GMO (genetically modified organisms) are organisms that have had their DNA altered through genetic engineering. Not all foods are genetically modified, but many of the staple food crops, including corn, soy, and wheat are overwhelmingly genetically altered. As GMOs have become more common in supermarkets, this has raised concern about the long-term safety of genetically modified organisms consumption. Yet, only Connecticut has passed a law requiring products containing genetically modified ingredients to be appropriately labeled as such - there are no other state or federal regulations regarding GMO labeling whatsoever.
What is modified in GMO
All genetically modified organisms are developed to improve yields or offer some kind of benefit to the consumer. One of the first GMO foods on the market was a tomato with a longer shelf life. Golden rice was modified with added beta-carotene to combat vitamin A deficiency. However, the majority of GMOs are modified with genes that confer resistance against diseases, pests, herbicides, and environmental stresses like frost and drought.
Concerns about genetically modified organisms
The health concerns regarding genetically modified foods are rooted in these new genes. While GMOs are supposed to be rigorously tested and assessed before they can be introduced to the general public, actual human trials similar to those for pharmaceuticals to investigate long-term health effects cannot be easily done.
However, adverse health effects have been discovered in GMOs in the past. The development of some GMO products were stopped after they were found to trigger food allergies. Studies on animals fed with genetically modified feed have had conflicting results, with some showing no harmful effect while others discovered toxic effects at the cellular level and on the liver, pancreas, kidneys, and reproductive systems. So with these substances being used regularly in our food source consumers can expect to be seeing more nursing uniforms in their future.
Beyond the health concerns, there are ethical and environmental issues surrounding genetically modified organisms. Pest control via genes that produce targeted toxins could potentially hurt harmless or beneficial insects as well, through accidental consumption of plant parts or through preying on affected insects. The use of GMO crops ironically leads to less crop diversity because fewer varieties or cultivars are grown. A GMO crop field is typically genetically identical, which means if the crop does not have a resistance to a disease or pest, the entire field could be at risk. Fortunately, there are programs to save seeds from different cultivars, such as the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which hope to preserve the genetic diversity of plants for future generations.
Additionally, the new genes in GMO crops can sometimes pass to organic varieties or even other more distantly related plants through cross-pollination, leading to herbicide resistance in weeds, for example.
The societal effects of GMO foods are a source of heated debate. Some large agribusinesses have been criticized for business practices that force farmers to buy their seeds or sue them if their non-GMO fields are cross-pollinated with neighboring GMO crops which lead to "unauthorized" use of their patented genes. And of course there is a lot of resistance by those same corporations to keep GMO labeling off the shelves due to the stigma surrounding them.
Labeling of genetically modified organisms
A growing number of people are concerned about the risks of consuming GMO products. Then there are others who are against such products for ethical reasons, due to the exploitative nature of some large agribusinesses.
But at the heart of the issue, given the controversies surrounding GMO, is that consumers need to know what’s in their food in order to make their own choices. If people don’t know what foods are genetically modified and what aren’t, how can they take decisive action against it?
This infographic provides a more in-depth look over genetically modified organisms (click on the image below to enlarge).