Genetically Modified Food: Risks and Benefits

Have you ever noticed how some foods prominently display that pretty little non-GMO logo on the front of the package—while others reluctantly admit, on the back of the package, and in small, nondescript writing, that they were produced with genetic engineering?Does it really matter whether you consume as little as possible of food derived from genetically modified organisms?Are genetically modified organisms always completely bad? The debate has been a long one, and seems unlikely to end in the immediate future.

Biotechnology companies state that GMOs are safe for human consumption, while various other organizations claim that they are unsafe for the same, indicating that large companies report biased or even incorrect conclusions to safety studies.GMOs have been in use for several decades, and we haven’t all died yet… but at the same time, some sources link GMOs to certain health issues, such as allergies.However, given that the world may, in fewer than ninety years, host 11 billion human inhabitants; that 800 million people in the world already lack sufficient sustenance; and that foods produced with GMOs can have greater and more nutritious yields than conventional foods, we may have to face the possible, not to say certain, risks of GMOs if we want to sustain the human population (Gerry). Scientists have developed a variety of GMOs, some of which possess undeniable benefits.Some GM (genetically modified) crops are insect-resistant, such as Bt corn, into the genome of which a bacterial toxin-producing gene has been incorporated (Ronald 561).

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The FDA reports that Bt corn does not present “unreasonable risks to human health or to the environment” (Thomson 17).Bt corn even reduces farmers’ reliance upon spraying pesticides, thereby reducing both farmer and consumer exposure to pesticides (Ronald 561).Plants can also be genetically modified to have resistance to viruses.For example, papayas are protected against the papaya ringspot virus through the addition of viral DNA to the papaya genome.This system of genetic modification, with which papaya yields are twenty times greater than when the plants are unmodified, is the only effective protection against the virus (Ronald 560).

Crops can also be genetically modified to confer nutritional benefits.For instance, a plant called cassava, in addition to being made insect-resistant, has been modified to contain more nutrients, which should help to reduce malnutrition in tropical Africa, where it is a staple crop (Dizon R290).Rice has also undergone modification to improve nutritional value.Developing countries experience issues such as widespread vitamin A deficiency, which affects approximately 250 million children of preschool age per year, 250,000 to 500,000 of whom consequently develop blindness, and causes 1.9 to 2.

8 million deaths per year (Ronald 563; Dizon R290).In response to the problem, scientists have developed a variety of “golden rice,” which contains beta carotene, a “precursor to vitamin A.”If golden rice, which, according to the Journal of Food Science, is safe for human consumption, were to be introduced into poor countries where rice (naturally low in vitamin A) is a primary source of food, vitamin A deficiency could be significantly reduced (Dizon R290).Even first-world countries may benefit from crops genetically modified for increased nutritional value, because plants used to produce oil, such as soybeans, can be modified to contain healthier fats like omega-3s (Thompson 22-23). GM crops can also be higher-yielding than conventional crops, an improvement which may be made either through insect-resistance or through engineering which causes a plant to produce more food.

Another new type of rice, in development as of 2015, has been engineered to grow smaller roots and 43% more grain.This rice also has a much lower impact on the environment in terms of methane output (97% less) than conventional rice.While this type of rice is not yet available to farmers, present high-yielding crops already have a 22% higher output (for “soybeans, maize, and cotton”) than conventional crops (Gerry). It is not only plants, however, which have undergone genetic modification; scientists have also begun to modify animals used for food.A company called AquaBounty has developed the AquAdvantage salmon, an Atlantic salmon with Chinook salmon DNA inserted into its genome, which codes for growth hormones that cause the AquAdvantage salmon to grow at a faster rate than non-modified Atlantic salmon (Tharp 11; Hanson 14).Because the AquAdvantage salmon reach their mature size faster, they do not need to be kept alive as long, so they require less food (25% less, in fact) than non-modified salmon (Tharp 11).

But—GMOs, as we know, are controversial, and there are several reasons that the AquAdvantage salmon might not be quite such a wonderful innovation as it seems.To begin with, AquaBounty reports that their salmon have fewer “beneficial omega fats” than non-modified Atlantic salmon.Furthermore, the fish may actually pose threats to human health: they have a possible 40% increase (over regular salmon) in a growth hormone which raises one’s risk of developing some types of cancer; they also carry a higher risk of causing “acute allergic reaction[s].”Finally, the AquAdvantage salmon could harm the environment, possibly by spreading disease or by disrupting natural salmon’s patterns of behavior (Hanson 14-15). GMOs may also have harmful effects upon consumers.Although there are reports that humans may safely consume them, some people claim that these reports come strictly from biotechnology companies which want to capitalize on genetic engineering of food sources (Thompson 28).

These company reports supposedly shield the actual dangers of GMOs, which include “infertility, immune problems, accelerated aging, faulty insulin regulation, [and] changes in major organs and the gastrointestinal system,” according to the American Academy of Environmental Medicine (Merino 73).GMOs are also blamed for increasing allergies; after adoption of genetically modified soybeans, the UK saw a 50% increase in soy allergies (Merino 74.) While the sources citing this information are rather vague, a fairly recent study on GMOs in pigs provides more substantial evidence for the possible harmful effects of GMOs.One hundred sixty-eight pigs, divided into two groups of 84 and kept in normal piggery conditions, were fed diets consisting of either GM corn and soy or non-GM corn and soy for a period of 22.7 weeks, which is “the normal lifespan of a commercial pig from weaning to slaughter” (Carman 38).

At the end of the study, the pigs were accordingly slaughtered and analyzed.The researchers found that “severe stomach inflammation” was more common in pigs which had been fed the GM diet than in the control group which was fed the non-GM diet.Of the non-GM diet pigs, 5.6% of males and 18.9% of females experienced severe stomach inflammation, while of the GM diet pigs, 22.2% of males and 41.

7% of females experienced severe stomach inflammation (Carman 46).As pigs’ digestive systems are similar to those of humans, we must wonder whether a similar process happens in us after prolonged consumption of genetically modified food. Numerous organizations argue to the contrary.The biotechnology company Monsanto, of course, denies that GMOs are dangerous, claiming that they are considered safe by the American Medical Association, the U.

S. National Academy of Sciences, the World Health Organization, and the British Royal Society (Thompson 17, 19).By itself, and coming directly from Monsanto, this conclusion might look suspicious; however, UC Davis researcher Pamela Ronald also states, “After decades of careful study and peer review by thousands of independent scientists, every major scientific organization in the world has concluded that the genetically engineered crops on the market are safe to eat and that the process of genetic engineering is no more risky than older methods of genetic alteration.”She goes on to remind us that, “These are precisely the same organizations that most of us trust when it comes to other important scientific issues such as global climate change and the safety of vaccines” (Ronald 560). I do not suggest that we should all decide that GMOs are completely safe and leave the matter at that.

Nay, if there is any doubt—incurred by valid studies—that GMOs are safe, we should continue to research them.But we should not simply toss the technology in the trash, so to speak, because the benefits which it could have for society are vast, from helping us to reduce our dependence on pesticides to playing a role in feeding our enormous and ever-increasing population.