• Jessica Evans

The truth about GMOs

From fertiliser to pollination, a lot of science goes into what we eat. What you eat can even save the world, but people tend to get a bit uncertain when science meddles too much with what we eat, and GMOs have been a hot topic for public debate since they first emerged in the 1970s.

GMOs are Genetically Modified Organisms. This means that humans have edited the DNA of various crops, adding some traits and taking others away. Scientists don’t do this to ‘play God’, but with the purpose of improving crop production. Gene editing has enabled us to make crops more resistant to drought, pests and disease, and it has even made fruits seedless and given us higher yields.

But people don’t seem to like GMOs. Hawaii’s rainbow papaya crops were ravaged by a virus in the 1990s and the problem was solved by genetically engineering them to be resistant to the virus. Although the production improved after that, the sales of the papaya went down drastically. Imports to Japan, who had been a big importer of the fruit, dropped significantly. Japan had been paying $15 million for the papaya to be on their produce shelves. After it was genetically modified, that number dropped to $1 million.

Photo by Miguel Maldonado on Unsplash.

But if GMOs have potential to give us drought- pest- and virus-resistant food, why the public backlash?

Many people deem genetically engineering other life forms ‘unnatural’. But so is using pesticides; so is large-scale farming; and so is processing food into things like soy milk and tomato paste. Our agriculture has advanced astronomically in the last 100 years and we can no longer limit ourselves to what is and is not natural, because we have already strayed so far from nature.

Another reason for the public concern of GMOs is that scientists don’t know enough about them to guarantee that they are of no health or environmental threat.

The truth about GMOs is that they’re not all bad, or all good.

Some crops in South and North America have been modified to produce insecticides. That means that they have pesticides in their tissues to make them less desirable to herbivorous insects that result in bad yields.

Photo by Viktor Forgacs on Unsplash.

These GMOs are primarily maize, rape seed and soy. There have been a few studies on the effects of feeding these GMOs to rats, and all of them have concluded that the GMOs in question are harmless. But some scientists have questioned the soundness of these studies, saying that the sample sizes were too small to produce statistically viable results; and that more than one species must be included in the study to better understand the effects of GMOs on mammals; and a whole bunch of other things. Scientists who support this critique promote independent studies with transparent results, suggesting that the researchers who conducted these studies were paid to do so by companies that produce GMOs. It is also thought that this kind of GMO has been associated with hormone disruptions in the animals that consume them, in which case more research is needed to determine the threat status of these GMOs.

Photo by Vaun0815 on Unsplash.

As mentioned earlier, though, GMOs needn’t be all bad. In fact, genetic engineering is being used in foods to improve flavour and nutritional value. It’s even been used to reduce the substances that cause allergies in some foods.

The truth is, whether you’re conservative about GMOs or not, you probably still consume them, no matter how many organic products you buy. GMOs are used in tomato pastes, potato chips, soy products, and maize products. So they’re pretty inescapable.

You might not realise it, but humans have been genetically modifying all sorts of things for thousands of years. Your dog is essentially a GMO, it just took a bit longer to modify it’s genes. The advanced technology we have now enables us to use the principles of selective breeding (like we did for dogs, cattle, and maize) a bit more efficiently. And though more research is necessary in some cases, GMOs overall may give us solutions to food insecurity and allergies. They definitely are not perfect, but perhaps all the bad press they get isn’t deserved. What do you think?

If you're up to it, here are some of the scientific papers that informed this article so that you can check them out too:

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