GMO's: The Good, the Bad, the Truth

You have been hearing and seeing it everywhere: Contains No GMOs. But what does that really mean? Are GMOs really that bad for us? Can they really be found in many everyday foods that one buys at the grocery store? You wanted the low-down on GMO, so here it is!

 

What is a GMO?

A GMO is a “genetically modified organism”, which is a plant or an animal that has been genetically engineered with DNA from bacteria, viruses or other plants and animals. These combinations of genes cannot be found in natural crossbreeding or found in nature.

 

Why Do We Use GMOs?

Its all about production. GMOs are capable of withstanding herbicide and insecticides, so that even with the use of these chemicals, the final product (what we consume) will not be lost. In simpler terms, the chemicals that kill weeds and bugs wont kill crops. If the crop can still be harvested, then it can be sold in stores, thus making it more profitable for the corporate farmer. Farmers will have a higher yield at the end of day with the use of GMOs.

The initial idea behind GMOs was for protection against diseases that were transmitted from insects to the crop, and the way in which farmers achieve this is through insect, virus, and bacteria resistant genes.

 

What Makes These Plants Insect and Bacteria Resistant?

Insect resistance is achieved by giving the plants a gene for toxin production from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (BT). This particular toxin is currently used as an insecticide in agriculture and is safe for human consumption, but this in of itself is controversial. It is considered toxic to insects, thus not something that one should consume.

Plants are virus resistant through the introduction of a gene from certain viruses which cause disease in plants, similar to a flu vaccine, which is a small amount of the flu to make your body resistant to the strain.  Making plants immune to certain viruses results in higher crop yields.

Herbicide tolerance is achieved through the introduction of a gene from a bacterium which is resistant to some herbicides so that in areas where there is high weed growth, farmers can use this bacteria to kill off all of the weeds, which stuck the nutrients from the plant. This also results in higher crop yields, once again the bottom line.

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What Are the Potential Risks of Consumption of GMOs to Our Health?

There are two main concerns with the use of GMOs. The first being gene transfer. The transfer of genes from genetically modified foods to cells of the body or to bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract would cause concern if the transferred genetic material has adverse affects on human health. This is relevant if antibiotic resistant genes which were used in creating GMOs were transferred. Although the probability of transfer is low, the potential is there. Why is this such as big deal you wonder? If certain plants transfer their antibiotic resistance to humans, then traditional antibiotics would no longer be effective as treating illnesses in humans.

The second concern is outcrossing. Outcrossing is the movement of genes from genetically modified plants into conventional crops or related species in the wild. It is also the mixing of crops derived from conventional seeds with those grown using genetically modified ones. This may have an indirect effect on food safety and food security. This risk is real. An example of “outcrossing” happened in the United States when traces of a maize product which, was only approved for animal feed use, appeared in maize products specific for human consumption. Several countries have adopted strategies to reduce this gene mixing, some strategies include a clear separation of the fields within which genetically modified crops and conventional crops are grown. Nothing is perfect though, there is still a serious risk of cross-contamination.

 

Is There An Environmental Concern With Using GMOs?

One of the issues that are concerning with the use of GMOs is the capability of the GMO to escape and potentially introduce the engineered genes into wild populations of plants. Another issue is the persistence of the gene after the GMO has been harvested, you don’t still want those nasty pesticide genes still lingering in your food do you!? One of the bigger issues with GMOs is the susceptibility of non-target organisms (e.g. insects which are not pests) to the gene product, think of what is happening to the honeybee. That insect is not a pest unless it stings you, but they are being killed off.

 

Are GM Foods Safe to Eat?

Unfortunately it is not possible to make a blanket statement about whether ALL GM foods are safe to consume. Each food items should be assessed on a case-by-case basis according to The World Health Organization. Foods that have passed inspection and all risk assessment are considered “safe” to eat.

 

Are All GMO Foods Labeled?

The American federal government does not require foods that contain GMOs to be labeled as such. However, in the US if you purchase foods that are certified to the USDA National Organic Standards, they will be GMO free. Also, if you purchase foods that are labeled as “Non-GMO” those are also certified to be free of any GMOs.

 

What’s the Bottom Line?

The bottom line is GMO foods, which have passed food safety inspections are considered “safe” to eat. Whether or not you should eat these foods is a personal decision. Some questions you can ask yourself the next time you're buying groceries are:

  • Can you afford the extra cost of purchasing Non-GMO products?
  • Is the human health concern enough to consume Non-GMO foods?
  • Is the environmental impact of GMOs big enough to warrant a change in eating habits?

If you find yourself answering yes to these questions, you should be eating organic, Non-GMO foods.

Images via: @majolayzo, @kanaharu_1230