What does GMO mean? What are GMO foods and seeds? Why are GMOs so controversial, are they bad for human health? What are the definition and the pros and cons of GMOs? Let’s take a closer look at these questions.

Official Definition of (GM) Organisms and GM Foods

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), GMOs, i.e., genetically modified organisms can be defined as organisms (i.e. plants, animals or microorganisms) in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination.

GMO Simple Definition: What Are GMO Seeds?

Instead of being bred in a garden, GMO seeds are bred by biologic engineers who apply modern biotechnology techniques – often called “genetic engineering” in a lab. Thanks to recombinant DNA methodologies, individual genes can be selected and transferred from one organism to another and create a genetically modified organism (GMO) that wouldn’t have occurred in nature or via traditional crossbreeding methods. The engineered organisms produced by transferring genes between species are called transgenic.

What Are Non-GMO Seeds?

Most of the seeds we have today aren’t “original”. That’s right, their genetic has been modified over many years – only not in one of today’s labs using specific gene selection. Instead, traditional breeding techniques of observation, cross-breeding and trial and error attempts took place for decades and gave curious people like Mendell the title of The Father Of Genetics. This means that organisms whose specific traits are desirable have been chosen to breed subsequent generations, resulting in new organisms such as sweet corn.

Why Were GMOs Developed? What Are The Benefits Of GMO Seeds?

The reasons why (lab) GMOs were developed in the first place are:

  • They can increase the level of crop protection thanks by increasing plants’ resistance against diseases, viruses, and herbicides;
  • This increased protection can lead to higher crop yields which reduce the overall price per unit, decreasing the price of the food;
  • When there is a high weed pressure, GMO crops often don’t need so many pesticides to be applied;
  • GMOs seeds can better tolerate the presence of aluminum elements or the lack of fertilizers, higher salt concentrations, drought or frost conditions;
  • GMO seeds can speed up the growing process and harvesting, allowing more crop rotation;
  • Gene selection ensures the resulting plants have the desired characteristics such as enhanced nutrient composition, higher food quality, disease resistance…

Are GMO Foods Bad For Human Health? Are GMOs Dangerous Or Are They Safe?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), GMOs bring along 3 main issues of concern for human health: allergenicity, gene transfer and outcrossing.

  • Allergenicity: the reason why the transfer of genes from commonly allergenic organisms to non-allergic organisms is discouraged unless it can be demonstrated that the protein product of the transferred gene is not allergenic. According to the WHO, GM foods currently on the market have not been linked with allergic effects;
  • Gene transfer: refers to the possible gene transfer from GM foods to bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract or body cells with the potential to affect human health negatively. This is particularly worrying – though the WHO says the probability of transfer is low – if antibiotic resistance genes, used as markers when creating GMOs, were to be transferred. That’s why leaving antibiotic resistance genes is discouraged;
  • Outcrossing: happens when the genes from GM plants migrate into conventional crops or wild species (or the other way around). As a result, there may be indirect effects on food safety and food security. According to the WHO, there were reported cases of GM crops approved for animal feed or industrial were found at low levels in products for human consumption. Some countries have adopted policies to minimize this potential mix such as the separation of fields with GM and conventional crops.

Regarding whether or not GMOs are safe, it depends. Different organisms include different genes that are transferred using different methods. That’s why the safety of GM foods should be assessed case-by-case. Up to this date, due to the recency of GM foods and the absence of long-term feeding studies, the safety of genetically modified foods cannot be 100% assured.

According to Eric Sachs, a spokesperson for Monsanto quoted by Jennifer Ackerman from the National Geographic: “Transgenic products go through more testing than any of the other foods we eat. We screen for potential toxins and allergens. We monitor the levels of nutrients, proteins, and other components to see that transgenic plants are substantially equivalent to traditional plants”. According to Ackerman’s piece, most scientists agree the main safety issues of GM crops involve not people but the environment.

Are GMOs Bad For The Environment? Are GMOs Harming Ecosystems?

GMOs Have Increase The Use Of Herbicides

One of the environmental concerns of GMOs is that GM crops constantly getting herbicide are likely not only to increase the severity of resistant weeds but they also push for greater use of herbicides with potentially negative consequences for surrounding ecosystems and environmental quality (soil gets depleted, microorganisms get affected, if chemicals hit the water they can harm marine species). In fact, globally, glyphosate use has risen almost 15-fold since 1974 and in 2016 genetically engineered herbicide-tolerant crops accounted for ~56 % of global glyphosate use. This is the consequence of a large share of GM crops which has been engineered to be herbicide-tolerant, leading to an increase in the use of these herbicides.

