Pollution: Agricultural chemicals used in higher levels can get into the water table and also may leave more residues on the crops. Recent studies indicate that the rate of agricultural chemical use has skyrocketed along with the steep increase in planting certain GE crops that were specifically bioengineered to tolerate far higher levels of these chemicals than usual.
- Toxicity: There is evidence that chronic exposure to even low levels of agricultural chemicals, below acutely toxic levels, may cause neurological and hormonal damage to children. Many GE crops were designed to be grown along with highly estrogenic herbicides, raising additional concerns about harmful hormonal effects on humans and wildlife.
- Water use: GE seeds often require higher amounts of water to thrive than do some traditional varieties.
- GMOs Aren’t Natural:
- Since GMO crops are not naturally produced, GMO-containing foods are shunned by natural foods advocates and should not claim to be natural.
- Nutritional Issues
- Allergies: A study on the relation of GE foods to allergies hypothesized that some GE foods can cause food allergies due to two main factors: poorer digestibility and novel proteins created by the GM process.
- Nutritional Values: Some researchers have reported higher levels of anti-nutrient compounds and lower levels of nutrients in certain GMO than comparable conventional crops.
- Safety Issues:
- Most currently planted GE crops are designed to encourage higher rates of agricultural chemical use. The adaptation to the herbicides and pesticides by weeds and pests also encourages greater use of these chemicals by farmers. Many of these chemicals are estrogenic or have other potentially harmful effects, especially in children.
- The reported increase in anti-nutrients in some GMO crops can impede digestion and possibly lead to increased incidences of food intolerances or allergic reactions. Like gluten or food allergens, people can possibly react to these substances. Unlike gluten and food allergens, there is a lack of GMO labeling that will hinder the identification of these kinds of problems in people consuming foods that may become immunoreactive in them.
- Concerns about different epigenetics (gene expression in response to environment) for GMO foods versus conventional foods are just emerging, with implications for disease risks, including cancer. Safety data for GMOs is in private hands and closely held, typically without adequate peer-review. Researchers have complained that seed companies require farmers to sign agreements limiting the use of their seeds in research and giving the company veto power over publishing the finished research.
- The failure to conduct long-term feeding studies underscores the potential risks without resolving them.
- Social Justice Issues:
- Lack of transparency: The Bush Administration in 1992 made a policy decision giving guidance that GMOs were not substantially different from conventional crops, and the federal government since then has accepted most GMO crops; typically without requiring extensive safety testing or any labeling. In addition, the U.S. FDA has stated there are no significant differences between patented genetically engineered foods and non-genetically modified foods. This has been very controversial, especially since only novel products can be patented. The controversy had led to growing demands to restrict GMO crops and to label foods containing GMOs.
- Monopolies: Patented seeds are restricted: farmers can be prohibited from saving seeds to replant next year’s crop; plus they typically cost the farmer more both for seed and agricultural chemicals. The ability of seed companies to prevent the publication of studies that they don’t like, using their patents to license rather than sell seeds to farmers, means that consumers and scientists alike are deprived of the independent data needed to properly determine the safety and nutritional profile of GM foods using impartial scientific methods. The handful of companies controlling today’s GE seeds, some of which also produce the agricultural chemicals that the seeds have been reprogrammed to resist, have concentrated much of the world’s agricultural destiny into just a few pockets.
- Religious and other dietary restrictions: How does one faithfully follow dietary rules, such as kosher, vegetarian, and others, if different species’ genes are intermixed without labeling? GE plants, animals, viruses, and other organisms have been proposed and produced. Fish genes have been placed into tomatoes, for example, and production of GE Salmon is being hotly debated now. Unexpectedly different nutritional values can also confound people on restricted diets, especially since the new GM foods aren’t required to be tested before coming to market.
When did GMOs become common and what are the most likely GMO crops?
These types of organisms can have genetic material that has been altered by genetic engineering techniques (primarily the underlined ones):
During the past two decades, the number of crops grown by GE methods in the United States has been slowly increasing and high-risk commercially available crops now include some varieties of these plants:
- Canola (rapeseed)
- Corn (not sweet corn or popcorn)
- Papaya (Hawaiian)
- Sugar Beets (not red beets)
- Summer Squash
Additionally, other plants of concern where GE versions being developed but not yet commercially available include:
Fortunately, this is a limited list and most crops today are still not subjected to genetic bioengineering, and therefore do not contain GMOs. Organic crops do not allow GMOs to be used in their production.
What is the difference between Non-GMO and GMO-Free?
This is actually a very complex and controversial question. Obviously, a product produced without GE would be non-GMO, right? But cross contamination at any step of the way from farm to broker to storage to processing facilities - including pollen drift, spilled seeds from passing trucks, non-segregated transportation and storage facilities - can introduce GMOs to a product. Also, a product could be processed to the point that GMO testing cannot detect any GMOs in that product but lack documentation that it was produced without GE; in that case, one would not be exposed to GMOs by eating that food but it might not be non-GMO. Until a single federal standard is in place regulating manufacturers’ use of these terms, consumers will not be able to understand or compare claims of products being non-GMO or GMO-free.