Genetically Modified Foods: Proceed with Caution

By: TJ Li

Genetically modified foods tend to get a bad rep. One of the chief concerns among the general public seems to be that they may be dangerous, in that people should not be putting such unnatural substances into their bodies. This issue has invoked a large debate over issues such as food safety and brought into question of whether or not such potentially dangerous technology ought to be adopted in the first place. Both sides of the argument carry much weight, and deserve to be further explored.

To begin with, there is the issue of food safety. Certain studies have been conducted indicating some sort of danger to GMOs, such as the controversial Seralini study done by Gilles-Eric Seralini of the University of Caen in Normandy. The scientists fed Roundup-tolerant maize, a genetically modified crop designed by the GM giant Monsanto to resist the pesticide Roundup, to lab rats and compared the results to those of a control group. In doing so, they found that, in males, liver congestions and necrosis were 2.5 to 5.5 times higher, kidney damage was 1.3 to 2.3 times greater, and developed up to four times more tumors, and in females, large mammary tumors grew more frequently and sex hormonal balances were altered1. However, while this might seem to be damning evidence of the harm of GMOs, other scientists have attacked the study’s methodology, stating that the sample size was too small and that the breed of rat used in the experiment, Sprague-Dawley rats, are prone to developing cancers abnormally2. Furthermore, there have been several studies affirming the safety of GMOs as well. For example, Alison Van Eenennaam and Amy Young writing for the Journal of Animal Science compiled twenty nine years of health data on over 100 billion animals and compared the results pre- and post- GMO implementation, finding that there were no indication of unusual trends in animal health due to genetically modified foods3. In addition, Italian researchers writing for Critical Reviews in Biotechnology conducted a meta-analysis examining 1,783 individual studies on GMO safety were unable to find a single credible example of danger4. As such, it would be safe to assume that there is little danger associated with genetically modified foods.

Yet, even if genetically modified foods may be dangerous, is not unhealthy food preferable over no food at all?  In other words, in third world countries where the alternative is death by starvation, GMO technology is capable of ensuring food security and saving lives. It accomplishes this in two ways: first, growing genetically modified crops yields great economic benefits for GM-adopting farmers due to lower production costs, fewer pest issues, savings on reduced pesticide usage, and higher crop yields5. This is confirmed by Graham Brookes and Peter Barfoot of PG Economics, a UK-based agriculture consultancy service, who find that from the period of 1996-2012, GM technology has led to a reduction in pesticide spraying by 503 million kg, and added 122 million tons to the production of soybeans and 230 million tons to the production of maize. Because of this, they conclude that there have been net economic gains of $18.8 billion to farmers in 2012 alone, around half of which has gone to developing countries 6. Such economic benefits have resulted in a reduction of food insecurity by 15-20% amongst GM-cotton adopting households, according to Matin Qaim of the Georg-August University in Germany and Shahzad Kouser of the University of Agriculture in Pakistan, as they are able to afford higher-quality food, and more of it7. Secondly, genetically modified foods can benefit non-farmers as well, as Joe Lauer of the University of Wisconsin explains that this technology could stabilize and increase food supplies, reducing the risk of loss in the event of disease, pests, or drought, specifically finding that risk reduction in GM corn is equivalent to a yield increase ranging from 0.8 to 4.2 bushels per area8. This is essential to ensuring that those in third world nations are able to secure their own sources of food.

Third, there is the environmental aspect of genetically modified foods which should be considered. As a result of advertising by GM companies, farmers adopted genetically modified crops in order to cut down on pesticide costs and began to use only one brand of pesticides, minimizing herbicide and insecticide diversity in their fields. This is significant because diversity is crucial to prevent the development of insecticide- and herbicide-resistant insects and weeds, otherwise known as super-pests9. These pose a real threat to food security, as, for example, the population of mirid bugs in China has increased twelve-fold due to the planting of bt-cotton, now constituting a serious issue10. In order to avoid this problem in the future, farmers are being increasingly advised to include a variety of pesticides in their efforts to control pest management11. On the other hand, there is a positive environmental effect to genetically modified crops as well. As mentioned before, GM technology has reduced pesticide spraying by about 503 million kg, or around 8.8%, resulting in a decrease in negative environmental impact by 18.7%. Brooke and Barfoot also find that the decreased fuel usage and increased carbon storage in soil associated with reduced tilling of GM crops amounted to a reduction of, in 2012, 27 billion kg of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, equivalent to removing 11.9 million cars from the road for a year12. As such, GM technology can be a double-edged sword when it comes to the environment, both detrimental and helpful.

At the end of the day, genetically modified foods are to be embraced, although not without caution. On the issue of food safety, there is substantial evidence to suggest that they are safe, although the contradicting studies do raise serious concerns. In terms of food security, GMOs are absolutely essential, allowing GM-adopting farmers to increase profits and afford an increased quantity of higher quality food as well as ensuring stability in the food supplies of non-farmers in developing nations. Lastly, while it is necessary to implement a variety of pesticides into their pest management system in order to avoid the rise of superpests, farmers can reduce carbon emission and pesticide spraying with GM technology, reducing the overall impact on the environment. Thus, it is clear that while genetically modified foods can be greatly harmful, if utilized correctly, they have the ability to change the world for the better.

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