What are GMOs and GM Foods?
Genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, are organisms whose DNA has been modified using molecular genetic biology techniques (recombinant DNA technology). The term is most commonly applied to genetically altered crops used for human and livestock consumption Genes are altered to increase a species’ desirable characteristics such as higher yields or resistance to drought or disease. Traditionally, humans have altered crop genes by selective cross-breeding. Plants with wanted traits are chosen for breeding to produce offspring with superior qualities.. This science is responsible for the existence of many of our current crops such as bananas and corn. This practice is very inefficient and time consuming, as it is based largely on luck. Recombinant DNA technology however allows scientists to directly insert the desired genes into an organism, thus removing the guesswork, thereby efficiently creating strains of crops very similar to what traditional cross-breeding would have accomplished.
The benefits of GM foods over traditional foods are numerous. Around 74% of GM crops are modified for herbicide tolerance. This means that farmers are able to use herbicides to kill weeds and increase yields, without using more energy intensive practices such as tilling. Another 19% of GM crops are modified for pest resistance.
In essence, the plants will have a built in resistance to pest insects and so the use of insecticides is not necessary to achieve a productive harvest. GM plants are being developed to resist plant diseases and also unfavorable environmental conditions such as cold, drought, and salinity. Work has also been done to create GM crops that have higher nutritional content, such as the “golden” rice created at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Institute for Plant Sciences, which contains high levels of Vitamin A.  Overall, this technology reduces environmental impact by increasing the efficiency of crop production. With a burgeoning population and less available arable land, increasing the efficiency per hectare of crop land is extremely important if food production is to keep up with population growth. GM foods will allow us to do this while decreasing the amount of inputs needed that strain the environment; this includes arable land use, tilling, insecticide production and use, and the increased effort (in terms of energy) that producing food in generally inefficient manners require.
|Source: BazzaDaRambler, Attribution: CC BY, via Wikimedia Commons|
There is a large amount of controversy
Another environmental concern commonly associated with GM crops is that they are “wedded” to fossil fuels. One group claims “Herbicide resistance (of GM crops) is of no real benefit unless your farm is too vast to weed mechanically.”  This is an interesting statement because it claims an environmental benefit of mechanical tilling over herbicide use. While heavy use of herbicides is no doubt detrimental to the environment, mechanical tilling is undeniably what is “wedded” to fossil fuels. In 2006 it is estimated that 14.76 billion kilos of CO2 emissions were prevented by the use of GM crops. This can be attributed not only to less mechanical tilling but also less fuel used in spraying pesticides on crops. In addition, it can be noted that GM food production from 1996 to 2006 resulted in a 15.47% reduction in pesticide use. Clearly, GM foods, even in their early stages of development, are not as disastrous to the environment as some would claim.
Besides these environmental concerns, anti-GMO groups are very adamant about the human health risks GMO foods pose. One issue is that GM foods will create risks to those with allergies. In one example, a seed company modified soybean DNA to include two amino acids from a brazil nut, to make it more nutritious as livestock feed. Human testing revealed the presence of these amino acids in blood; that is, people allergic to Brazil nuts could have reactions to what they thought was a harmless soybean.  This certainly is an important issue that must be considered when designing new GM crops; for these reasons of safety GM foods will most likely have to undergo testing, as in this case, and food labeling must become more stringent.  The second and most important health problem debated is the general unknown health risks to humans. As a relatively new technology, there are no long-term studies proving that consumption of GM foods carry no risk to the well-being of humans. Author Denise Caruso sums up the argument: “No one person or group knows or understands enough about the complexity of living things or their intimate interactions or what affects them to declare that biotechnology and genetic engineering are risk-free.”  This statement is undoubtedly true but is also true of almost all new technologies. Vaccines, for example, an even older technology, are still being criticized by some as a public health risk. This is despite the fact that there is no evidence based research to indicate that any child has developed autism or any other health problems as a result of a vaccination. This impression of harm persists despite the fact that vaccinations have saved millions of humans from the horrors of deadly diseases such as cholera, yellow fever, tuberculosis, polio, small pox, and mumps.  The situation for GM foods is comparable. Over the past 30 years there is no evidence of anyone being harmed the consumption of GM foods and the technology has the potential to improve and save millions of lives.  An oft-cited study recently published in Lancet concluded significant alterations in the GI tract of rats fed GM potatoes versus non-GM potatoes. However this study’s validity is being questioned and it is important to note that the gene transferred into the GM potatoes was a known animal toxin. 
Lastly, there are major concerns regarding the economics of GM foods. The majority of GM seeds are produced by the giant conglomerate Monsanto. Former chairman Robert Shapiro views these seeds as intellectual property, and Monsanto holds patent rights to its technologies. He readily admits that for farmers to use their seeds they must follow “a set of conditions.” The GM seeds from Monsanto were developed to be resistant to only one type of herbicide, Roundup, which is also manufactured by Monsanto. This situation gives a concerning amount of power to one corporation. The GM seeds can also be made sterile, requiring new purchases each year at prices that are monopolistically controlled.  Monsanto however has written an open letter promising never to introduce a “suicide” gene like this into its seed DNA.
