When people hear the term genetically modified organism, many think of scientists hunched over lab benches, injecting chemicals into grotesquely shaped vegetables. Admittedly, the concept of changing the genetic makeup of our food can sound intimidating or scary thanks to the abundance of fearmongering about GMOs.
Stripping away the scary terminology is the first step to showing GMOs’ positive contributions to agriculture — contributions that outweigh the overhyped uncertainties. GMOs help solve food shortages and malnutrition by providing faster-growing, healthier crops. And no, these foods won’t glow in the dark.
The root cause for most of the misinformation about GMOs can be traced to a lack of understanding about the science behind these crops. Kate Krepps, associate field crop specialist for Michigan Farm Bureau, compared the process of modifying plant genes to replacing a page of a book, since all organisms share a common language in their genetic material.
“Really, you’re pulling one piece out and inserting another piece that’s found naturally within that plant,” she said. “It’s just like stopping that book on that page, ripping it out, and replacing it with another page from the book. Modified, yes, but still part of the same book.”
For thousands of years, humans have used genetic selection: Farmers cultivate seeds from the plants that produce the juiciest tomatoes, the largest ears of corn, and the most tender spinach leaves. They breed cows that can produce the most nutritious milk, and more of it. By maintaining animals or planting seeds that contain desirable genes, farmers have already manipulated the plant or animal’s genome by replacing one set of traits with another. The genetic modification of organisms is merely a more precise and direct continuation of this selection process rather than waiting hundreds of years to achieve the same effect.
It’s also a myth that GMOs are produced without supervision, slipping insidiously onto supermarket shelves without safety checks. Bob Boehm, manager of Michigan Farm Bureau’s commodity and marketing department, said there is a thorough research process that occurred for each of the eight GMO products currently on the market: alfalfa, canola, corn, cotton, papaya, sugar beets, and summer squash. According to Boehm, genetically modified crops are studied an average of 13 years, with research investments averaging around $136 million before the products are made available to consumers.
In addition to the rigorous research required to demonstrate a GMO’s safety, the Environmental Protection Agency ensures they are safe for the environment, the Department of Agriculture ensures that they are safe for farmers, and the Food and Drug Administration ensures they are safe for consumers. Boehm referred to these as the “three-legged stool” of regulation that ensured the safety of any GMO product on the market.
Choosing to consume GMO products is up to the individual, but genetic modification is a beneficial process, not a harmful one. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, GMOs allow farmers to produce more nutritious food. For example, genetically engineering rice to contain more vitamin A can reduce vitamin A deficiencies and the resulting blindness that may occur for the 50 percent of the world’s population that relies on rice as a dietary staple.
The United Nations projects that the global population will continue to grow, adding as many as 83 million new mouths to feed each year. GMOs will help ensure that there is enough nutritious food to meet the growing needs of the human race.
“What we’re trying to do is provide safe food. So as the technology moves, we learn that there’s a better way,” Boehm said. “The impact of technology changes how we do everything. Agriculture is no different.”
Although genetic modification is still relatively new to consumers, it serves as one of the best available methods for farmers to combat pests and crop illnesses in a manner that will still be safe for humans. Pests evolve and find new ways to adapt and survive; GMOs are one of many tools that make sure crops survive long enough to end up at the grocery store.
Once the misconceptions and propaganda about genetically modified foods disappear, GMOs show promise as part of the solution for providing people with more nutritious, cost-efficient food.
Madeleine Jepsen is a senior studying biochemistry.