Does your toddler turn up his nose when his apple starts to brown? If so, he’s not the first, and he certainly won’t be the last. There is another option: the Arctic apple, a genetically modified apple variety that won’t turn brown when it’s cut up. On the surface, it sounds great: your toddler will eat more apples, and you’ll have less food waste. But when you stop and think about it, some important questions come up.
Apples brown because of polyphenol oxidase enzymes, which cause discoloration when an apple’s tissue is exposed to oxygen. What did scientists add to, or take away from, the Arctic apple so these enzymes don’t function as they should? More importantly, is this apple safe to eat after this modification?
This question is at the forefront of the GMO debate. Anxiety about GMOs is high, and many people, especially parents, are fearful about feeding their children genetically modified foods. But are GMOs really that bad for us? Do they pose a risk to the environment? Let’s take a look.
What Are GMOs?
GMO stands for Genetically Modified Organism. A GMO is a plant, animal, or organism whose genetic makeup has been changed to make it “better” in some way. The genes from one organism are taken out of the DNA and inserted into the genes of another unrelated organism, creating new strains or breeds that would never occur in nature. The inserted genes can come from viruses, bacteria, plants, animals, or even humans. Scientists can also insert pieces of DNA that were created synthetically in a lab environment.
Genetic modification is really just a step up from selective breeding, crossbreeding, grafting, and hybridization — techniques humans have been using ever since we evolved from a hunter-gather society to an agricultural society. Early on, we learned that it was possible to improve crops and domesticated animals by controlling the breeding process — for example, choosing which animals could mate and pass on desired traits, and culling animals with traits we didn’t want to see in future herds. It’s through the artificial selection process that we have the Labradoodle dog, hairless cats, and the dairy cow. None of these animals existed until humans began to play with selective breeding.
We also wouldn’t have corn, which is probably the oldest example of selective breeding. Humans began modifying corn over 10,000 years ago, saving the tiny edible seeds from a scruffy tall grass to plant the next year. Over thousands of years, thanks to us picking and choosing the seeds from the strongest and tastiest plants to grow the following year, that scruffy tall grass evolved into corn. It’s now one of the world’s most widely grown crops.
As a species, we know that taking control of nature’s evolutionary process can lead to positive results, and we’ve benefited greatly from this practice. But selective breeding can only happen between sexually compatible plants or animals. Genetic modification is the next step. We now have the knowledge, tools, and technology to alter an organism’s DNA and create “super breeds” that contain exactly the characteristics we want and none of those we don’t. And, thanks to our modern tools and advanced knowledge, this can now happen between non-sexually-compatible plants or animals.
How Does Genetic Modification Work?
There are several methods that scientists can use to insert new DNA into a plant or animal.
One common method is to use the Agrobacterium tumefaciens bacteria. Many viruses and bacteria transfer their DNA into a host cell as part of their natural life cycle. Scientists use this naturally occurring process to insert new strands of DNA into a plant cell. They put the gene they want to insert into the bacteria, which then invades the plant cell and transfers the new gene. The plant cells that successfully accept the new gene turn into plants that have the desired traits.
GMOs were first introduced into the food supply in the mid-1990s. Now, according to some estimates, up to 75% of the food in our supermarkets contains genetically modified ingredients. Some examples of genetically engineered foods include:
- Soybeans. Soybeans have been modified to tolerate Glyphosate herbicide (Roundup). This modification allows farmers to kill weeds without harming the crop. Soybeans have also been modified to produce greater yields, resist pests, and contain an increase in fatty acids, among other things.
- Corn. Corn has been modified to resist the corn borer, a common crop pest, or to resist drought. There are currently 142 different types of genetically modified corn grown in the United States, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports that over 90% of corn acreage in the United States is for genetically modified crops.
- Papaya. Papaya has been genetically modified to resist the papaya ringspot virus (PRSV). According to Cornell University, 50% of Hawaii’s papaya crops are now genetically modified to resist PRSV.
- Cotton. Cotton has been genetically modified to resist Glyphosate herbicide (Roundup). It’s also been modified have higher yields and resist many insects, including the bollworm, the crop’s most insidious pest.
- Mushrooms. Some white mushrooms have been genetically modified so that it takes longer for them to turn brown. This prolongs their shelf life and leads to less food waste.
