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GMOs… and everything you need to know!

Kayla McVey
Latest posts by Kayla McVey (see all)

Today we’re taking a dive into what GMOs (genetically modified organisms) are, why they’re used, and so much more. GMOs can sound like a scary thing but we’re here to reassure you that they’re totally safe to consume! Once again, we’re here to do the research for you and today you even have some extra articles to read at your leisure – assuming you’re like us and this is how you spend your free time. 

What are GMOs?

As per genome.gov, the definition for GMOs is GMO (short for “genetically modified organism”) is a plant, animal or microbe in which one or more changes have been made to the genome, typically using high-tech genetic engineering, in an attempt to alter the characteristics of an organism. Genes can be introduced, enhanced or deleted within a species, across species or even across kingdoms. GMOs may be used for a variety of purposes, such as making human insulin, producing fermented beverages and developing pesticide resistance in crop plants.”

The process of genetically modifying an organism is when scientists select a specific gene from either a plant, animal, or bacterial organism and insert it into the gene of another organism. Yes, this may sound scary. However, it has some pretty gnarly results. This deters other undesirable traits by allowing one specific trait to be used and typically speeds up the process of creating a more genetically desirable plant or animal.

Why are GMOs Used?

GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) are used to create:

  • more tasty, nutritious food
  • Disease resistant plants, causing less need for pesticide/herbicide use
  • Drought resistant plants, resulting in plants that are less stressed and grow better
  • Stronger plants that grow quicker
  • Reducing allergens in plants, saturated fats, and naturally occurring toxins
  • And plants that produce more desirable traits

Perdue University states an 11.2% decrease in yield on corn, 5.2% of soybean yield, and 18.6% of cotton. Due to that drastic decrease, the United States alone would have to convert 252,047 acres of forest and pasture land into cropland. This would bear extreme and radical consequences on conservation efforts, wildlife, and the economy (disregarding its current state already). Perdue also states an increase in greenhouse gasses due to decreased crop yield. 

Bottomline, the key to reducing greenhouse gasses is to selectively breed and genetically modify more efficient plants. Perdue also stated that the price increase of corn would be around 28% and soybeans would be 22% – take into consideration all of the products and byproducts made using these two plants. Consumers would be hit from every side. 

This would also greatly affect wildlife negatively. Deforestation is a huge concern right now with overdevelopment of suburbs and expansion. From 2001-2020 the United States lost around 15% of its forest coverage, according to the DGB Group. Wildlife displacement results in more racoons and possums in your trash cans, black bears scavenging your yards, and foxes in your chicken coops. It only gets worse from there. Everyone is going to eat somehow. GMOs, and the lack thereof,  affect much more than what’s on your plate.

vegetables stacked on top of each other

Are GMOs safe?

Yes, GMOs are completely safe. Harvard goes into detail about multiple tests done to see if GMOs affect fertility, if they cause any implications on health, and how they affect offspring – these tests were done on rats (considering it’s unethical to test on humans). There were no adverse reactions, no changes in genetic makeup, and no effect on fertility or offspring due to ingesting genetically modified foods. 

It was also studied that the DNA altered was not shown to be mutagenic (unstable DNA that mutates) – this study was done using the Ames Test; along with showing that the consumer’s DNA is not altered in any way by eating genetically modified foods. 

GMOs have been closely researched for more than 20 years. Each new product released is heavily monitored and so far, none have shown to be toxic, alter DNA, or have any negative effects on health. 

List of GMO Crops per the FDA:

  • Corn
  • Soybeans
  • Apples 
  • Alfalfa
  • Cotton
  • Potatoes
  • Papaya
  • Summer Squash
  • Canola
  • Sugar Beets
  • Pink Pineapple

There are two genetically modified animals that are regularly consumed – the AquaAdvantage Salmon and Galsafe Pig. Both are completely safe for consumption. The salmon matures at a faster rate and the Galsafe Pig was modified to be free of detectable alpha-gal sugar in its cells. 

GMOs aren’t only used to create food. GMOs were also used to create insulin, a medicine used to treat diabetes. GMO cotton is also used in the textile industry. GMOs are proven to be useful in more than just the food industry. 

To further ease the skeptical minds, the US National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine produced a comprehensive, 584 page report that covers everything presently known all the way up to 2016 about Genetically Modified Organisms. Yes, that’s almost ten years ago but it’s worth checking out. You’re welcome to read it here.

Disadvantages of GMOs

There are social and environmental concerns with GMOs. Primarily the exploitation of large corporations controlling the intellectual property rights to specific plants. This gives them the opportunity to monopolize the market and control prices, thus damaging the already struggling economy. Environmental concerns arise with plants that are internally resistant to specific herbicides pollinating other plants that are similar genetically, thus potentially creating “super weeds”. A situation like this would disrupt the natural dynamic of the ecosystem and would mean this hybrid plant would be resistant to herbicides – this can also occur in native species. The native species could potentially dominate over other species that would otherwise coexist. 

Presently, there is evidence that some genetic transfer occurs between GMO plants and their naturally occurring relatives. However, there is no evidence at this time that causes it to be of any concern.

Selective Breeding vs. GMOs

Selective Breeding occurs when humans intervene in plant reproduction to aid plants producing desirable traits. Plants are chosen based upon the traits they present – such as corn. Modern day corn was produced in Southern Mexico by indigenous peoples through traditional breeding practices. It originates from a plant called teosinte. This took thousands of years to perfect and they unknowingly genetically modified the plant permanently. Other examples of selective breeding are tomatoes, eggplant, and potatoes originating from nightshade in South America; broccoli, brussel sprouts, and kale originated from wild mustard. Almost all plants you see in the market or grow in your backyard have been selectively bred in some capacity. 

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Sources used:

Are GMOs Harmful?: https://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2015/will-gmos-hurt-my-body/

Definition of GMO: https://www.genome.gov/genetics-glossary/Genetically-Modified-Organism#:~:text=GMO%20(short%20for%20%E2%80%9Cgenetically%20modified,the%20characteristics%20of%20an%20organism.  

Environmental and Economic Implications of Eliminating GMOs: https://www.purdue.edu/newsroom/releases/2016/Q1/study-eliminating-gmos-would-take-toll-on-environment,-economies.html 

FDA: https://www.fda.gov/food/agricultural-biotechnology/gmo-crops-animal-food-and-beyond 

Selective Breeding and Genetic Engineering: https://bio.libretexts.org/Bookshelves/Ecology/Environmental_Science_(Ha_and_Schleiger)/04%3A_Humans_and_the_Environment/4.03%3A_Agriculture/4.3.03%3A_Selective_Breeding_and_Genetic_Engineering 
NASEM Report on GMOs: https://nap.nationalacademies.org/read/23395/chapter/1

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