Genetically modified organisms are either deified or vilified, depending on who you are and what your goals are. Opponents of genetically modified organisms point to health concerns and the decimation of crop and animal diversity, which puts us at risk of starvation should some killer disease or act of God wipe out much of our heavily cultivated food stocks.
Proponents, on the other hand, claim that only with GMO crops that take to monoculture and can resist poisonous herbicides and pesticides can we possibly feed the world. They consistently point to research that finds no health concerns: “In the decades since the first genetically modified foods reached the market, no adverse health effects among consumers have been found. This is not to say there are none, but as hard as opponents of the technology have looked, none have yet been definitely identified.” (1)
What’s a consumer to do? On the one hand, many reputable scientists and politicians work hard to make a strong case for GMO. On the other hand, countries around the world are standing up and declaring GMO unnatural, unsafe and straight-up illegal. So while it’s true that the arguments for an against genetically modified organisms are not as simple as “natural is better,” we do need to look a little deeper at whether we ought to support this technology.
Of course, that’s difficult to do if one doesn’t know all the facts. Without further ado, here are eight of the craziest facts about genetically modified foods.
Your Tomato May Have a Fish in It
Start with the basics: a genetically modified organism, according to Encyclopedia Britannica, is an “organism whose genome has been engineered in the laboratory in order to favor the expression of desired physiological traits or the production of desired biological products.” (2)
While the GMO gods would have you believe that we’ve been doing this for thousands of years, selecting the favorable characteristics of one tomato over another, one chicken over another, one dog breed over one another … that’s a little misleading.
Why? Because genetic modification is a much more specific process, says Britannica, in which “recombinant genetic technologies are employed to produce organisms whose genomes have been precisely altered at the molecular level, usually by the inclusion of genes from unrelated species of organisms that code for traits that would not be obtained easily through conventional selective breeding.”
What does that mean? That your friendly neighborhood farmer (er, lab scientist) is no longer planting the seeds of one tomato versus another. Now they’re removing the fish from a cold-water fish and splicing it into a tomato to make it grow more hardily in the winter. A tomato with a fish in it, most would agree, has sailed right past natural and on into crazy territory.
Many Countries Have Outright Bans on GMO Foods
GMO foods have received such attention that many countries now ban them outright. According to some estimates, dozens of countries now have significant restrictions against GMO, and some don’t allow their growth at all. (3)
GMOs Taint Other Crops
It’s an immutable fact that crops grown outdoors, in fields, abutting other fields, will cross-pollinate. That means the traits from one crop will float on the wind to another in the form of pollen, fertilize the organism and produce a seed that now contains the characteristics of both fields. The problem is, the GMO characteristics aren’t desirable to those who grow heritage crops.
The bigger problem is, there are always more seeds where the GMOs came from, because they were produced in a lab. There aren’t always more where the heritage crop came from, because they have to be grown naturally, with seeds saved year after year. Bottom line: Crops pollinate one another, we can’t control it, and we’re losing crop diversity.
That’s a major issue, because if all we have are those large GMO organisms and some killer disease wipes them all out, we no longer have heritage crops with which to protect future generations against starvation and shortage.
GMO Foods Often Hide in Plain Sight
Naturally Savvy points out that GMO lurks in many more products than you might think. “While data is unclear due to the lack of labeling laws, experts estimate that 70-80 percent of all processed foods sold in the U.S. contain genetically modified ingredients,” they report. Not only that, but “GMOs aren’t just in your food. They’re in the personal care products you use, the supplements you take, the cotton sheets and towels you use, the clothes you wear and the diapers you use on your children.” (4)
The Health Concerns Don’t Come from the GENES
This is a very important point, and one that most GMO proponents miss when they’re busy touting assertions like the one quoted above, that “no adverse health effects among consumers have been found” or at least, “none have yet been definitely identified.”
That’s all well and good, but it completely ignores the fact that there exists an entire complex of agricultural infrastructure needed to support GMO – and that this complex is neither natural nor healthy. Monoculture, or the growth of massive, uniform swaths of crops, creates problems. It breeds weeds, pests and fungi, which farmers are forced to combat with chemicals such as glyphosate, which was proven 10 years ago toxic and potentially deadly to humans. (5)
Plus, it motivates diseases and fungus to adapt to greater and greater levels of toxicity. If farmers keep going this route, then one day a bacteria or fungus might evolve against which we have no defense: a superbug that could take out most or all of the crops on which humanity relies.
Soybeans Are King
A full 51 percent of the land devoted to growing GMO crops is dominated by soybeans. (6) Obviously, humans don’t consume that many soybeans in their whole form. One can only consume so much edamame and tofu, so where is the rest of it going? Much of it ends up as emulsifiers or additives to other foods that have nothing to do with soy, as anyone who has ever read the ingredients of a packaged cracker will know.
Some Foods Only Remain Edible Because of GMO
The human insistence on eating any and all desired foods has resulted in a massive reliance on GMO. As farmers grow single cultivars of a species, they encourage fungus and bacteria, which they must then combat with chemicals. For instance, 90 percent of papaya in the U.S. and 100 percent of it in Hawaii is a genetically engineered version designed to withstand the ringspot virus. (7)
Even GMO Foods with Specific Goals Don’t Accomplish Them
Here’s a fact that might surprise you about the first genetically modified food in the United States. According to USA Today, “The first in the United States was the Flavr Savr tomato in 1994. It did not sell well because it didn’t taste any better than other tomatoes.” (8) This fact is both sad and amusing. Sad because companies spend so much time and money to produce products that don’t offer greater benefits to consumers. Funny because after all that time, they couldn’t improve on nature.
That’s perhaps all one needs to know about whether or not GMO foods are worth it: They often don’t achieve their goals, and in the meantime, they’re busy creating superbugs and decimating biological diversity. If that’s not crazy, then what is?
- (1) Are G.M.O. Foods Safe? (2018). Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/23/well/eat/are-gmo-foods-safe.html
- (2) Genetically Modified Organism. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/science/genetically-modified-organism
- (3) Where Are GMOs Grown and Banned? (2016). Retrieved from https://gmo.geneticliteracyproject.org/FAQ/where-are-gmos-grown-and-banned/
- (4) 6 Surprising Facts About GMOs. (2018). Retrieved from http://naturallysavvy.com/eat/6-surprising-facts-about-gmos
- (5) Weed-Whacking Herbicide Proves Deadly to Human Cells. (2009). Retrieved from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/weed-whacking-herbicide-p/
- (6) Where Are GMOs Grown and Banned? (2016). Retrieved from https://gmo.geneticliteracyproject.org/FAQ/where-are-gmos-grown-and-banned/
- (7) Genetically Engineered Foods Q & A. (2012). Retrieved from https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2012/10/28/gmo-questions/1658225/
- (8) Genetically Engineered Foods Q & A. (2012). Retrieved from https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2012/10/28/gmo-questions/1658225/