While genetic modification has been grabbing headlines recently, the process is nothing new. Genetic modification has been around for over 40 years and has been widely used in cheese, medicine, and agriculture. It’s only since the mid-1990s that genetically modified foods have trickled into our food supply — and these days, that trickle has become a flood.
Are GMOs Safe?
Europe has banned GMOs as food ingredients. Here in the United States, however, manufacturers aren’t even required to label their products as genetically modified. But according to a study conducted by Consumer Reports, 92% of Americans want labels indicating whether or not a product contains GMO ingredients.
This lack of oversight raises plenty of eyebrows. Despite the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) assurances that GMOs are safe, the U.S. Right to Know organization reports that the agency conducts no testing on GMO foods. All safety tests are conducted on a voluntary basis by manufacturers and submitted to the FDA, which doesn’t even require companies to disclose all of the information about the tests.
That said, there is wide consensus in the scientific community that GMOs are completely safe. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released an in-depth report about GMOs in 2016. According to their research, GMOs pose no health risk to humans. A report by the World Health Organization (WHO) came to the same conclusion: there are no documented negative health effects of GMOs in humans. Another study, published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, analyzed 20 years of research on GMO safety and determined that negative health effects from GMO consumption have not materialized.
Other scientists aren’t so sure. Michael Hansen, Ph.D., senior scientist at Consumers Union, an authority on genetic engineering, stated in a Consumer Reports interview, “There hasn’t been enough research to determine whether GMOs are harmful to people. But scientists around the world agree that GMOs have the potential to introduce allergens and create other unintended changes that may affect health.”
A joint statement released by over 300 European scientists and published in Environmental Sciences Europe also challenges the claim that GMOs are completely safe. These scientists agreed “… that the scarcity and contradictory nature of the scientific evidence published to date prevents conclusive claims of safety, or of lack of safety, of GMOs.” In other words, in their opinion, there hasn’t been enough research to conclude with any certainty whether GMOs are truly safe or not.
So, what does all this mean for you and your family? Well, it’s certainly a mixed bag. Plenty of experts claim that GMOs pose no risk to human health, while others are still skeptical. Right now, we’re all guinea pigs in a big food supply experiment, and no one can predict how things will evolve in the coming decades.
Benefits of GMO Foods
Genetically modified foods have a bad reputation with the general public. However, genetic modification could answer some of the most pressing problems the human race faces, the biggest being, “How do you feed a population of 7.6 billion people?” This question is even more urgent when you look at the United Nation’s projection that by 2089, the world will have an estimated 11.16 billion people.
Our current food production rates can’t keep up with our exploding population. But thanks to genetic modification, more people in developing countries can grow critical crops, such as corn and cotton, to feed their families and generate a stable income. According to research published in the journal PG Economics, in 20 years, genetically modified crops have “… been responsible for the additional production of 180.3 million tons of soybeans, 357.7 million tons of corn, 25.2 million tons of cotton lint and 10.6 million tons of canola.” This extra food has fed a lot of hungry people.
In our own country, more people have access to healthy, nutritious food than ever before thanks to genetic modification. Genetically modified crops also provide a number of other benefits.
1. Drought Resistance
Some crops are modified to be highly resistant to drought. This means that people in high-drought areas, such as Africa, can grow more food, experience less crop failure, irrigate less water, and have higher crop yields.
2. Reduction of Crop Loss
Genetic modification has been improving crop yields for over two decades. That means we get more food per acre than we used to. This is incredibly beneficial for farmers, who can earn more off each acre, as well as the population in general since we’re able to grow more food to feed more people.
How much higher are the yields? They differ with each crop, but a study published in the journal Scientific Reports states that corn yields are 25% higher thanks to genetic modification. That’s pretty significant.
It’s important to realize that, according to Cornell’s Alliance for Science, crops have not been genetically modified to increase yields. We’re getting higher yields because we’re losing fewer plants to drought, disease, and pests. According to research cited by Cornell, on average, genetically modified crops have a 22% higher yield and provide farmers with 68% more profit.
3. Less Pollution
Some crops, such as soybeans, have been designed to be low-tillage crops. This means they can survive without farmers having to break up the soil repeatedly to reduce weeds and aerate the soil. Low-tillage crops reduce the use of diesel fuel during the growing process, which, in turn, emits less pollution into the atmosphere and leads to less erosion.
