As I sat down to start doing the research for this piece, I found a relatively recent article in Scientific American summarizing a Pew Research Center report about how well Americans understand the science of GMOs and organic foods. While the results weren’t very surprising, they prove to me why I think I can do something cool with this project.
I’ll obviously discuss this, but as of now, the evidence for genetically modified organisms shows that they are mostly safe (like anything, including my piece last week about caffeine, it’s pretty easy to find biased studies that prove whatever confirmation bias you’re searching for, and it’s up to us as consumers to decide how much evidence is good enough; my answer could certainly be different than yours). The Pew Research Center report showed that 39% of the study participants stated that they believed “GM foods were less healthy than their unmodified counterparts.” I hope when I write these pieces I don’t necessarily change people’s minds, but rather I present people with evidence and science they may not be aware of and they can make a decision if it matters to them or if it changes their mind.
So let’s talk about genetically modified foods.
I’d eventually like to write a piece about how science can sometimes feel wishy-washy when we talk about topics. I don’t believe it is wishy-washy, but science requires us to look at things at a deeper level, which means there is more room for nuance. We all want to simply know if something is healthy or if it’s going to cause cancer, but the reality is that it’s more complicated than that. Tracking if something is carcinogenic or healthy or what have you isn’t an easy task (what even is “healthy?”), so we have to take what we will from whatever evidence we have.
GMO stands for genetically modified organism. I think this acronym makes them sound scarier than they are, in a way that most people would naturally be skeptical of them. But GMOs aren’t nearly as scary as they sound. Most Americans consume or have consumed genetically modified foods without ever having been aware of it. Here are seven common genetically modified foods that you’ve probably consumed and probably didn’t even know they were genetically modified: corn, soy, squash and zucchini, alfalfa, canola, sugar beets, and milk.
This Scientific American article does an exceptional job showing a visual of how genetically modifying organisms has changed over the years. I think something important to understand is that artificially altering foods and organisms is not something new and it isn’t something that has to be inherently scary. As a matter-of-fact, simply selective breeding and crossbreeding is considered genetic modification. Defining GMOs is important when having this discussion, but I think, for the sake of best understanding, it’s useful to use the broadest definition. In this case, it doesn’t have to mean inserting DNA into an organism in a lab, but instead, causing a desirable trait by crossbreeding.
Essentially, this is a step-by-step simplification of what that means (using the example from that Scientific American article mentioned above):
You have two plants: a healthy plant variety that produces a bad fruit and an unhealthy plant variety that produces a good fruit.
You crossbreed these two plants.
You choose the best subset of the offspring then crossbreed this subset of the offspring with another of the unhealthy plant variety for successive generations.
(Again, this is a vast simplification.)
But after many generations, since you’re selecting for the genes you like from two different lineages of the plant varieties, you’ll eventually have a plant that is healthy and produces good fruit that you want. This is selective breeding and the new plant variety you have cultivated is considered genetically modified. When put into this perspective, I don’t think this is nearly as scary as most people believe when they think of GMOs.
I think now is an important point to mention something: dogs and cats are genetically modified. Worldwide, there are 339 breeds of dogs that are internationally accepted, according to World Canine Organization. When you really think about how radically different dog breeds can look, it’s pretty unbelievable that any two dogs can produce fertile offspring, which is how the biological species concept explains how to determine if two individuals are members of the same species. Humans bred dogs based on genetic attributes to create different breeds for different reasons. While this is a fascinating concept in and of itself, this idea of breeding shows that humans have been genetically modifying organisms for quite some time. (This is a good time to mention that the inbreeding of dogs to create “purebreds” is why many purebreds can have so many problems).
Now, there are other ways to genetically modify foods that are a bit more complicated and can more understandably elicit that dystopian feeling from people. In these other methods, desirable genes – disease resistance, higher yields, better ripeness – are quite literally edited or inserted into the existing species. I want to emphasize, I can understand how weird this may feel; there is definitely a feeling of playing God here that may make some uncomfortable. But, when put into perspective that selective breeding isn’t much different and has been done for millennia, I think it makes these other methods more acceptable.
Popular Myths Surrounding GMOs
This Popular Science article does a great job discussing and debunking the common myths surrounding GMOs. I’ll sum up what I believe to be the three most important debunked myths in this article.
GMOs are still too new to know how dangerous they are.
As this article points out, in the twenty-plus years GMOs have been commercialized, over “1,700 peer-reviewed safety studies have been published.” The current scientific census is that they are “no more or less risky than conventional crops.”
GM “crops cause farmers to overuse pesticides and herbicides.”
One GMO enables crops to express a protein that is toxic to certain insects, and another allows them to tolerate the herbicide glyphosate. There are a lot of words in there that scare people, but these GMOs have allowed farmers to use less chemical insecticides and less dangerous herbicides, like atrazine.
“GMOs create super-insects and super-weeds.”
No matter what, resistance is going to happen. The article states “the solution…is to practice integrated pest management, which includes rotation crops. The same goes for any type of farming.
If you want to read more about the fight against GMOs and misunderstanding behind them, here are a few very interesting articles.
Unhealthy Fixation – A Slate article that shows the misleading war against GMOs
Why People Oppose GMOs Even Though Science Says They Are Safe – A Scientific American article about...well, I think the title of the article says what it's about.
How People Think (About Genetically Modified Organisms) – Again, pretty obvious by the title.
There are plenty of reasons that GMOs are likely more beneficial than they are potentially harmful, but they are absolutely a part of our future. And they may be necessary to combat the growing issues around feeding the developing world as climate change radically alters our world. There are lots of articles about this. I encourage you to read up on them. It’s fascinating stuff.
While the evidence suggests they are safe, I personally don’t mind a compromise: increased research will help improve safety risks. I would like there to be more research on the potential risks associated with the heavily used herbicide glyphosate. I will admit this: my biggest concern about genetically modified organisms is the potential overuse of this herbicide, though that isn’t a concern about GMOs themselves, but rather the result of genetically modified organisms to better tolerate glyphosate. Ensuring GMOs are regulated properly and the safety is assessed appropriately is good for everybody. I encourage you to click on some of the links to read and understand further.