First, let’s start off with what a GMO actually is. GMO stands for Genetically Modified Organism. This can be anything from potatoes to a mouse. For something to be considered genetically modified, there has to be some level of genetic engineering that alters the genotype of an organism. The most common way to do this is with crops using selective breeding or with work in a lab. Often, they’ll create strains of corn or wheat that are more drought resistant, better at fending off insects, or tthat have higher yields. However, there are stringent restrictions on how things are allowed to be modified and there is a premium placed on the safety of consuming any GMOs so that there aren't any adverse health effects to humans or animals.
So let’s get down to it. When you see that little sticker on your produce, should you be worried? Are there any health risks? What about the impact having GMOs may have on the environment?
Well, one of those answers is pretty straight forward. Genetically modified food, while controversial in the media, has not been found to be hazardous to our health and there is no indication that there needs to be any direct restrictions on genetically modified foods (Tratsakis, et al., 2017). The main concern would be that by slightly altering the genetic makeup of crops like rice, soybean, or wheat, the expressed proteins may be marginally different and perhaps toxic to consumption (Tratsakis, et al., 2017). However it has been found that genetically modified food has no hazardous effects compared to non-genetically modified foods (Tratsakis, et al., 2017). So eat away -- you're totally safe to eat any genetically modified foods at your local super market.
The impact on the environment, however, can be a little bit more complex. Genetic modification can be thought of as similar to breeding plants or animals for certain traits – something humans have done for thousands of years. While breeding takes multiple generations to eliminate the undesirable traits or enhance the desired traits (like more ears of corn per stalk or reducing malformed apples), genetic modification in a lab bypasses that process and creates the organism as a final product without slowly bleeding out or enhancing the traits (Tratsakis, et al., 2017). While this may be going into the scientific weeds a little bit, an issue with creating a “super” crop like this can be that there are unintended consequences on the ecosystem health by impacting natural gene flow (a process that helps species have genetic variation and be healthier overall), diminishing genetic diversity in each crop, and impacting the soil and water chemistry where they are planted (Tratsakis, et al., 2017). While scientists fight to avoid these things, sometimes they are unavoidable. Despite the risks, there are big potential benefits of having genetically modified crops. Genetically modified foods have drastically higher yields (less crops that go bad, larger fruit, etc.) which can feed more people, for cheaper (Tratsakis, et al., 2017). They can also reduce the need for pesticides and soil contamination if the species of crop is bread to resist certain insects or diseases (Tratsakis, et al., 2017). Again, for every positive, there can be a negative though. Just like human diseases and infections, there can also be weed herbicide resistant strains that develop because of the cultivation of the genetically modified organisms (Tratsakis, et al., 2017). While there are some negatives associated with GMOs, there is a definite cost-benefit analysis that we all need to do as individual people. Is the potential for feeding more people, creating higher yields, and reducing food costs worth the resulting potential for soil and ecosystem damage where crops are planted? That's up to each individual person to decide.
As a summary, there’s no evidence that genetically modified foods pose any risk to humans when consumed. So if it’s a little cheaper than the organic version and you want to save some money, go ahead and buy it – you won’t get sick or subject yourself to any adverse health effects because of it. However, the long-term ecological and environmental impacts of genetically modified foods is more complex. On one hand, they can damage biodiversity, create insects and plants that are resistant to pesticides, and damage food webs. On the other, they drastically increase yields, reduce the price of food, and can incredibly useful for feeding communities in extreme locations with intense heat or places without much water. We have the technology to be able to breed plants to demand less water, tolerate heat, and feed communities, but there is also potential damage that comes with it. Regardless, it’s good to be informed when selecting your food and now you know the potential impacts of buying GMOs.
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Tratsakis, A., Nawaz, M., Tutelyan, V., Golokhvast, S., Kalantzi, O., Chung, D., Chung, G. (2017). Impact on environment, ecosystem, diversity and health from culturing and using GMOs as feed and food. Food and Chemical Toxicology, 108-121.