You may have heard the term GMO floating around on the news or in our grocery stores. GMO’s stands for genetically modified organisms. These foods do not contain DNA from a second species, which is a common myth. These organisms usually have an existing trait modified to reduce or improve a specific phenotype. A phenotype is a characteristic that can be observed, like color or shape. The DNA of these organisms is altered in a lab and then reintroduced back into its species. The changes made to certain foods are made to either improve or reduce a specific phenotype. Some examples are vitamin A enhanced rice, herbicide resistant corn, and drought tolerance plants.
What are the benefits of Genetically Modified foods?
Genetically modified foods have resulted in many benefits for farmers and consumers alike. They also show much promise in ensuring adequate food supply for our booming population in the next 50 years.
- Pest resistance: The most common reasons for loss of crops are pests. To prevent these losses from happening, farmers routinely use a great deal of chemical pesticides on their crops. These pesticides can pose potential health hazards to consumers if ingested from the crop or run-off into the water supply. It can also cause harm to other aspects of the environment. Growing foods that are genetically modified (GM) help remove the need for chemical pesticide use and consequentially reduce the cost of bringing the crop to market.
- Herbicide tolerance: Weeds are a common obstacle when growing crops of any sort. It is not cost effective to remove them by manual labor, so most farmers spray large amounts of different kinds of weed killers (herbicides). Which can be both time consuming and expensive. Crop plants that are resistant to a specific weed killer would allow the farmers to only need one powerful herbicide to take care of the weeds. One such crop that was created was a strain of soybeans by Monsanto that are resistant to Roundup. The crop needs only one spray, which reduces production costs and limits harmful environmental effects.
- Nutrition: Malnutrition is a common issue for impoverished people. For example, a typical staple food of impoverished people is rice. GM rice contains additional vitamins and minerals and is used to combat blindness due to Vitamin A deficiency in third world countries. This golden rice is also being developed to have an increased iron content these people can consume vitamins and minerals that this food would normally not contain.
Are GM foods safe?
- Allergenicity: Unexpected allergic reactions in children are the main concern when it comes to GM foods. Many children have allergies to peanuts and other foods. New genes in plants may create new allergens to those that are allergen susceptible. More research is being done to prevent possible harm to consumers with food allergies.
- Unknown health effects: There have been studies which involve rats and butterflies that have shown to have harmful effects on them. Science critics however, have deemed these studies flawed as the GM foods used in the studies were never intended for human or animal consumption. Besides the possibility of allergenicity, GM foods are believed to pose no risk to human health.
How are GM foods regulated?
There are three agencies that are responsible for the regulation of genetically engineered organisms. They provide guidance relevant to experimental testing, approval, and commercial release of GMO’s. They are the following:
- Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS): is responsible for protecting the US agriculture from pests and diseases. Their regulations place procedures for obtaining permits and notifications before introducing crops that are regulated in the U.S. Once they have received regulation status the organism no longer requires review for movement in the U.S. http://www.aphis.usda.gov/biotechnology/regulations.shtml
- Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): They are in charge of conducting risk assessments on pesticides that could pose harm to human health or the environment. They also establish tolerance and residue levels for various pesticides that can be applied to crops while their growing and remains after being processed. They sometimes will make visits to farms and ensure compliance to the regulations. Farmers that have B.t.corn, must have a license and grow 20% unmodified corn along with it. http://www.epa.gov/
- Department of Health and Human Services’ Food and Drug Administration (FDA): The CSA states that, “Companies working to create new GM foods are not required to consult the FDA, nor are they required to follow the FDA's recommendations after the consultation.” http://www.fda.gov/
GM foods are not required to be labeled and is only done voluntarily by agribusiness industries. In the future if consumers show a preference for labeled foods might encourage labeling of GM foods.
Michael, W. (2007). Genetics 101. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.
USDA. (2013, 12 30). United States Department of Agriculture. Retrieved from Biotechnology Frequently Asked Questions: http://www.usda.gov/wps/portal/usda/usdahome?contentidonly=true&navid=AGRICULTURE&contentid=BiotechnologyFAQs.xml
Whitman, D. B. (2000, April). Genetically Modified Foods: Harmful or Helpful? Retrieved from CSA Discovery Guides: www.csa.com/discoveryguides/gmfood/overview.php