by Emma Folkerts ‘20
Food sourcing and sustainability are hot button issues in a world of Whole Foods, kale chips and organic everything. The general populace has taken a greater interest in the content of their food and how it’s grown, especially due to concerns about a growing population, environmental damage, and farming corporations. GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, are at the forefront of the debate, with heated arguments on both sides. Bill Nye of Science Guy fame was recently attacked for changing his stance on GMOs to a more positive outlook. According to the Washington Post, Nye visited agricultural science giant Monsanto and reported, “I spent a lot of time with the scientists there, and I have revised my outlook, and I’m very excited about telling the world.” However, many scientists lashed out, including plant scientist Kevin Folta of University of Florida, who rebuked, “Your logic and reasoning match the fallacies of climate and evolution deniers, the people you correctly criticize.” So how should we, as informed citizens, judge whether our food should be modified by engineers or not? First we’ll illustrate how GMOs are produced, then analyze the pros and cons of genetically engineered food.
According to the World Health Organization, GMO’s are 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.” GMOs differ from the natural cross-breeding that humans use because instead of taking two plants and letting them create a new plant with unpredictable characteristics, scientists select a segment of DNA with a desirable trait and artificially inject it into the plant’s original DNA strand. Two ways a DNA segment can be inserted into a DNA strand are through a gene gun or bacteria. Gene guns take the DNA segment and literally fire it into the organism so that it melds into the organism’s original DNA. The more recent method is by using bacteria already containing the desirable trait to infect the organism and transfer its DNA.
How does this process affect us when we consume genetically modified food? Well, the problem is that we’re not sure. GMOs are a relatively new development and not much is known is about their long term effects. Dr. A.S. Bawa and Dr. K.R. Anilakumar, a kidney specialist and a nutritional specialist from University of Mysore in India, published results of testing on different GMOs: mainly corn, soybeans, potatoes, rice, cotton, and peas. All six of these organisms provided no solid data on their effects. Most produced no ill effects on the rats that were consuming the food, however the setup of the experiments was less than optimal. First, rats are already prone to tumors, meaning diet is not necessarily a good indicator of malignancy. Second, the factors around these experiments still have many variables that must be tested, including antibiotic resistance and toxicity.
However, there are recorded benefits about GMOs, mainly pesticide resistance and increased nutritional value. According to GMOAnswers, desirable traits in crops can include insect resistance, drought resistance, and disease resistance. All these traits make farming more efficient and productive. Natural pest resistance decreases the need for pesticide application and can reduce costs for farmers. Drought resistance benefits farmers in water-scarce areas and prevents famine in rural areas. Disease resistance creates stronger plants and also prevents a mass loss of crops. Increased nutritional value is the most important of the GMO qualities. The most famous GMO that contains nutritional value may be Golden Rice. The Golden Rice Project was an endeavor in the early 2000’s to address the problem of vitamin A deficiency in the rural Asian population, which killed millions of children under the age of five. White rice, a staple of Asian food, was genetically engineered to contain beta-carotene, the chemical that makes carrots orange and a necessary chemical for the human body to create vitamin A. With this GMO, many people living in poverty could consume the vitamin A their bodies needed.
With the lack of evidence of GMOs’ harm and an abundance of benefits for the world population, GMOs are good, right? Well, not so fast. The negative effects of chemicals aren’t discovered until much, much after their introduction. An example is the insecticide, DDT. It wasn’t till 20 years after DDT’s introduction to agriculture in the 1940’s that scientist Rachel Carson published her book Silent Spring, outlining DDT’s harm on the environment. We are the test subjects for GMOs, the question is, are we willing to participate?