Genetically modified organisms (GMOs), particularly genetically modified crops, have been getting a lot of attention in the news recently. Unfortunately, several people have some pretty tangled-up misconceptions about their use. Here we weed through five of the major ones.
1. Genetically altered foods are a new thing
While a genetically modified organism is one that has undergone ‘genetic engineering,’ humans have been deliberately manipulating plant genes for over 10,000 years. Selective breeding has transformed the way we think about food. Almost every commercially sold fruit or vegetable would be considered a distinct genetic anomaly compared to its original forebear. For example, before human influence, corn grew to a full length of 2 inches and contained about 10 hard kernels –modern corn is almost 1000 times bigger!
2. Non-GMO food is completely safe
Many maladies have been traced back to the contamination of non-GMO food with natural toxins (this includes ‘organically grown’). Homogeneous crops grown at high density and cultivated in the absence of pesticides are susceptible to harmful fungi, bacteria and insects. Some of these organisms, or the molecules they produce, may be toxic to humans if ingested. Many proposed genetic modifications seek to eliminate this vulnerability; thereby phasing out the use of notoriously harmful pesticides. That is not to say that there are no potential risks with GMO food, but it is important to acknowledge that these issues are omnipresent.
3. The release of GMOs spells almost certain doom for the environment
This is a valid concern and it is actually something that researchers have been thinking about ever since the dawn of genetic engineering. There is little doubt that the careless introduction of a GMOs can have potentially severe downstream effects on the environment. However, cautious introduction of GMOs has been documented in several detailed studies, and the results have been encouraging. A recent long term study on genetically modified wheat has shown that the genetically modified organisms have thrived in two separate locations without detrimental effects on the surrounding environment. Furthermore, no harmful effects on pollinators (e.g. Honeybees) have been linked to GMOs.
4. GMOs often contain and produce things that can harm humans
There are some very real concerns concerning GMO safety, which must be closely monitored. Namely, how a genetic modification will affect the level of potentially hazardous metabolites and proteins that may be present in the crop. International safety standards must be met before a GMO is released (unfortunately this is complicated by a lack of common ground). Nevertheless, no instances of severe allergies, cancer, or viral infections have been correlated with any widely distributed GMO. It is also important to keep in mind that the genetic modifications made to the plant have no way of manifesting themselves into a human genome.
5. The use of GMOs will solve all our hunger problems
The ability to genetically modify food is a remarkable technology that offers the promise to save millions of lives if properly managed. It may even be used to mitigate global warming. However, it is far from a cure-all. There is nothing natural about any single primate species exceeding a population of 7 billion, but the human population is here to stay – and likely increase. We must therefore be conscious of our presence here on earth, and with the help of technology, look for long term solutions which will enable feasible and ethically-sound sustainability.