There’s a lot of debate around whether GMOs are good or bad for our bodies and our ecosystems.GMO is an acronym for Genetically Modified Organisms, which, for a lot of us, conjures up negative associations. But answers to seemingly simple questions like “are they safe to eat?” and “are they harmful to the planet?,” are complex. Here, we dig into some of the research: the pros, the cons and everything in between. What are the dangers of GMOs? Read on to learn more.
What Are GMOs?
Genes, which determine the characteristics of living organisms, are made up of DNA. Modifying an organism’s genes, then, means altering its DNA. As Purdue University’s College of Agriculture explains,
“GMOs are living beings that have had their genetic code changed in some way. While conventional breeding, which has been going on for centuries, involves mixing all of the genes from two different sources, producing a GMO is much more targeted. Rather than crossing two plants out in the field, they insert a gene or two into individual cells in a lab.”
This process is called recombination. Once the new gene is inserted into bacterial DNA, the cultured bacteria grows new plant cells with its new genetic building blocks.
A diagram from UC Davis that briefly outlines the history of GMOs:
A Brief History
Cross-breeding has long been a part of agricultural practices. But it was in 1953 that scientists discovered the structure of DNA and, by 1973, biochemists were inserting DNA into bacteria to change their genetic outcomes. In the 1990s, the first generation of GMO produce became commercially available in the United States. These crops were developed to help farmers prevent crop loss from insects, herbicides and resistance to plant viruses.
In 1994, a GMO tomato was the first GMO produce to hit the market, followed by summer squash, soybeans, cotton, corn, papayas and potatoes. The FDA met this innovation with policies mandating that GMO plants must meet the same requirements and safety standards as traditionally-bred plants. The World Health Organization (WHO) soon followed suit and introduced their GMO-related safety standards in 2003. More recently, salmon became the first genetically modified animal produced for human consumption.
In the face of a growing cultural outcry against the safety of GMOs, one study from Harvard University aggregated years of research and concluded that GMOs are not harmful when ingested by humans. According to one of the report’s authors, then-Ph.D. candidate Megan L. Norris, “many different types of modifications in various crops have been tested, and the studies have found no evidence that GMOs cause organ toxicity or other adverse health effects.”
The downsides Of GMOs
Although the current scientific consensus around GMOs has found them safe for human consumption, there may be reasons to avoid them in your diet. One reason is the lack of long-term research: although the American Cancer Society (ACS) currently says there is no evidence to link between GMOs and an increased risk of cancer, studies have yet to test humans. Additionally, consumers may choose to skip GMOs due to potential allergies or toxic reactions—though these are rare.
GMOs may be harmful to the environment
Another concern surrounding GMOs is regarding the potential environmental ramifications of GMO products for the environment. A Forbes article explains that the primary use of genetically modified crops is to resist Roundup, a pesticide that has been blamed for soil degradation and declining bee populations. Therefore, while the GMO crops themselves not seem to harm its environmental ecology, through unintended consequences they could be contributing to negative environmental impacts. In order to save the environment, some researchers and agriculture experts are rethinking GMOs.
Not using pesticides on farming and produce can also help save species that are facing extinction, like the imperiled bees.
The upside of GMOs
Based on existing research, GMOs do have their benefits—even, in some cases, for the environment. An article from Colorado State University’s extension program outlines ways that genetic engineering—gene splicing in particular, where one plant’s genetic traits are inserted into another’s DNA—could help farming become more efficient and sustainable.
Some GMOs are also developed to directly combat food shortages. In some cases, geneticists have produced disease- and drought-tolerant plants, whose survival were previously only possible with harmful chemical fertilizers and heavy water use.
Proponents of the use of GMOs believe that, with adequate research, these organisms can be safely commercialized and incredibly beneficial. There are countless experimental variations for expression and control of engineered genes that can be applied to minimize potential risks.
Improving the quality of GMOs
Some argue that GMOs lead to a better-tasting product with a longer shelf life. Modified plants can also make crops more resistant to pests and fungi without needing pesticides.
Crops are also being modified to perform phytoremediation—the use of plants to clean up contaminated air, soil and water—to improve quality. According to the Colorado State University report, these types of plants can actually “extract and concentrate contaminants like heavy metals from polluted sites.”
The complexity of GMOs
GMOs aren’t monoliths; each product deserves its own evaluation. Factors to consider include nutritional value and the environmental impact of growing that particular product. Some GMOs can be beneficial when the techniques are approached responsibly. Still other products, such as those from farms with outsized acreage, or crops that have pushed other types of crops out, may not be worth the risk. Over a decade ago, the environmental biologist Theresa Phillips wrote, “the full potential of GMOs cannot be realized without due diligence and thorough attention to the risks associated with each new GMO on a case-by-case basis.”
For a deeper dive, a 2015 TED talk by plant pathologist and geneticist Pamela Ronald explains how, in some cases, GMO crops can be used for positive ecological purposes.
Pamela Ronald: The case for engineering our food
- What are your thoughts on using GMOs to create crops that require fewer or no pesticides?
- If you could choose any genetic trait for a plant, what would it be and why?
- Do you support cultivation of GMO crops?
- Yes, in certain cases
- I feel there needs to be more research
- GMO is an acronym for Genetically Modified Organisms, which, for a lot of us, conjures up negative associations. But answers to seemingly simple questions like “are they safe to eat?” and “are they harmful to the planet?,” are complex.
- GMOs can be a part of practices that harm the environment, but not always. In fact, in some cases GMOs are being leveraged in a way that benefits the environment as well. An article from Colorado State University’s extension outlines ways that genetic engineering—gene splicing in particular, where one plant’s genetic traits are inserted into another’s DNA—could help farming become more efficient and sustainable.
- In making decisions around our consumption of GMOs, understanding both their benefits and drawbacks—from nutritional value and accessibility to potential impacts on health and the environment—is important. Some GMOs can be beneficial; some plants have been modified, for example, to resist disease and drought, allowing them to ease food shortages in vulnerable landscapes.