4. Less Dependence on Pesticides & Herbicides
Some crops are modified to resist certain insects and diseases. This means that fewer pesticides and herbicides are used, leading to more sustainable farming and less water pollution. Less reliance on these chemicals also saves farmers money and is better for their health.
For example, geneticist Pamela Ronald, interviewed by physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, states that over 300,000 people die each year due to insecticide exposure. Plants that have been genetically modified to resist these insects require little if any chemical insecticide, which means countless lives could be saved in developing countries that grow these plants.
5. Healthier Food
Some soybeans have an enhanced nutritional profile, with more vitamins and healthy fats and no trans fats. A study published in the journal Scientific Reports found that genetically modified corn contained fewer toxins such as mycotoxins, fumonisin, and thricotecens compared with regular corn.
6. Disease Resistance
Scientists are working to save Florida’s orange crop from a deadly disease called citrus greening, which sours the oranges and halts the ripening process. The disease has been making its way around the world and entered the United States in 2005.
As The New York Times reports, researchers have spent years scouring the planet looking for an orange tree resistant to the disease so they could breed from it, but it just doesn’t exist. That means the answer to saving Florida’s oranges lies in genetic modification. While researchers are working on developing a tree that’s immune to citrus greening, it’s still 10 to 20 years away, and crops will be decimated by then.
But WIRED reports that a local citrus company is developing a different approach, using a genetically modified virus to deliver proteins from the spinach plant that will kill the bacteria. Spinach, it turns out, has antibacterial proteins that are particularly effective for fighting off C. liberibacter, the bacteria that causes citrus greening.
The Golden Rice Debate
In 1982, The Rockefeller Organization began to look for ways to improve the nutritional profile of rice, which is the main food source for over half of the world’s population. By 1999, two scientists — Ingo Potrykus, Professor Emeritus of the Institute for Plant Sciences of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, and professor Peter Beyer of the Centre for Applied Biosciences, University of Freiburg, Germany — had developed a genetically modified rice called “Golden Rice.” Potrykus and Beyer created Golden Rice by inserting two new genes into the rice’s DNA: psy (phytoene synthase) from the daffodil plant, and crtl (carotene desaturase), found in the soil bacterium Erwinia uredovora.
Golden Rice contains high levels of Vitamin A, which can help millions of children in Asia and Africa who suffer from Vitamin A deficiency. The WHO estimates that roughly one to two million children under the age of 5 die each year from Vitamin A deficiency, while another 500,000 suffer irreversible blindness because of the deficiency. Millions of lives could be saved by distributing Golden Rice and encouraging farmers in developing countries to grow the new strain.
Of course, like every issue surrounding genetic modification, Golden Rice has its detractors. In an NPR interview, Neth Dano of the ETC Group, an advocate for small farmers, said, “A handful of corporations in developing countries has reaped billions in profits selling genetically modified seeds and proprietary herbicides.” In short, Dano believes that while Golden Rice can help malnourished children in developing countries, in the end, it’s all about profit and public relations.
Some critics argue that there are other ways to solve the problem of Vitamin A deficiency without the environmental risks posed by genetically modified rice crops. For example, we could distribute high-dose Vitamin A capsules to preschool-aged children. However, while this can be an effective strategy, such programs are often halted due to lack of funding, medical staff, or infrastructure. As a result, only a fraction of children get the recommended dosage.
The Environmental Impact
Many GMO critics are concerned about the environmental impact of planting genetically modified crops, mainly because of cross-pollination. Cross-pollination occurs when one plant pollinates another plant of a different variety, creating an unintended new strain.
For example, chocolate mint and spearmint are both plants in the mint family. When they’re planted too close together in a garden, they often cross-pollinate. The result is a blending of the two varieties — which, on the surface, doesn’t sound like a big deal. However, the offspring of this cross-pollination can have strange or even unpleasant flavors and lack the medicinal qualities of true mint.
When you look at cross-pollination at an agricultural level, you can see how it could become a real problem. Imagine a commercial farmer who grows genetically modified crops in his fields. The fields next to his belong to a certified organic farmer committed to growing non-GMO crops. For the organic farmer, cross-pollination is a real threat. Wind could blow pollen from the genetically modified corn into his fields, or bees could transport pollen from the genetically modified crops. This would contaminate his crops and cause him to lose his “organic” status, as well as the revenue from those crops.
