Throughout recent decades, the food industry has remained at the center of public debates. “We are what we eat,” as the saying goes, and naturally, a countless people get obsessed about what, when, and how they eat. The scale of this debate is so all-embracing that you will, most likely, effortlessly recall at least several loud scandals surrounding food and the food industry: gluten-related concerns, hysteria surrounding food preservatives and emulsifiers, stirred up worries about the deadliness of sugar and salt—you name it. But perhaps no other subject caused as many debates and disturbed as many people as genetically-modified organisms, or GMOs.
Genetically-modified organisms have accompanied humanity throughout thousands of years. When gathering harvest or breeding animals, our ancestors noticed mutations that could be useful, and cultivated them further. It is important to notice here that mutations are not necessarily caused by radiation or other questionable factors straight from science-fiction movies; mutations are, generally speaking, singular mistakes or glitches in the evolutionary process, and mostly occur on their own, without human intervention. It is a natural process, of which nature usually takes care of itself: in many cases, mutated organisms die out quickly, so species in general remain unaffected. On rare occasions, mutations turn out to be useful—in this case, they are passed on to the further generations of species; for example, a hare’s ability to change the color of its fur depending on the season helps it hide from predators better. The evolutionary process and natural selection “chooses” mutations that can be useful for a species, and preserves them.
Anyways, what humanity learned to do a long time ago is to notice such useful mutations, and artificially cultivate them. A farmer noticing a wheat shoot that has more and larger seeds than the other shoots will most likely save them for planting during next season; eventually, the genes of this shoot will prevail, and the future crops will be bigger and more prolific. Or, have you ever wondered why we have so many dog breeds nowadays, given that all of them come from a common ancestor—wolves? This is simple: throughout thousands of years, people all over the world cultivated those qualities in dogs that were useful for their particular goals, be it the ability to herd sheep, protect the house, search for missing people, keep an eye on children, be adorable, and so on.
The aforementioned selection is nothing else but genetic modification; without intruding in genomes directly, people managed to find a way to affect species in a mutually-beneficial way. This is not to mention cross-breeding, which is a direct manifestation of the concept of genetically-modified organisms. What will happen if you transplant a plum branch on an apple tree? Most likely, in a couple of generations, you will get plums as big as apples—and without having to use any kinds of chemicals or radiation. This is a simplified example, but it is a common practice among farmers, and it shows that genetic modifications are not necessarily bad or harmful—nature does all the work on its own. And even if it does not, and modifications are intentionally made by genetic engineers, there may be nothing bad about it. For example, several years ago, Swiss scientists created a strain of rice that contains a huge amount of beta-carotene, which is good for one’s eyes and skin; or, trans fats in soybeans have been replaced with olive-like oil, which has made them more healthy for the heart and better for cooking. The main reason for such modifications is not only for making food taste better or possess new useful qualities, but also to solve more global problems: thus, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), due to the extensive growth of population all over the world, the lack of food may become a more significant problem, so by the year 2050, food production will need to double in some parts of the world—and genetically-modified organisms might be the solution to the problems connected to this challenge (WebMD).
However, the opponents of GMOs point out several important issues connected to the production of such food, which cannot be ignored. One of the most obvious ones is that the consequences of consuming genetically-modified food are yet to be researched. Nowadays, scientists do not have viable data proving (or disproving) that consuming such food is safe. The situation with GMOs currently resembles the one with trans fats; when the latter had been discovered several decades ago, no one knew how much harm they could cause, and food corporations used them wherever possible; only years later did it become obvious that trans fats may cause severe harm to one’s health. Respectively, scientists researching the possible negative effects of consuming genetically-modified food reasonably argue that the same might occur to GMOs: seemingly harmless and even useful, they might turn out to be causing irreparable health damage (Organic Authority).
And even though there is no such research, certain type of damage caused by GMOs can be already evaluated. It is well-known that some strains of cereals are genetically modified in such a way that they become able to successfully withstand herbicide treatment. With such strains getting more and more popular, the volumes of herbicide use increased as well. For instance, during the period between 1996 and 2008, farmers in the United States used around 380 million pounds of a herbicide called Roundup; however, the more herbicide that is used, the more resistant weeds become. Respectively, the toxicity of herbicides used to protect crops from weeds increases annually, which deals severe damage to the environment, as well as to sterility, hormonal problems, cancer, defects in children born in areas close to those where herbicides are used, and so on. Humans, unlike genetically-modified crops, are not herbicide-resistant (Responsible Technology).
What is probably the most frightening about genetically-modified organisms is that once scientists evoke changes in the gene pool, there is no turning back, and the process may get out of control. In other words, there is no way to reverse genetic changes. GMOs are able to pass on modified traits to non-modified species, so new species not planned in laboratories may emerge. A good example comes from North Dakota, USA, where, according to the recent studies, about 80% of wild canola plants contained transgenes not supposed to be there. An even more alarming case occurred in Japan: a bacteria used in popular protein drinks created a new amino acid not existing in nature; this is believed to have caused a number of cases when those who consumed the drink experienced severe metabolic and mental damage. There were several deaths reported as well. After this incident, Japan banned genetically-modified products completely (Organic Authority).
Humanity has been familiar with the technology of genetic modifications for thousands of years. Until recently, these modifications have been implemented in more or less “natural” ways, such as selection or inculcation. However, the 21st century has brought new possibilities, and thus new dangers. Although the technology of genetic modifications can imbue products with new useful traits and qualities, the risks of such alterations are yet to be researched. Besides, genetic modifications can get out of control easily (as in the example with Japan), and may cause collateral, unapparent damage: for instance, they may indirectly cause the increase of herbicide usage, which negatively affects the environment and human health. Therefore, before blatantly urging to use GMOs wherever possible, scientists and corporations should conduct thorough long-term studies in order to figure out all the possible risks of wider GMO implementation.
“What You Need to Know About GMOs.” WebMD, www.webmd.com/food-recipes/features/truth-about-gmos#2.
“8 Reasons GMOs Are Bad for You.” Organic Authority, 13 Nov. 2015, www.organicauthority.com/foodie-buzz/eight-reasons-gmos-are-bad-for-you.html.
Smith, Jeffrey. “10 Reasons to Avoid GMOs.” Responsible Technology, 16 Jan. 2017, responsibletechnology.org/10-reasons-to-avoid-gmos/.