Wednesday, February 19, 2014

What is the deal with GMOs?

These individuals are holding signs supporting
GMOs.  The one reads "I love Monsanto."

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are plants and animals that have had their genetic makeup altered.  This is typically done by adding various genes, from bacteria, viruses, or other animals/plants.  Consumers have very strong opinions about these products.  Still, there is minimal evidence available,
regarding the effects GMOs.

 It is important to know whether these products are good or bad.  By this I mean understanding how they impact the environment, wildlife and humans.  However, much of the information found about GMOs tends to be opinionated or biased; it usually stems from personal feelings. 

I did find one article that provides a “level-headed assessment of the evidence.”  Furthermore, within this piece, there is information about the effects of genetic modifications on human health, the environment and economy.  Yet, after reading all of the material, it is still difficult to make a firm decision of whether GMOs are completely good or bad.

            Another article I read offered beneficial and unfavorable support from GMO studies.  One risk of these crops is the potential of cross-pollination with non-GM plants.  This is detrimental because some consumers (such as China or other large scale patrons) do not want certain genes within their products.  Wheat farmers are especially worrisome of the possibility of cross-pollination because wheat is now (and since 2005) a non-genetically modified crop.  If a wheat field becomes contaminated, there is a possibility for that farmer to lose profit.

On the other hand, the GM crops are beneficial due to their “biologically insect-resistant and herbicide-tolerant” and nutritious characteristics.  
Golden Rice is an instance in which the valuable properties of GMOs can be observed.  Scientists at the International Rice Institute say that their combination of rice, corn and bacteria is beneficial because it contains a large amount of Vitamin A.  This vitamin is essential for vision and has been deficient in the past among many third world countries.  Golden Rice is also considered advantageous because it is composed mostly of rice, which is consumed by at least half of the world’s population.
About eighty percent of the world is currently using genetically modified organisms.  Many locations, such as Asia, Europe, the U.S., Honduras allow for food alterations.  Honduras is the only country of Central America using GMOs, mostly due to the food crisis.  The rest of the region continues to grow conventional crops.  In the area near Uganda, only four countries allow the use of genetically modified crops: Egypt, Sudan, Burkina and South Africa.  There are other countries that completely ban the changing of genes.
Overall, genetically modified organisms are either completely accepted or rejected.  I personally prefer the non-GM products.  This is because I believe that there are more cons than pros, such as the potential harmful effects within humans (allergens) and the environmental damage (the recent decline of milkweed and monarchs).

There is some good news.  Even though, GMO labeling is not required in the United States, there is a way to avoid altered food: buying organic.  According to the Organic Foods Production Act, certified organic foods are only allowed to be GMO-free.
One concern with determining GMO-free foods is confusing organic with natural foods.  If you prefer food which has not been altered, then it is best to stick with organic options. 


  1. On the topic of potential GMO sources of allergens, here is a 2013 blog post from Scientific American that works through the basic biology and argues that this worry is unfounded and unlikely:
    Here is the quote that seems (to me) to be the author's take-home message: "(G)enetic engineering techniques allow us to precisely add genes of known structure and function to crops. It would in principle be possible to ... introduce peanut allergens into soybeans, but this would have to be by malicious intent of the scientists, not some accident. We know how genes work, and we know what kind of protein an individual gene will make."

    Also, the article about Uganda that you link to describes two GMO crops--varieties of banana and cassava-- that are important staples and that are less susceptible to specific crop diseases than traditional varieties. What was new to me was that these varieties are typically cultivated using cuttings, so small subsistence farmers would not have to go the expense of buying new, expensive seed each year as for other GMO crops. This example does not "solve" every issue, but it does offer a regionally relevant example that, for once, is positive for consumers (not just the farmers...article says farmer and consumer are typically the same in Uganda).

  2. When I here the acronym GMO, I am instantly turned off. I did a report on GMO's last year and learned a lot. For one, since this technology is relatively new, there are no studies that measure the long term effects of consuming GMO's. There have been studies on rats, in which many of them were seen to have cancer due to these genetically modified organisms. I think that consuming these organisms is a major risk and I am surprised humans around the world are willing to take this risk. Advances in technology are not always for the better!

  3. I would agree that we have more to learn about both the science and the impact of GMO's. I do think that the effects (or benefits) will depend on the variety and the application. For example, the earlier EVS@AU blog posts on Monarch Butterflies and Honeybees both indicate that destruction of native plants and habitat due to herbicide spraying of herbicide-resistant (GMO) crops is contributing to the serious declines of these species (and others). Some of the links in those posts connect to information about the science studies so that they can be found (using our usual literature search tools). The early evidence for that issue seems strong so far...however, I haven't seen much science that supports health concerns for *current* crops (or benefits for the consumer, either, though crops like Golden Rice seem to have potential).. I would interested in the studies on links to cancer in rats that you recall...if you can still find those...?

  4. I have heard that Monsanto has sued farmers for 'stealing' their GMO products. Like you mentioned in the article, many of these GMO crops are wind pollinated, and say for example, a farmer with GMO crops fertilized a non-GMO crop field on accident, Monsanto can come in and say that the farmer 'stole' their crops.

  5. cnix--I did a quick news search, and so far it seems that Monsanto sometimes does and sometimes doesn't..sue farmers for 'stealing' their's 'yes' if a farmer planted some Monsanto seed without buying it from Monsanto:
    and it's 'no' if trace amounts of GMO seed are being grown by accident (not sure what standard defines "trace," however):