In another example, Scientific American reports that two scientists spotted a canola plant growing alongside a parking lot in North Dakota. Curious, they uprooted the plant, took it back to the lab, and tested it. They found that the canola plant contained proteins made by artificially introduced genes. As the scientists traveled through the state that summer, they found genetically modified canola growing everywhere in the wild — even, in some cases, far from any nearby canola fields.
What’s so concerning to scientists is that when genetically modified plants mix with native plants, they begin to evolve in new, unexpected ways. Canola is a particular problem because there are at least eight compatible wild weeds it can pollinate with, which gives it plenty of opportunities to mix with other plants and create new varieties. Genetically modified canola could pass on certain traits, such as drought resistance, to weeds that farmers need to keep at bay. These new traits could allow the weeds to become stronger and more invasive.
Critics are also concerned that genetically modified crops could create new, pesticide-resistant insects. Research published in the journal Agriculture and the Environment found that pink bollworm has become resistant to genetically modified cotton. This was first observed in India and is now showing up in China, the United States, Australia, and Spain.
Which Foods Contain GMO Ingredients?
The short answer to this question is, “most of them.” In 2014, Consumer Reports purchased more than 80 processed foods and tested them for GMO ingredients. According to their research, nearly all of the products that made no claims about GMO ingredients contained substantial amounts of genetically modified corn or soy. Some of the products that tested positive for GMO ingredients include:
- Kellogg’s Fruit Loops
- Jiffy Corn Muffin Mix
- General Mills Corn Chex
- Boca Original Vegan Veggie Burgers
- Quaker Life Original
- Kashi GoLean
- Doritos Oven Baked Nacho Cheese
- Mission White Corn Tortillas
- Similac Soy Isomil Infant Formula
- Enfamil ProSobee Soy Infant Formula
- MorningStar Farms Chik’n Nuggets
Avoiding genetically modified food is difficult in this country because companies are not required to label their foods as genetically modified. It’s safe to say that, if you’re buying any type of processed food, it will likely contain some GMO ingredients.
Adding to the challenge is that while only a handful of commodity crops, such as corn and soybeans, are widely distributed in the U.S. food market, these ingredients are heavily processed and put into packaged foods under a wide variety of labels. According to the Non-GMO Project, these labels can include:
- Amino acids
- Ascorbic acid
- Sodium ascorbate
- Citric acid
- Sodium citrate
- Flavorings (both “natural” and “artificial”)
- High-fructose corn syrup
- Hydrolyzed vegetable protein
- Lactic acid
- Monosodium glutamate (MSG)
- Textured vegetable protein (TVP)
- Xanthan gum
- Yeast products
The best way to avoid GMO foods is to purchase items that have the “Non-GMO Project” label. This nonprofit provides third-party verification for non-GMO foods and products. You can find out more on its full list of verified non-GMO products. Some popular products on this list include:
- Blue Diamond Almond Milk
- Daiya yogurt, cheese, and dessert products
- Annie’s Chocolate Chip cookie mix
- Arrowhead Organic All-Purpose Flour
- Cascadian Farm Organic Farm Stand Harvest Cranberry, Maple & Wild Rice Granola
- Applegate Organic Herb Turkey Breast
Hundreds of brands, making thousands of products, have committed to using non-genetically-modified ingredients, and the numbers keep growing. Companies understand that a large segment of consumers are willing to pay more for products that don’t contain GMOs, and they’re sourcing ingredients to meet this demand.
However, you need to be skeptical when reading labels. The term “natural” doesn’t mean “GMO-free.” According to Consumer Reports, almost all of the products they tested that were labeled “natural” had a substantial amount of GMO ingredients.
Like it or not, genetically modified food is likely here to stay. However, current research seems to conclude that genetically modified food is safe. And it’s hard to deny that genetic modification is making a positive difference around the world by increasing our food supply.
If you’re concerned about consuming genetically modified food, one of the best ways to avoid it is to start a home garden using heirloom seeds. When you take control of your food supply and grow your own, there’s no question about what you’re eating.
What are your thoughts on GMOs? Are you concerned, or do you feel these foods are safe for your family?