The debate between the supporters and opponents of GMOs (genetically modified organisms) has been going on for decades. Some are convinced that GM foods are harmful to human health and the environment, while others believe that modified food is no different from ordinary food and even surpasses it in quality.
According to ProCon.org, approximately 30 countries, including the U.S., grow genetically modified crops, while most of European Union nations have put a ban on GMOs. We’ll try to cover both sides in this article to define the most significant pros and cons of GM products. But before that, let’s answer the question of what exactly GMO means.
A genetically modified organism (GMO) is a plant, animal, or microorganism whose genotype has been altered using genetic engineering techniques. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) views the use of genetic engineering techniques to create transgenic plant varieties as an integral part of agricultural development.
The direct transfer of genes responsible for useful traits is a natural stage in the development of work on the selection of animals and plants. This technology expands farmer’s capabilities in terms of control when creating new crop varieties and, in particular, the transfer of useful traits between non-breeding species.
Today, the vast majority of genetically modified foods are soybeans, cotton, rapeseed, wheat, corn, and potatoes. Three-quarters of all modifications are aimed at crops protection, meaning increasing their resistance to pesticides, herbicides, and weather changes.
Another important direction is the creation of plants that are resistant to the insects themselves and the various viruses they carry. Scientists change the shape, color, and taste of agricultural crops less often, but they are actively engaged in breeding plants with an increased amount of vitamins and microelements.
Pros of GMO
Now, moving on to the biggest advantages GM products have to offer.
Reduced Pesticides and Water Use
Two major purposes of growing GM crops are either to make them able to produce their own pesticides or to be herbicide-tolerant. For instance, more than 80% of GM corn grown in the US produces its own insecticide, which significantly reduced the need for spraying chemical insecticides on the field.
As for herbicide tolerance, it significantly reduces the need for soil tillage, meaning topsoil preservation. Tillage is performed to remove weeds from the field and implies breaking up the soil top layer, which brings carbon to the surface. Reduced tillage means lower chances of soil erosion, water runoff, and carbon emissions.
Another example of GM products is drought-tolerant plant varieties bred to reduce evaporation of water off plants, meaning less water usage.
All of that also means lower production costs (fewer fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides are required), hence the ability to increase the volume of cultivated products. Besides modified crop varieties tolerate storage and transportation better, which implies reducing storage losses.
Accelerated Selection and Hybridization
Previously, it took decades to create a new variety with specific traits without the use of genetic engineering methods. Farmers had to single out plants with the necessary traits to plant them again and again until all plants gained the needed trait.
Now it is possible to get a modified plant within a year to get a seedless watermelon, highly nutritious corn, or plants with high tolerance to chemicals, pests, diseases, and weather changes.
More Nutritious Foods
Initially, the purpose of GMOs was to help end hunger by feeding the world population with inexpensive and nutritious genetically modified foods. Only later the farmers realized that GM technologies also help to get a much higher yield at low-cost thanks to lower production costs (reduced use of fertilizers, pesticides, etc).
Today, millions of people in the world are undernourished and face hunger according to The World Food Programme. The main reasons are the growing population, climate change, and reckless farming.
Genetic engineering aids in increasing not only the yields but the nutritious content of grown crops, while not affecting their price and ensuring their affordability.
For instance, to combat vitamin A deficiency, which is the primary cause of childhood blindness in developing countries, scientists developed a GM rice that is able to produce high levels of beta-carotene, a precursor to vitamin A.
Since the cost of growing GMOs is much lower compared to growing natural products, GMOs are significantly cheaper and hence more affordable, which is especially important to poor countries where people are living in hunger.
GMOs are more efficient to grow, which means that farmers can receive the same amount of product while using the same or even less land, water, and chemicals than when growing conventional crops. Saving money on resources, those farmers are able to charge lower prices for GM foods, cutting the prices by 15% to 30%, according to the article by IL Corn.
So, what are the disadvantages of GMOs then?
Since GMOs contain DNA of other organisms, this new DNA can possibly trigger allergies in people who weren’t allergic to this food before. For example, a genetically modified soybean that was created with the DNA from a Brazil nut has been proven to trigger nut allergies and hence couldn’t be released to the public according to food safety regulations.
Despite this, GM foods go through advanced allergen testing, even more, thorough than conventionally grown crops. So they shouldn’t be considered less safe than non-GMOs.
Food created on the basis of the achievements of geneticists’ modifications can cause resistance to antibiotics in people. This is due to the fact that, according to the experimental conditions, an antibiotic is often introduced into the organism of plants along with a foreign gene. This poses a threat of some types of antibiotics ceasing to work if a person happens to get sick.
Herbicide resistance of GM crop varieties has a negative side too. It has resulted in the flourishing of the so-called super-weeds that became resistant to the same herbicides the GM crops were developed to tolerate.
Consequently, these weeds adversely affect millions of acres of croplands, which causes farmers to use more herbicides. Besides, herbicide-tolerant GM crops also have an impact on biodiversity as they reduce local weed diversity, which leads to reduced habitat and food for other important species.