Tricounty News

Genetically modified foods

The big scare and the big myths

When people hear the term “genetically modified,” most associate it with negative health and environmental effects without fully understanding what it means. A lack of understanding about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) can create a fear of them. 

When an organism is genetically modified (GM), its DNA is altered through genetic engineering to allow it to become resistant to certain weeds, pests, or environmental conditions. Scientists and agriculturalists use genetically engineered (GE) crops to produce a higher grain yield, reduce the amount of labor and field maintenance costs, as well as help grow crops in poor environmental conditions.

The United States started using genetically modified foods in 1996, and since then 165 million acres of GE crops are produced each year. These GE foods have the potential to save the lives of people who would otherwise die of starvation or suffer from some type of deficiency. For example, in 1999, Professor Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer began working on Golden Rice, a type of rice that contains β-Carotene which is an organic compound that Vitamin A derives from. Vitamin A is an essential vitamin that children in developing countries do not get enough of when eating regular rice alone, which is a staple food item in much of the world. Vitamin A deficiency causes blindness, disease, and death for many of these children. Because of strong GMO opposition by activist groups such as the Organic Consumers Association, Potrykus and Beyer and other researchers have not been able to introduce Golden Rice in areas of the world where it is most needed.  

One fear is that GMOs are unsafe to eat, yet according to Greg Jaffe from The Atlantic, the FDA and the National Academy of Sciences never identified any health risks associated with eating GMOs.  In fact, 70 percent of the food found at most grocery stores contain at least one GM product. Consumers have been eating GM foods for several years without even knowing it. Some people fear that the DNA inserted into GM foods will be absorbed into their system and negatively affect them. In reality, the DNA inserted in GM foods ends up getting destroyed through the digestive process. 

Another concern is an activity known as gene escape and genetic pollution. For example, the GE canola produced in North Dakota is escaping farmers’ fields and moving into other places, such as road ditches. People worry that the GE canola will eventually choke out the native plants. While it may spread to new areas, like many plants do, Geoffrey Brumfiel from NPR explained that GE canola cannot survive where it has to compete with other plants. There is no evidence that canola is overtaking native plants, and being genetically modified does not give the canola a competitive edge over other plants. The only advantage given to the canola through GE is the resistance to two herbicides.

While many people see GMOs as being a hazard to the environment and human health, these foods are, in most cases, safe for consumption. With the human population continuing to grow, it is important for us to look at better ways of producing enough food to sustain our global population.