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Steven Burton Headshot

Don't Say No to GMO Before You Hear Both Sides

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Westend61 via Getty Images
Westend61 via Getty Images

Many people are deeply concerned about GMO food and hold strong beliefs that make assumptions about whether or not GMO is actually safe. The issue is further confused by concerns about the corporate citizenship of companies like Monsato.

GMO foods are produced by genetically modifying life. This is usually accomplished by transplanting a desirable trait from one organism to another. For example, by adding a novel trait for disease resistance to tomatoes, the tomatoes become immune. The range of possible genetic changes vary widely -- from relatively minor trait changes to completely new designer organisms so not all GMO is equal.

Whether or not you're aware of it, you've been eating GMO for about 20 years already since the majority of all corn and soybeans are genetically modified along with many other fruits and vegetables.

Our global food supply may not be sustainable without GMO since our population is growing. With more mouths to feed, we need more food, and GMO can satisfy this need by increasing yields and allowing crops to be grown in areas that could not be farmed otherwise.

GMO promises to reduce the impact we have on our environment by delivering pest resistant plants that require fewer pesticides, reducing the amount of land that must be cleared for farming, and reducing the amount of water required to grow certain crops.

The objections to GMO are highly emotional and varied. Here are the highlights:

Mutations could occur that will produce killer organisms - Although there are risks associated with genetically manipulating life, it is also possible to put safeguards in place. GMO requires extensive testing and approvals before it can be used.

The nations where hunger is the biggest problem don't allow GMO anyway, so what's the point? - National policies are not uniform. Some countries allow GMO while others do not. Political leaders are driven by politics and their interests are not always aligned with the interest of the people. Just because some leaders won't allow GMO into their countries doesn't mean that all work on GMO should be abandoned.

Wouldn't it be better to invest in non-GMO alternatives? - Although it is a good idea to develop non-GMO alternatives whenever possible, the process is slow, expensive, and the results are not always achievable since the building blocks scientists can use are limited. Global population is expected to continue to rise until 2050 when we'll have nine billion mouths to feed. Given the looming deadline, it seems unlikely that non-GMO advances can come fast enough.

Poor farmers aren't allowed to use GMO seeds, so GMO doesn't help them anyway - The issue here is economic, not science-based. Although GMO companies are quite happy to sell their products to all takers, many poor farmers cannot afford to buy GMO seeds. This serious issue needs to be addressed by governments and citizens alike. Ironically, rather than favouring GMO foods to help poor farmers, many consumers boycott GMO products, effectively preventing these farmers from increasing production and improving their lives.

Most scientists believe that there is danger with GMO but are afraid to speak out- Although the majority of scientist are aware of the dangers inherent in genetic engineering, the majority recognize the benefits far outweigh the risks. The few that have spoken out against GMO have been attacked due to problems with their studies, like the the study by Gilles-Éric Séralini who found that rats eating GMO corn contracted cancer at an alarming rate. Major flaws were subsequently found in Séralini's work such as the fact he used a strain of rats that had been engineered to develop tumors.

GMO hasn't been tested long enough - GMO has been sold commercially for 20 years and was undergoing testing much earlier. Literally billions of people have eaten massive quantities of GMO foods and governments across the globe have tested them with no substantive ill effects found. It should be abundantly clear by now that at least some GMO products are safe. This doesn't mean that there is absolutely no risk, just that the risk is very low.

GMO has been put out in the food system without any knowledge of what it will do to people - GMO crops cannot be grown commercially before receiving government approvals, which requires extensive testing using rigorous testing protocols. The protocols are so stringent that sugar would not likely be approved under the current system (but interestingly Aspartame would). Therefore, we have a pretty good idea of the safety of the GMO products before they are released to farmers for production.

It is not known what mutations will occur - The mutations in GMO are purposefully and intentionally introduced, and so are well known. Unintentional mutations occur all the time in nature so it could be argued that targeted mutations are actually less risky. Most unintended mutations don't survive as they are usually not beneficial to the host. Plants and animals also mutate at far slower rates than bacteria and viruses so the extent to which they mutate is much more visible and controllable.

The Bottom Line - When I was a child there were far fewer people on the planet and the media was rife with doom and gloom predictions about how millions would starve in the coming decades. Those decades are here and, far from starving, we are growing fat as we throw away half the food we produce. This abundance has been made possible by advances in agricultural technologies, including GMO. As we face a future where global temperatures rise, deserts expand, and rising seas claim low lying coastal farmlands, I believe we need GMO to help those in the developing world improve their lives and to allow us continue to eat as well as we do.


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