The term “genetically modified organisms” or GMO has become a controversial topic as its benefits for both food producers and consumers are accompanied by potential biomedical and environmental side effects. There has been an increase in the concern by consumers about food products containing GMOs, especially from the short- and long- term health problems which may result from this advanced form of biotechnology.
Complex studies are being carried out throughout the world to study the disadvantages or advantages of genetically modified foods. Let’s just look at some of the most compelling new research and recent technology developments that may affect opinion. Please note, these are only the highlights, and I encourage you to continue to research the topic on your own.
Genetically Modified Foods Spark Controversy & Protests
In 2011, a group of protesters from Greenpeace, a non-government, environmental organization, broke into an experimental farm of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), an Australian federal government agency for scientific research, and destroyed the entire crop of genetically modified wheat.
Other groups, like the Philippine Government’s Rice Research Institute in 2013 were attacked by anti-GMO activists due to their development of “Golden Rice,” a product that delivers high-levels of vitamin A intended as a cheap way to deliver a dietary source of vitamin A for developing areas of the world.
These types of outbreaks have caused continuing divide amongst the scientific community and public voices of concern. For you and I, there seems to be a lack of comprehensive understanding of current agricultural problems and the very nature of GMO.
What are GMOs and Genetically Modified Foods?
Genetic modification is a biological technique that effects alterations in the genetic machinery of all kinds of living organisms. The World Health Organization (WHO) defined the GMO as, “organisms, such as plants, animals, or microorganisms in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination.”
This definition seeks to distinguish the direct manipulation of genetic material from the practice of improvement in the genetic stock of plants and animals by selective breeding. With DNA recombinant technology, genes from one organism can be transferred into another, usually unrelated, organism. Other scientists suggest “biotechnologically modified organisms” is a closer definition for GMO.
The First Genetically Modified Plants
Interestingly enough, the first genetically modified plants were antibiotic resistant tobacco and floral plants in 1983. The next plants to be “modified” were tomato plants in the USA. These modified species were intended to delay ripening approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Since then, several transgenic crops have received FDA approvals, including canola oil’s modified composition, cotton and soybeans resistance to herbicides, and there are several genetically modified foods available in the marketplace including potatoes, eggplants, strawberries, carrots, and more in the pipeline.
Why were GMOs developed?
Knowing fully well that the majority of people would prefer not to have adulterated foods of any sort, it was my thought to explore why there has been such an effort to develop so many GMOs. Today, there are three major challenges we are facing that motivate this movement to find new technology. They are listed briefly here:
- Global population growth continues to be an overwhelming problem in finding means to feed the 795 million people in the world that are undernourished. The reducing of hunger is a priority of policy-makers.
- The decrease in land useful for food production is a prime concern of the WHO, which predicts this to be at an all time low by 2050.
- Bottlenecks of conventional and modern breeding continues to be a concern, as the natural process takes up to 10-15 years for many plant forms.
Taking these facts into account, the emergence of biological technologies and the development of GM foods promise to reduce production timelines to new strains, and to provide us with optional strategies to achieve sustainable food security.
One more factor for us to understand is the development of genetically modified crops over time has changed. Most scientists agree that the evolution has evolved through the following breakthrough research:
- The introduction of the gene coding for certain traits into the plant cell wall in the 1980’s.
- Indirectly using bacteria for inserting genes into plant walls in the 1990’s.
- In 2012, a revolutionary genome editing tool was developed to make the work of genetic engineering much easier.
What are the risks of genetically modified foods?
The debate over genetically modified foods focuses on the uncertainties concerning the potential adverse effects of GMOs on human health and environmental safety. Part of the anxiety among consumers can be attributed to four areas of concern:
- The difficulty of the scientific community in explaining concisely to the lay population the biological techniques involved.
- Concerns about the improper dissemination of genetically modified foods.
- The ethical principles inherent in traditional food processing.
- Misgivings with regard to the adequacy of evaluating of the genetically modified foods.
These concerns are well taken. Most consumers feel the need to say, “why mess with Mother Nature?” Other health concerns are in the area of toxicity from the use of GM foods, allergenicity and potential genetic hazards.
It is true that these modifications can exacerbate allergies. One example is in the area of soybeans enriched with amino acid methionine. The product is the result of a gene isolated from Brazil nuts. The result is the sensitivity of these nuts to have allergic reactions to the transgenic soybean.
Bottom Line: Should you eat genetically modified foods?
As a dietary professional, I can not make any recommendation but to suggest making personally informed decisions best for yourself and your family. I personally pay a great deal of attention to what is in my food and to stay away from added chemicals, such as, pesticides, antibiotics, and food company additives.
That said, it is probably unlikely that the economic and scientific development of GMOs will go away. Using properly grown organic foods can be another answer. At the end of the day, the best thing you can do is eat the very best fresh, clean foods as you possibly can.
Written by Rita Larsen, RDN, CD; Elite Sports Clubs Nutrition Educator & Diet Counselor
Rita is certified in Positive Psychology, University of Penn; has a BS in Dietetics from Kansas State University; and an Internship and Masters at the Indiana University Medical Center.Schedule a Nutrition Consultation