Genetically modified foods and their implications is a hot topic these days–both in our regional community as well as globally. As concerned consumers it’s important to educate ourselves as these issues affect not only our health but have implications to our environment and economy. Yet most of us are still confused as we wade through the information, misinformation, emotions, strong opinions, and scientific data. Here are a few thoughts that might help clarify some common questions pertaining to this important topic.
1. Could you please explain how genetic modification is NOT plant breeding?
A lot of scientists argue that genetic modification is simply speeding up the inevitable process of plant breeding, a practice we’ve been using since the dawn of the agricultural era. This is not the case. In standard breeding situations, genes are transferred mostly in sexually compatible species, and they are largely ‘simple’ crosses between plants selected for observable attributes. Genetic modification requires human-mediated insertion of genes into an organism from largely sexually incompatible species. Those genes can come from any number of organisms, and are often transferred through the vehicle of bacterial and viral DNA (which also affects the organism in which it’s being introduced in ways still not fully understood by the scientific community).
2. Why are there so few controls or regulations on GMOs in this country when we’re still unclear about the future implications?
As it is, the global policy-making systems have not caught up with our appropriate technology developments (eg; the refusal of the U.S. Government to endorse green energy solutions). Historically, changes in food production have been accepted even more slowly. If food production technological practices get ahead of governmental oversight, it’s likely that they will remain inadequately regulated and find their way prematurely onto market shelves, putting consumers at risk.
3. How does genetic modification technology affect the economics of developing countries?
In 2009, 14 million farmers in 25 countries grew GM crops commercially, over 90% of them small farmers in developing countries. Although not all GM seeds are sterile, GM seed producers exercise a lot of legal power to make sure that offspring of GM seeds are not cultivated, thus creating dependency of farmers that use GM seed on those companies year after year.
4. Don’t we need genetically modified food to solve world hunger issues?
Abundance, not scarcity, accurately describes the supply of food in the world today. During the last 30 years of the 20th century for example, over supply of grain markets pushed grain prices steadily downward. Many cases have been found that an increase in food production per head did not correlate with a decrease of food insecurity. World hunger is not a supply issue, but a distribution issue.
5. What are the environmental consequences GMOs being used more widely?
The scientific studies surrounding genetic modification and environmental impact often ask more questions than they answer. A basic understanding of ecology and systems thinking suggests that whatever the consequences, they will intensely affect the ecological systems in the areas where they are introduced. Those consequences extend to animals, bacteria, and fungi that breed, and therefore evolve, much more rapidly than humans do.
The breadth of the environmental impacts of genetic modification will not be known for many years, however GM crops are already affecting gene pools of corn, rice, canola, and soybean operations, cross-pollination putting farmers and their crops at legal and biological risk.
Become an educated consumer! Continue your reading on these important matters. There is tons of information out there, but below are a few great resources to start with:
- A great list of GM foods available on the market (by the Non-GMO Project): http://www.nongmoproject.org/gmo-facts/what-is-gmo/
- Congress Passed a new GMO labeling bill. How will it work? By Elizabeth Grossman (published by Civil Eats)
- Could CRISPR Gene Editing Change the Future of Ag? by Jesse Frost (published by Civil Eats)
- Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety by Marion Nestle
Carpenter, J. E. (2010). Peer-reviewed surveys indicate positive impact of commercialized GM crops. Nature biotechnology, 28(4), 319-321.
Charles, Dan (2012, October 18). Top Five Myths Of Genetically Modified Seeds, Busted. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2012/10/18/163034053/top-five-myths-of-genetically-modified-seeds-busted
Huffman, W. E. (2003). Consumers’ acceptance of (and resistance to) genetically modified foods in high-income countries: effects of labels and information in an uncertain environment. American Journal of Agricultural Economics, 85(5), 1112-1118.
Nestle, M. (2010). Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety. University of California Press. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt7zw4z1
Lappé, F. M., Collins, J., & Rosset, P. (1998). World hunger: 12 myths. Grove Press.
Li, Z., Düllmann, J., Schiedlmeier, B., Schmidt, M., von Kalle, C., Meyer, J. & Ostertag, W. (2002). Murine leukemia induced by retroviral gene marking. Science, 296(5567), 497-497.
Leary, W. (1996, March 14). Genetic Engineering of Crops Can Spread Allergies, Study Shows. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/1996/03/14/us/genetic-engineering-of-crops-can-spread-allergies-study-shows.html
Parry, M., Rosenzweig, C., & Livermore, M. (2005). Climate change, global food supply and risk of hunger. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences, 360(1463), 2125-2138.
Qaim, M., & Zilberman, D. (2003). Yield effects of genetically modified crops in developing countries. Science, 299(5608), 900-902.
Author: Sera Deva
Sera Deva has a B.S. in Microbiology & Agroecology from The Evergreen State College. She was hired at OGS as the Farmer Programs Associate in 2016, and as the Conference Coordinator in 2017. She has served on the board of the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group (SSAWG) since January 2018. When she’s not geeking out over genetics, systems theory or soil hydrology, she spends her time working for farmers, homesteading, and river jumping in the South Toe Valley in Burnsville, NC.