How Did We Get Here?
As populations continue to grow, so does the increased demand for food. Fortunately, GMOs have evolved and kept pace.
Even though food engineering isn’t at the vanguard of technological innovation, it’s no less important. Humans have been – to some degree – modifying their food for thousands of years.
Modification has made it possible to grow food with certain traits. Now, it’s easier to feed the growing populations while devoting less space to agriculture.
Beyond utility and necessity, selective breeding has made it possible to alter foods for appearance, size, taste, and most importantly, climate adaptability. The latter enabling constant growth and continued supply of vital crops. Effectively, some foods are never out of season.
But as our understanding of food modification and the breeding that enables it has expanded, we’ve developed newer and better processes. Namely, genetic modification now allows even more selective breeding, at an even faster pace than its traditional breeding cousin.
Without getting too sciency, we produce genetically modified food (GM) altering their animal and plant DNA through the process of genetic engineering. Hence, the process directly manipulates an organism’s genes.
Whereas selective breeding works – indirectly – by selectively enabling growth of only those crops which possess desired traits while eschewing those that don’t.
Even though we’ve consumed genetically modified food since 1994, the subject is still taboo and it’s easy to see why.
For most people, the very notion of genetically modified food conjures up dystopian images of people in white lab coats experimenting on animals.
Then you compound the unsettling imagery with people’s lack of understanding and there’s a perfect cocktail for paranoia and anti-GMO fervor.
Admittedly, the science behind GMO does sound futuristic to the average person.
The process begins with the desire to breed a certain trait into a crop (like resistance to pesticides). Once that trait is located in another crop, it’s then extracted from that plant and prepared for later stages.
After the extraction process, the enabling gene is cloned, copied, and further modified. At the end of the process, the “finished” gene is injected – through a literal gene gun – into the original crop. After injection, the enabling gene begins growing and altering the original crop’s cells.
That’s genetically modification works, and looking at some of the words describing the process; “enabling gene,” “extraction,” “cloned,” “injection,” it’s easy to see why people are uncomfortable with GMOs in their breakfast.
It’s All Good
Fortunately, the process only sounds dystopian, while some agricultural procedures actually are. True, there may be less discussion of “extraction” and “enabling genes” raising cattle, but intensive animal farming and the industrial livestock production process is substantially more inhumane, unsanitary, and health inhibiting.
So why are we OK with consuming it’s product or at least turning a blind eye to it, while we shroud genetically modified foods cultural taboo?
The novelty and lack of understanding are the main culprits. We fear what we don’t know, and when it comes to food especially, we’re slow to adapt to change.
Industrial livestock production, no matter how well document its detrimental effects are, is a beast we’re familiar with. It’s the one we’ve grown up with, eating its product since childhood.
Genetically modified food, in comparison, is a relatively new phenomenon. Further, unlike it’s messy and well-documented counterpart, people haven’t fully understood GMOs.
But the taboo will dissipate, and once proper knowledge spreads, people will adapt and accept the benefits of genetically modified foods.
Finally, if the information is available through the right channels, most people will rightfully recognize GMOs as an efficient, safe, and necessary alternative for growing populations and appetites.
Fortunately, there’s ample research and real-world clarity backing GMO’s potential and benefits.
In 2004, the Institute of Medicine and National Research published a comprehensive overview on GMOs.1 The paper, titled “Safety of Genetically Engineered Foods” examined the outcomes of genetically modified foods as they related to human health.
In pertinent part, the paper notes that “to date, no adverse health effects attributed to genetic engineering have been documented in the human population.”
A more recent study, this one from 2010 by the European Commission, reviewed a decade’s worth of independent research2. Similar to the aforementioned study, the paper concluded that “GMOs are not per se riskier than conventional plant breeding technologies.”
On the Contrary
To fully consider GMOs’ potential, we must consider all aspects. That includes consideration of any relevant research against GMOs.
A notorious 1999 University of Aberdeen study examined how genetically modified foods affected test subject’s diets.
Specifically, researchers fed lab rats genetically modified potatoes. At the conclusion, the rats’ GI tract experienced adverse effects, like “proliferation of the gastric mucosa mainly due to the expression of the GNA transgene.”
This study is often the cornerstone of any anti-GMO discourse, which makes it especially important when discussing the topic.
However, the study suffers from faulty methodology. Specifically, the Royal Society has stated that the study is “flawed in many aspects of design, execution, and analysis.”3
Further, the Society urged that “no conclusions should be drawn from it,” stating that the researchers’ use of too few test subjects “per test groups derived a lack of meaningful, statistically significant data.”
As evidenced in the aforementioned papers, the majority of research points to positive results. However, there are some legitimate concerns.
The most common and valid concern deals with allergies. Specifically, “transplanting DNA from other organisms into crops has the potential to introduce new allergens into foods.”
The potential harm is mitigated by companies when they test for specific allergens4. However, critics point out that testing for all unknown allergens is impossible.
This article’s purpose isn’t to romanticize genetically modified food. If choosing between a non-engineered food and its modified component, I’d opt for the former.
True, there is ample research pointing to genetically modified food’s harmless effects. However, the nearly 25 years that GMOs have been on the market is simply too short of a time sample.
This time frame is relatively short when comparing the longevity of other food-related studies that examine harmful effects.
Maybe the adverse effects only manifest after a couple generations and simply haven’t shown up yet? But even accounting for the brevity, their safety record so far weighs favorably in when considering the potential.
The argument is simple; research has shown GMOs as safe and viable alternative increasing food demand in developing countries.