Alright, it’s confession time: I’m one of those snobby Seattleites who shops at expensive, organic grocery stores. I grew up more at home in a Whole Foods than a Costco. That being said, there is one thing that drives me crazy about the “green” eating movement, and that is the shameless fear-mongering around GMO foods (GMO stands for genetically modified organism). The myth that GMOs are dangerous, or at the very least should be avoided, is both ignorant and dangerous to millions of people.
What is a genetic modification? In this context, genetic modification is the process of altering a genetic trait of a living organism using recombinant DNA technology (1). Recombinant DNA technology allows a scientist to mix and match genes between different organisms, even between two different species. If you’ve identified the correct gene, you can give a crop almost any desirable trait, like drought or bug resistance, for example.
While recombinant DNA technology allows us to cross species and create changes much faster than traditional breeding techniques, humans have been “genetically modifying” other organisms for several hundred years. Selective breeding (also known as artificial selection), a process of breeding individuals of a species for certain desired traits, is also a form of genetic modification. The only difference is that the process is much slower. Without genetic modification, we wouldn’t have pugs. That’s right, pugs are technically GMOs.
Scientists use genetic modification to improve crops in several different, according to a recent review:
“Yield enhancement traits, such as improved photosynthesis properties or greater environmental tolerance; input or substitution traits, such as disease or herbicide resistance; and quality traits, such as enhanced nutritional value or greater shelf-life (some genetic enhancements fall into more than one category)(2).”
Furthermore, there are no reported health risks to eating GMO foods (3). Don’t believe me? Americans have been eating GMOs for approximately 17 years, with no negative effects. Four key crops consumed by Americans have been largely transferred over to GMOs in that time: soybeans, corn (maize), sugar beets, and canola (3). About 70% of all prepackaged, bottled, and frozen items in a grocery store contain some GMO ingredients. Products containing these genetically modified crops are not required to be labeled, so many people are unaware that they have been safely consuming GMOs for years.
Not only is opposing GMO crops an uninformed choice, it is a choice that could negatively impact millions of people. While Americans and Europeans can afford to rally against the imagined threat posed by genetically modified foods, GMOs could have a huge positive impact in areas that don’t have the same level of food security. * For example, maize is a staple food for over 300 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa, many of whom are maize growers themselves. Farming productivity in Africa is low, and many of these farmers remain poor and food-insecure. Human induced climate change and population growth is pushing maize growers into areas where the drought risk is high, putting this staple crop at risk (4). How could GMOs help? By introducing drought-resistant maize varieties, farmers will be able to combat these changes and increase their productivity. When privileged Americans companies use fear mongering techniques to demonize GMOs, they are impacting the likelihood of GMO crops being approved for use by African governments (4). This is simply unacceptable.
What can we do to combat the myth that GMOs are harmful? While it is your right as a consumer to make choices about the foods you eat, please be sure to consider all the facts before avoiding food that has been genetically modified. In aggregate, our decisions could have an impact around the world.
* Food security is the state of having reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food.
- A. Hino, Safety assessment and public concerns for genetically modified food products: the Japanese experience. Toxicol. Pathol. 30, 126–128 (2002).
- G. A. Baker, T. A. Burnham, Consumer response to genetically modified foods: market segment analysis and implications for producers and policy makers. J. Agric. Resour. Econ., 387–403 (2001).
- M. J. Chrispeels, Yes indeed, most Americans do eat GMOs every day!: GMOs foods in the USA. J. Integr. Plant Biol. 56, 4–6 (2014).
- R. Paarlberg, GMO foods and crops: Africa’s choice. New Biotechnol. 27, 609–613 (2010).