contributed by Pam Higley
I’ve decided that I’m not up-to-date with current issues because until 2 weeks ago, I had never heard of GM foods or GMO’s. After hearing about it, I decided to do some research. There is a lot of information available about it but I felt like some of it was difficult to understand. Here is what I got from it: the term GM foods or GMO’s (genetically-modified organisms) is most commonly used to refer to crop plants created for human or animal consumption using the latest molecular biology techniques. These plants have been modified in the laboratory to enhance desired traits such as increased resistance to herbicides or improved nutritional content. This kind of genetic engineering can create plants with the exact desired trait very rapidly and with great accuracy.
Primary Advantages of GMOs
The world population is over 7 billion people and is predicted to double in the next 50 years. Having an adequate food supply for this many people is going to be a major challenge in the years to come. Those who are in favor of GMO’s say that they can help with this problem in a number of ways:
*Pest resistance. It is estimated that 30% of crops are lost due to insect pests. Farmers typically use many tons of chemical pesticides annually. Consumers do not wish to eat food that has been treated with pesticides because of potential health hazards. Also the run-off from these pesticides can poison the water supply and cause harm to the environment.
*Herbicide tolerance. For some crops, it is not cost-effective to remove weeds by physical means such as tilling, so farmers will often spray large quantities of different herbicides to destroy weeds. It is a time-consuming and expensive process that requires care so that the herbicide doesn’t harm the crop plant or the environment. GMOs could help prevent the amount of herbicides needed.
*Disease resistance. There are many viruses, fungi and bacteria that cause plant diseases. Genetically- engineered resistance to these diseases would mean more food.
*Cold tolerance. Unexpected frost can destroy sensitive seedlings.
*Drought tolerance/salinity tolerance. As the world population grows and more land is utilized for housing instead of food production, farmers will need to grow crops in locations previously unsuited for plant cultivation. Creating plants that can withstand long periods of drought or high salt content in soil and groundwater will help people to grow crops in formerly inhospitable places.
*Nutrition. Malnutrition is common in third world countries where impoverished people rely on a single crop such as rice for the main staple of their diet. However, rice does not contain adequate amounts of all necessary nutrients to prevent malnutrition. If rice could be genetically engineered to contain additional vitamins and minerals, nutrient deficiencies could be alleviated.
Primary Disadvantages of GMOs
Environmental activists, public interest groups, professional associations and others have all raised concerns about GM foods. Most of these concerns fall into two categories: environmental hazards and human health risks.
*Unintended harm to other organisms. There is a fear that if pollen from a GM plant is blown by the wind to neighboring plants, any organism could eat the plant and be adversely affected. Also, foods that are raised using 100% organic materials and practices may still have accidentally been cross-pollinated with GM crops from neighboring fields.
*Reduced effectiveness of pesticides and herbicides. If some pests and weeds have mutations that allow them to survive in the presence of these powerful chemicals, then those pests and weeds will give rise to a new generation of chemical-resistant offspring making the pesticides and herbicides useless.
*Gene transfer to non-target species. This concern is that GM plants will cross-breed with weeds producing a “superweed” that are herbicide tolerant or GM plants could interbreed with non-modified plants next to GM crops.
Human Health Risks
*Allergenicity. There is a possibility that introducing a gene into a plant may create a new allergen or cause an allergic reaction in susceptible individuals. In the United States, GM foods can be put on the market without being tested for potential allergens.
*Unknown effects on human health. There is a growing concern that introducing foreign genes into food plants may have an unexpected and negative impact on human health. GM foods do not have to be labeled in the U.S., so we probably ingest GM foods daily without even knowing it. Right now approximately 90% of soy and corn used in the U.S. are genetically-modified. GM foods were first put on the market in 1994. Since then, the amounts being used have significantly increased and most of us aren’t even aware of it.
So what do we do about this? With so many criticisms and advantages, it’s evident why there is so much debate, and this debate is not going to end any time soon. Some people choose to shop in the organic aisle at the supermarket because they fear GM foods, while others rave about the many accomplishments that scientists are making. I feel we all need to take the time to become educated about GMOs and then make a decision that is right for ourselves and our families.