What are GMOs?


The term GMO, or genetically modified organism, refers to “a plant or animal altered using modern techniques of genetic modification,” commonly termed genetic engineering. Since crops have been genetically modified by classical methods for centuries, a more accurate term for the foods and crops created with the technologies used today might be GE or genetically engineered (from Best Food Facts).

U.S. commercially grown genetically modified crops (accurate for 2010) include corn, soybean, cotton, canola, sugar beets, papaya, squash, and alfalfa. In addition, small amounts of GE tomatoes and sweet peppers are grown in China. In terms of our diets, most of the GM crops that are consumed for food are used in making processed food ingredients included in cereals, soy cooking oil (vegetable oil) and other types of processed food products that contain soy or corn ingredients. In other words, if you see corn or soy ingredients included on the food label, chances are the product was partially made with GM-crop ingredients.

The most widely grown GM crops in the Midwest are corn and soybeans. The soybeans have a herbicide resistant gene in them that was derived from bacteria and corn has Bt genes that allow it to resist pests along with the resistance to herbicides. Bt is a naturally occurring plant pesticide found in other plants and is approved for use in organic agricultural production.

The use of these crops greatly reduces the amount of insecticide required to control the corn borer and the corn rootworm and also allows for improved weed control with reduced herbicide use. This allows farmers to produce more with less, a vital progression as we move forward with the need to feed a growing world population.

In the near future, the biotechnology behind GM crops will address challenges with drought, Vitamin D deficiency in children, and other consumer oriented health benefits in commercialized GM crops. This will allow GM crops to provide an increasingly important role in maximizing global land use, addressing world hunger, nutrition deficiencies and poverty issues and reducing agriculture’s environmental footprint.

According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA), as of 2010, 59 countries have granted regulatory approvals for biotech crops for import for food and feed use and for release into the environment since 1996. A total of 964 approvals have been granted for 184 events for 24 crops. Thus, biotech crops are accepted for import for food and feed use, and for release into the environment in 59 countries, including major food importing countries like Japan, which do not plant biotech crops. Of the 59 countries that have granted approvals for biotech crops, the U.S. tops the list followed by Japan, Canada, Mexico, Australia, South Korea, the Philippines, New Zealand, the European Union, and China (ISAAA).

In the U.S, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulate the production and safety of genetically modified food. In addition to this oversight in the U.S., global efforts have investigated the safety of GM crops.

With commercial GM crops being a part of the world’s food system since the mid 1990s, there have been no documented health problems from their presence. A 2008 review published by the Royal Society of Medicine noted that GM foods have been eaten by millions of people worldwide for over 15 years, with no reports of ill effects. Similarly a 2004 report from the U.S. National Academies of Sciences stated: “To date, no adverse health effects attributed to genetic engineering have been documented in the human population.”

The European Commission Directorate-General for Research and Innovation 2010 report on GMOs noted that, “The main conclusion to be drawn from the efforts of more than 130 research projects, covering a period of more than 25 years of research, and involving more than 500 independent research groups, is that biotechnology, and in particular GMOs, are not per se more risky than e.g. conventional plant breeding technologies.”

Now, having pointed this out, concerns remain. There are still many who question the long-term effects of GM-crops in our diets. After all, it is impossible to conduct long-term studies on foods have not yet been around long term. This is one reasonable concern that I certainly can understand. But, with the mountain of information we have on the safety of GM-crops, should the slight potential risks of the untested long-term effects of GM crop consumption prevent us from taking advantage of the incredible proven benefits of this technology?

All food has risk. In fact, eating is downright dangerous, but the alternative is worse. Are GM crops any riskier than any other food? There is no scientific evidence that has found this to be true, but that has not erased suspicion. Is unsubstantiated suspicion enough to miss out on the monumental benefits of biotechnology? What do you think?

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