The Deal with GMOs

Where do GMOs fit into sustainability?

I want to talk a little bit about GMOs.  To be completely honest about my experience with the “sustainable” community, I find fear mongering that is typically led by public panic as opposed to actual science to be a huge pitfall in the movement1. I regularly see content put out that is aimed to scare people into a certain belief system.

To break down this issue, let’s start with what GMOs actually are. GMO stands for “genetically modified organism.” Thus, a GMO in the produce sector is a crop that has been manufactured through genetic engineering. This process is different from selective breeding. In selective breeding, the animals or plants with the most desirable traits are bred, while others with less desirable traits are not.  An example of a GMO as opposed to selective breeding is the famous pig that has been made to glow. In this case, genes from a strain of jellyfish known to bioluminesce were inserted into a pig, and the pig glowed2.

To explain this more clearly, genetically modified organisms are organisms that are carrying foreign genes via a process called insertion. Genes that are inserted are meant to change the organism in a specific way. In agriculture, the goal is to improve the function of a crop plant in some context, whether it is growth, or drought-resistance, or pest-tolerance.  The process of achieving this is actually very simple – I’ve done it before, as have most people who completed a biology or chemistry focused major in college – typically in a lab course, glow genes will be inserted into a non-glowing strain of bacteria to demonstrate the principles of gene insertion. To genetically modify an organism, the desired trait and corresponding gene must be identified. This gene is then isolated, cut, and pasted into a plasmid. This plasmid is then introduced to heat shocked bacteria, which incorporate it into their genome. In the agricultural field, these bacteria can then be used to “infect” the cells of the crop of interest.

So now that we understand that the background science isn’t that scary, what are the results of our actions when we genetically modify something? There are certainly pros and cons to any change enacted – there are pros and cons to something as simple as changing shampoo brands! Here are some of the big ones for GMOs.

The case for GMOs

1. Increased Production

One of the foremost goals of genetically modifying a crop is to increase the yield that is obtained. This can mean modifications to size, to amount of fruit or vegetable produced per plant, or to reduce harvest time. The ability to maximize harvest is incredibly important to keeping up with a growing world population, without being able to also increase the land available for agriculture.

2. Nutritional Fortification

Some GMO crops are modified for improved nutritional content. It is possible to modify plants to retain higher levels of nutrients and minerals so that the food produced contributes more to nutritional quality of the diet. This is particularly important in areas were food is scarce.

3. Decreased Perishability

Food waste is a huge problem. It is a multi-faceted issue with no one solution. However, one way to help tackle to issue of food waste is to genetically modify organisms to last longer between harvest and decomposition. With this modification, there is reduced loss of food after the harvest stage.

4. Decreased Use of Resources

One vital attribute to GMOs is that they are often modified for greater ability to survive in adverse conditions. There are many environments across the globe that historically have lacked suitability for growing crops due to limited resources like lack of nutrients in the soil or frequent drought. Genetic modifications to crops can give the ability to survive and thrive in regions where farming had been considered difficult or nearly impossible3.

5. Hardier Crops

In general, a primary goal in genetically modifying crops is to make them hardier, or increase chances of survival through a full growth season. GMO crops are often more equipped to survive attacks by pests and competition by weeds, resulting in reduced need to spray with pest and weed killer. They may also be modified for temperature tolerance.

The case against GMOs

1. Weed, Pest, and Antibiotic Resistance

Due to evolution, over time it is likely that weeds and pests will become resistant to the genes inserted into crops that promote tolerance to these factors. It is a similar concept to viruses developing a resistance to vaccines. Additionally, there is potential that if humans are continuously exposed to the antibiotics in the GMOs, our own immune systems may become compromised to resistant biota over time.

2. Biodiversity Loss

Large scale farming often uses GMOs due to the aforementioned benefits. However, the demand for GMOs can result in a loss of biodiversity due to choice of GMO use over use of native or heirloom plant varieties. There is risk that genetic crossover may occur, and through reproduction plants that were not genetically modified may begin to adopt the genes contributed by GMO crops.