Wildlife Gets Impacted By GM Crops

Once GMOs are introduced in the environment they cannot be recalled, which is potentially dangerous regarding issues such as outcrossing which may originate mutant bugs or plants that may interfere with food chains and the natural functioning of ecosystems. In this way, the effects of GM plants on nontarget organisms (which are not supposed to have contact with GMOs) can be dangerous and deadly, as a study from Cornell University pointed out with dying monarchs. Despite follow-up studies contesting the transfer of significant amounts pollen was very unlikely, the discussion around the effects of GMOs on wildlife was open.

At the same time, concerns also rise that insects that resist these crops multiply, leaving crops again exposed to super-resistant insects. Also worrying are transgenes that get to weeds and give them resistance to disease, insects and hard growing conditions – potentially giving them a competitive advantage over food crops.

GMOs and Climate Change Resilience

Moreover, sustainable agriculture and biodiversity benefit most from crop diversity. Under today’s changing weather caused by climate change, crop diversity increases the resilience and long term survival of the farming system since, in 50 seeds of the same species, some will adapt better to warmer climates than others. With fewer seeds, the odds of having climate-adaptable seeds get reduced. The worry is that one-size-fits-all seeds are causing the loss of multiple, natural (or crossed) seeds.

Are GMOs Sustainable? The Social Impact of GMOs

Genetically modified crops are a serious threat to farmer sovereignty as a small number of companies hold the patent of seeds. These reduced competition levels make it easier for those in the market to raise the price of seeds – which farmers need to buy every year since the harvested seeds were engineered in such a way that once replaced they won’t perform the same.

As we’ve seen, one of the benefits of GM seeds is that they can increase farmers’ yields by taking diseases and plagues out of the equation – thanks to the use of herbicides and pesticides. This is only possible because GM seeds are resistant to these synthetic chemicals which can, therefore, be used across croplands. The issue is that companies like Bayer (which holds Monsanto) sell both these seeds and the fertilizers (RoundUp – the famous one) farmers work with, leaving them submissive to the conditions these companies demand. As the costs rise, farmers’ earning shrink and they become in debt and contract debts…

The reason why farmers turn to GM seeds is also a consequence of many years of global market pressures to intensify agricultural practices, increase yields and focus on short-term investment returns. All this lead to soil degradation and increased farmers’ dependency on pesticides and synthetic fertilizers to stay productive. According to a piece published at the World Economic Forum, 25% of farming households in the UK live under the poverty line and in the US, half of the farms are losing money.

GMO: How Much Of Today’s Food Is Genetically Modified?

Most of the GM crops in international markets have been engineered to resist insect damage, viral infections and/or to tolerate certain herbicides. According to the Pew Research Center, in the United States, more than 90% of the soybeans, corn, cotton, and canola come from genetically engineered seeds and GM ingredients are widely used in processed foods: from corn chips and pizza to cooking oils, baking powder, breakfast cereals or ice cream. GM fishes, especially salmon, are also hitting the shelves soon, but it has long been fed with transgenic foods.

In a National Geographic piece, Jennifer Ackerman says potatoes have been genetically modified to resist fungus by being transferred genes from bees and moth while grapevines have been transferred silkworm genes.

Public Perception About GMOs: How Americans See GMOs

According to an extensive public opinion study conducted by the Pew Research Center:

  • Nearly half of Americans say the health benefits of GM foods are the same compared to non-GM foods;
  • Those who have heard/read significantly about GM foods are more likely to say that they eat mostly GM ingredients whereas those who heard nothing about the topic estimate most of they eat was not genetically modified;
  • Adult Americans tend to consider the risk of eating GM foods to be either medium or high rather than low;
  • Americans with food allergies are slightly more inclined to care about the issue of GM foods (22% care a great deal compared with 14% among those with no allergies or intolerances to food);
  • Women are more likely to care a great deal about the GM foods issue than men (20% vs. 12%);
  • Those more concerned with GM foods are far more likely to foresee environmental and health problems they might cause
  • People with high scientific knowledge are more likely to consider the wider benefits around GM foods.
[Photo by Jesse Gardner on Unsplash]