Taking Another Look at GMOs


Miranda Cheng, Staff Writer

With the issue of overpopulation and the need for a stable food supply, GMOs have been a topic for debate. The term “GMO” stands for “genetically modified organism.” While that may sound scary, the term “GMOs” just refers to food (usually produce) that has been modified via genetic engineering with the intention of bringing out certain, more desirable traits. Some may argue that GMOs would be more harmful than they are helpful. However, GMOs may just be the reliable, sustainable way of farming food that some are looking for. For example, they would help avert food shortages and the issues that follow. Although GMOs may damage the environment, the benefits definitely outweigh the detriments.

Some may argue that GMOs would ultimately be more harmful than helpful. Although the GMOs themselves are harmless, the herbicides and other chemicals involved in their processing are not. According to neurologist Dr. David Perlmutter, “Genetically modified (GM) crops are associated with an increased use of chemicals, like glyphosate, that are toxic to the environment and to humans. These chemicals not only contaminate our food and water supplies, but they also compromise soil quality and are actually associated with increased disease susceptibility in crops.” Even though the GMOs themselves are not affected, the surrounding environment is. For example, the use of glyphosate causes some nutrients and minerals to be more difficult to absorb, like manganese. Although humans only need this mineral in small amounts, manganese is vital for plant development. Therefore, the absence of such could impact the environment in the long run. If GMOs spread, then the glyphosate usage would increase, which further reduces the amount of manganese and other nutrients and minerals. Dr. Perlmutter says, “The World Health Organization has characterized glyphosate as a ‘probable human carcinogen’ … GM herbicide-resistant crops now account for more than 50 percent of the global glyphosate usage.” By eating GMOs, glyphosate is introduced to people’s bodies. Besides causing cancer, glyphosate can also cause kidney and liver damage. Overall, even though the GMOs themselves are not harmful, the herbicides commonly used on them (and other crops!) are—both to the environment and humans.

On the other hand, how helpful are GMOs when compared to the harmful herbicides being used on them? Many foods can be engineered to be just as healthy, or even healthier, than their organic counterparts. For example, Golden Rice, which is enriched with vitamin A, can help prevent malnutrition, especially because rice in general is a staple food in many countries. Interestingly enough, some GMOs can be engineered to be insect-resistant, such as crops with the natural bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis (one example being Bt corn, which makes up more than 80% of US-grown corn). This bacteria naturally produces a toxin that is harmful to only some insects. The bacteria will not harm most beneficial insects, such as ladybugs. Through producing insect-resilient GMOs, the usage of harmful herbicides such as glyphosate can be averted. By not having to use herbicides, GMOs just solved one of their largest problems, as well as the health issues related to the use of such. GMOs are also helping in that they are not the only ones benefited by not using herbicides. According to Dr. Sarah Evanega, a plant biologist, “By suppressing the population of damaging insect pests, [it has] also created a ‘halo effect’ that benefits farmers raising non-GM and organic vegetable crops, allowing them to reduce their use of pesticides, too.” Finally, GMOs can avoid using excess resources, such as water and fertilizers, such as nitrogen, which is a commonly used fertilizer. If they can produce their own fertilizer (or herbicides), then they become self-sustaining and all the more efficient. All in all, GMOs hold untapped potential and could solve many problems that are popping up in the long-term without them.

Even though GMOs themselves are harmless, they still have a long way to go before they can be widely used. Many people do not know that GMOs themselves are harmless, and are intimidated by the words “genetically-modified,” causing them to view GMOs as harmful and something that should definitely not be eaten. These people would most likely turn to cross-breeding as the way to go instead. As such, the perspective that GMOs are helpful is more narrow than the perspective that GMOs are harmful, as it requires many people to support it before its benefits can really be felt—not to mention that it’s easier to dismiss something one doesn’t understand, instead of putting in the effort to understand it fully. A lack of supporters could make the perspective that GMOs are helpful less realistic as well; although the short-term effects are helpful, the long-term effects far outweigh the short-term effects. People may just see the short-term effects without realizing how helpful GMOs could be. One must also take into account that it takes time for scientists to develop and genetically engineer better, more efficient crops. If the herbicides become even more common during that time to compensate for the lack of naturally resistant GMOs, then people may only see the detriments of GMOs, instead of the benefits. Although I personally think that these new, innovative foods hold potential, I think that we still have a long way to go before GMOs will be something found on everyone’s plates.

Overall, GMOs will have to live up to their expectations to be effective. If they are able to do so, then they will gain many supporters who will be able to see their benefits in action. However, if the benefits of GMOs do not come into effect quickly enough, then they may be left behind as other solutions to the bigger issues of food insecurity and food waste are favored instead, such as cross-breeding or eco-friendly, edible packaging. Ultimately, we will need to see how and if GMOs can be integrated into today’s society to truly prove beneficial compared to other, organic food sources.