by Serena Blacklow
Over 80% of all processed foods in the U.S. contain genetically modified ingredients (1). Yet, the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) as sources of food remains intensely controversial, with economists, politicians, and farmers as well as scientists taking conflicting stances on the issue. While GMOs have the potential to increase our food supply, their use carries health hazards, environmental risks, and implications for small farmers’ welfare. Safe incorporation of GMOs into our diets thus requires policies ensuring their safety for human, ecological, and economic wellbeing.
A GMO is an organism that has had its DNA modified artificially. In the case of crops, modifications may result in pesticide resistance, enhanced color, or increased size. Grocery store aisles house a plethora of such modified foods, from soybeans to tomatoes to sweet corn. Yet, the U.S. government does not require these items to be labeled as GMOs. This lax regulation eliminates consumers’ rights to not only choose what they are eating, but also know the origins of their food (2).
In addition to being inadequately monitored, GMOs pose significant health risks, which are unknown to much of the public. Rats fed genetically modified potatoes, for instance, displayed smaller organs and impaired immune systems relative to those fed the non-modified item (1). Recent genetic manipulations hold similar potential for harm. One such trait, glyphosate resistance, allows crops to be sprayed with the glyphosate-containing herbicide RoundUp. Although RoundUp is not fatally toxic, its glyphosate still enters and destroys key minerals within the plant, increasing consumers’ risk of micronutrient deficiencies (3). Though genetic modification may expand the global food supply, its health hazards must be considered: what is the advantage of providing a greater quantity of food whose quality is so poor that it jeopardizes our own health?
In addition to endangering our own health, the production of genetically modified foods affects the health of ecosystems. RoundUp, for example, diminishes micronutrient supply to not only human consumers but also the soil, hurting both parties’ health (3). Further, GMOs represent irreversible threats to natural biodiversity: once modifications are introduced into farming, they cannot be rescinded, and they can be spread unwittingly to nearby farms. Unintended cross-pollination of GM-free and GM crops, for example, disrupt local ecosystems and result in the destruction of wild type plants (5). The potential for genetically engineered plants to contaminate local populations can interfere with the natural ecological system.
The widespread use of genetically modified crops affects not only animal and plant populations, but also our economy. Large biotech companies such as Monsanto and DuPont dominate the market for genetically modified seeds and endanger the livelihoods of traditional farmers. Farmers are constantly threatened with contamination of their crops by genetically modified crops that have been grown from seeds issued by these companies. The Monsanto Company has threatened to sue for patent infringement when, in reality, the farmers have had no control over the spread of these genetic modifications (6). Through such actions, corporate giants impede small farmers from producing their own, non-contaminated crops, creating an unsustainably competitive agricultural marketplace.
Unawareness of the health risks and environmental consequences of GM foods has diminished our appreciation for natural, unmodified crops. As a result, big businesses control the markets for seeds and crops, while small farmers lose their livelihoods. Before we incorporate even more genetically engineered foods into our diet, we must realize and address the implications that come with their production and consumption. As the Earth’s current inhabitants, we need to recognize the significance of our actions to Earth’s future. GMOs possess significant drawbacks, which must be properly addressed if we plan to use these items to ensure a sustainable future. For now, GMOs are not the answer.
1. S. Lendman, Potential Health Hazards of Genetically Engineered Foods. Global Research, (February 22, 2008).
2. Center for Food Safety, Tell Congress to Oppose Preemption of State GE Labeling Laws (2013).
3. D. M. Huber, The woes of GMOs — Glyphosate and GMO impact on crops, soils, animals and man. GMWatch, (September 2012).
4. E. Clair et al., Effects of Roundup (R) and Glyphosate on Three Food Microorganisms: Geotrichum candidum, Lactococcus lactis subsp. cremoris and Lactobacillus delbrueckii subsp. bulgaricus. Curr Microbiol 64, 486 (May, 2012).
5. Terrascope (MIT class), Genetically Modified Crops. Mission 2014: Feeding the World, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (2010).
6. D. B. Ravicher, “Farmers and Seed Producers Launch Preemptive Strike against Monsanto,” Cornucopia News, 2011.
7. Wikimedia Commons. File: GMO corn label RoundUp Liberty Link Herculex I Cruiser Mid Rate.jpg, (September, 2013).
Categories: Fall 2013