3. Ethics of GMO Monopolies

This is the biggest problem I have with GMOs. Large companies like Monsanto have questionable ethics at best, and have essentially monopolized the GMO industry. They have patented their products, and often have other genetic measures in place to assure that no one will benefit from their products without paying. For example, the seeds from a GMO will typically grow into a plant, but that plant will not be able to produce fruit or vegetables. Thus, re-growing a GMO is often impossible and requires purchase of new seeds year after year.

4. Need for Long Term Studies

Overall there aren’t enough long-term studies about the health and safety impacts of GMOs. While there is no current evidence to suggest high risk, as a scientist I prefer to know the long-term impacts.

Misconceptions about GMOs

In my research on this topic, I did find that there were a few big misconceptions about GMOs that actually have no scientific basis.

The first is the notion that GMOs have cause an increase in allergies. It is important to acknowledge that it is possible for genetic modification to introduce novel allergens to a plant. This has been done before. However, GMOs undergo extensive testing to ensure that no allergens have transferred, and if they have they do not go to market.  In fact, no GMO foods currently on the market contain allergens that were introduced to them genetically4.

There is also a belief in some that GMOs can cause cancer. There is some background to this belief, so I can’t fault people for their concerns. There was a paper published in a scientific journal that linked Roundup and Roundup-tolerant genetically modified corn to cancer and death in rats. However, this paper has since been retracted, which is a big deal in science, and has been criticized for a plethora of inaccuracies and misleading conclusions5. It was retracted because it was determined that too few rats were used for the study to conclude anything about the impacts of GMOs. In addition, the rats that were used for the study were already genetically prone to developing cancer. It was determined by the scientific community that this study had inconclusive results. It was published in a different journal later, though it has continued to receive heavy criticism6.

As I’m writing this, because of the controversial nature of GMOs, I am already concerned that I’ll be accused that I have some agenda to promote GMOs, or that I have ulterior motives. I promise that is not the case. Between organic and GMO or any other classifications there may be, it makes no difference to me what food you buy. In fact, as far as sustainability goes, I would suggest prioritizing buying local over buying based on some sort of classification.

I decided to write this because I think it’s a great model for showcasing the impacts of fear mongering without a scientific basis. People seem to be terrified of GMOs, when in reality they do so much good in providing food in regions where starvation is a real threat. It is very likely that as time goes on and population continues to increase, GMOs will have to be part of the plan just to be able to support everyone. My primary motivation here was to show that there is nothing inherently wrong with genetic modification, especially if there are benefits to people who are less privileged7.

  1. Blancke, S., Van Breusegem, F., De Jaeger, G., Braeckman, J., & Van Montagu, M. (2015). Fatal attraction: the intuitive appeal of GMO opposition. Trends in plant science20(7), 414-418.
  3. Koch, M. (2004, September). The case for GMOs in the developing world–how African farmers are benefiting from biotechnology. In New Directions for a Diverse Planet. Proceedings of the 4th International Crop Science Congress(Vol. 26).
  4. D’Agnolo, G. (2005). GMO: Human health risk assessment. Veterinary research communications29, 7.
  5. Arjó, G., Portero, M., Piñol, C., Viñas, J., Matias-Guiu, X., Capell, T., … & Christou, P. (2013). Plurality of opinion, scientific discourse and pseudoscience: an in depth analysis of the Séralini et al. study claiming that Roundup™ Ready corn or the herbicide Roundup™ cause cancer in rats. Transgenic research22(2), 255-267.
  6. Séralini, G. E., Mesnage, R., Defarge, N., & de Vendômois, J. S. (2014). Conflicts of interests, confidentiality and censorship in health risk assessment: the example of an herbicide and a GMO. Environmental Sciences Europe26(1), 13.
  7. Paarlberg, R. (2014). A dubious success: the NGO campaign against GMOs. GM crops & food5(3), 223-228.

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