GMOs: What's all the Hype?
Genetically modified organisms, also known as genetically engineered organisms, are one of the latest targets vilified by the health world. “Non-GMO” health claims appear prominently on numerous popular food products, including Kashi cereals, SkinnyPop popcorn, and Chloe’s soft serve ice cream. A recent poll conducted by ABC News revealed that 93% of Americans support federally mandated labeling of genetically modified food products, and over 50% of Americans believe that GMOs are not safe to consume. So what exactly are GMOs, and are they really as bad as people believe?
GMOs are created using an artificial breeding process in which the DNA from one organism is interwoven with the DNA of another organism to create a new organism with a desired trait. Genetic engineering can also be used to turn off specific genes in DNA, a technique known as gene silencing. This method was recently implemented by scientists to engineer an apple that does not brown when exposed to the air. In February 2015, the USDA approved the safety of non-browning apples, which are expected to appear on grocery shelves within a few years.
Today, most crops are genetically modified to be able to withstand pesticide use or thrive despite extreme climate change, but farmers have been altering crops for thousands of years. For example, most carrots used to be purple until Dutch farmers bred them with other varieties of carrots in the 1600’s to produce the ubiquitous orange hue that we recognize today. However, these types of modifications occurred gradually and on a much simpler scale. The genetic modification performed today is incredibly sophisticated.
Critics of genetic engineering cite numerous animal studies that link serious health problems, such as cancer, infertility, and organ damage, to the consumption of GMOs. The recent uptick in food allergies is also thought to be related to GMOs. In addition to health concerns, GMOs have a major environmental impact. “Super bugs” and “super weeds” become resistant to pesticides and require extremely toxic poisons to be eliminated. Additionally, because of cross pollination, the genetic material from GMO crops is transferred to non-GMO crops. GMOs also affect biodiversity as they can be toxic to bees, birds, and butterflies.
On the other hand, there are also many benefits to genetic modification. Crops that have been genetically modified are usually able to thrive with less water and fewer pesticides, which in turn reduces the cost of production. Genetic modification also produces greater crop yields, which is crucial for countries where many people are starving. According to Greg Jaffe, the director of biotechnology at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, "[T]here is abundant evidence that currently grown GE [genetically engineered] crops have major benefits worldwide and that foods made from those crops are safe to eat." Genetic modification can also be used to prevent plant species from dying out. Scientists have proposed using genetic engineering to save the banana crop in Central America from a fungus currently destroying it.
Given the two sides of the debate, should consumers steer clear of GMOs? Unfortunately, there is not enough conclusive evidence to fully demonstrate the potential health risks. Thousands of studies conducted by the World Health Organization, the Food and Drug Administration, and the United States Department of Agriculture have demonstrated that GMOs are perfectly safe for human consumption. Although more research is needed to determine the potential long-term effects of consuming GMOs, there are many steps people can take to reduce their consumption of GMOs.
The simplest step is to eat fewer processed foods, since 80% of processed foods produced in the United States contain GMOs. Most processed foods contain genetically modified corn and soy, which means that people are consuming GMOs on a regular basis without even realizing it. Unlike many European countries, such as France and Germany, the US does not require companies to label foods that have been produced using genetic modification. The Non-GMO Project, a non-profit organization that values consumer awareness, labels products that have not been genetically altered in any way. For example, Crisco, Domino’s sugar, KIND granola bars, and “Cuties” clementines all carry this stamp of approval. Additionally, all produce certified organic by the USDA is required to be free of genetic modification.
Although there are an abundance of non-GMO food products on the market, it is important for consumers to realize that the non-GMO stamp of approval does not necessarily mean that a product is healthy. GMO foods have the same nutritional value as non-GMO foods, so it is important to beware of marketing techniques that advertise non-GMO products as healthier alternatives. While there are many ways to limit consumption of GMOs, a healthy, balanced diet based on the principle of moderation is always the optimal approach to leading a healthy life.
Engelking, Carl. "USDA Approves Gentically Modified Non-Browning Apples." D-brief. Discover Magazine, 18 Feb. 2015.
Erdosh, George, and Marcia Amidon Lusted. "To GMO Or NOT To GMO?" Odyssey 23.2 (2014): 15. Science Reference Center.
"GMO Facts." The NonGMO Project. N.p., n.d.
Langer, Gary. "Poll: Skepticism of Genetically Modified Foods." ABC News. ABC News Network, 19 June 2015.