While this issue can be a major problem, not all hope is lost for smaller farmers. A number of local and lower cost seed-breeding programs and seed banks have been able to provide similar seed to farmers in poor countries. However, overall GM technology has been used to serve the rich, and not the poor. Bringing a GM seed to market is lengthy and expensive process and companies like Monsanto are highly profit driven. They have no incentive to create GM foods targeted towards poor and starving populations. In order for GMOs to be effective at reducing environmental impact and improving lives, those producing the seed must have a more philanthropic approach. There is hope that in the future, charitable foundations like that which created the “golden” rice, will invest more in this technology. Currently, that seems to be the only way for research to continue on GMOs regarding nutrition and other benefits to survival societies; this has often been the fate for vaccines in survival societies, the Bill and Melina Gates Foundation has donated billions to this cause. Whether this comes to fruition, remains to be seen. It is important to note that the patents Monsanto holds are limited in time to 20 years for plant patents, and 14 years for design patents. When they expire, this will help open the door for other competing corporations and non-profits.
The Anti-GMO Movement
In addition to advances in technology another important issue that needs to be addressed is social in nature. Anti-GMO hype, often based on groundless fears rather than facts, has greatly influenced the perceptions of many. A debate in England in 2003 revealed that over half of the participants ‘never want to see GM crops grown in the United Kingdom under any circumstances.' Populations need to be educated on the potential benefits and minimal risks of GMOs. Many anti-GMO nations and activists are operating under the so called “precautionary principle”, meaning: “the potential risks, no matter how remote, must be given more weight than any possible benefits, no matter how great." The risks of GM foods have been overall unproven and the benefits of the technology have shown huge potential.“Caution is simply a different kind of risk, one that is even more likely to kill people.” This fear-based reluctance needs to be identified and extensive education needs to occur so people will accept the good news that GM foods are beneficial and will help solve the world’s food crisis particularly as population continues to grow. It is likely that many people have forgotten, or never knew, the impact that the Green Revolution had on the world in the 1960s. By crossing staple crops to produce high yield varieties, potential famine in many parts of the world was avoided. This helped the available calories per capita of the world increase 25%, while population increased 300% since World War II. The population increase, at least for the time being, is not slowing down, especially in survival and pre-modern societies. If we are to meet the demands of the increasing population (and a population that increasingly desires meat, a food item that requires even more energy input), another revolution, like that offered by GMOs must occur.
Social change regarding the cultivation and consumption of GM foods must occur in Africa more than anywhere else in the world. Currently, South Africa and Kenya are the only African countries that allow genetically engineering crops to be commercially harvested. Besides fear, these crops are often rejected because European countries will not accept genetically modified harvest exports. The fear of GMO foods
What Must be Done?
GM crops can potentially benefit people in survival, pre-modern, modern, and post-modern societies. Currently, much of the benefit is being restricted to post-modern societies, especially in the US, where in 2008 62.5 million hectares of genetically modified crops were planted. In order for other societies to benefit, especially survival societies, technological and social developments must occur. The Monsanto monopoly must be broken up and governments and nonprofits must support technology advances that benefit the poor. Socially, the fear-based denial of GM benefits and the resulting policies must be eliminated. After that, GM foods could have a bright future in all societies. Assuming the cost of technology is assumed by NGOs and the government, the incremental cost of GM foods is likely to be low. Once seeds are purchased, they create a sustainable resource for the farmers. GM crops also generally do not require any infrastructure beyond that of non-GM crops, so initial and maintenance costs will generally be low for farmers. The benefits of this expanding new technology could be extremely valuable to human welfare, if these obstacles can be overcome.
It is my opinion that genetically modified foods appear to be the future of food production. The technology is simply a more efficient way to achieve the results of cross-breeding. It is expected that within the next 20 years the next generation of GM crops,will achieve direct benefits to consumers including better nutrition, lower levels of fats, and even the elimination of allergy-causing proteins in some foods. The third generation is expected to have even more impact on yields and human welfare, with properties like drought and salinity resistance. GM foods may also be created to administer vaccines orally. With world resources dwindling and population increasing, only technologies like GMOs, with increasing levels of efficiency, will survive. While organic farming is popular now, I doubt whether it has the ability to sustain large populations over time. For example, if African countries were to rely on organic farming, they would need double the amount of land cultivated compared to the U.S for one crop. That is not efficient, nor feasible because “the other five billion or so residents of this world, more than half of whom live on less than two dollars a day, can’t afford organic products, and lack the land it would take to grow them." Contrary to popular belief, technology-based foods can be more environmentally friendly than ‘organic’ foods. The production of 1 kg of grass-fed beef creates green-house gas emissions that are equivalent to driving a car 70.4 miles whereas the production of industrial grain-fed beef weighs in at only 45 miles.
Genetic technology can enhance sustainability because it can help meet both current and future food needs, and it appears it will only grow more important in the future. An important quote by Nina Fedoroff, science advisor to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton puts GMO research into perspective. She points out that many accepted medical technologies, including insulin production, involve the use of GMOs. She states ‘People are clearly afraid and that is very hard to watch. We accept exactly the same technology in medicine and yet in food we want to go back to the nineteenth century. We would never think of going to our doctors and saying, ‘Gee, treat me the same way doctors treated people in the nineteenth century. Don’t use anything you learned in the twentieth century.’ Yet that is exactly what we are demanding in food production for the world, and at the same time we are seeing the number of people who don’t have enough to eat grow and grow."