GMO Foods: Super Solution or Franken Future?

Close your eyes and think about genetically modified crops. Now what do you see? Green fields of lush, pest-resistant, hardy crops? A ghoulish cast hovering above insidious kodachrome orbs they call GM tomatoes? Hordes of protestors in t-shirts and Converse sneakers? Hungry children being fed? A Pandora’s Box?

Applaud or curse, the U.S. allows the planting of GM crops, while many countries do not. It also doesn’t mandate labeling of genetically modified food, as do Europe and many other countries. These circumstances have, experts agree, allowed food made with genetically engineered ingredients to be included in approximately 70% of food in typical grocery stores.

It has also allowed the public to be relatively unaware of the increasingly prominent role of GM food in the typical American diet. A poll by The Washington Post showed that some 60% of respondents believed they had never eaten genetically modified food, which seems remarkably unlikely given their prevalence.

With the recent FDA approval of animal products from cloned animals, however, a lot of people are sitting up and suddenly listening. While 46% of people in the above poll opposed food from genetically modified crops, 60% were uncomfortable with the idea of products from cloned animals. Only 22% said they were comfortable with the option of cloned animal products.

We thought we’d take a closer look at some of the issues and arguments being bantered about.

“The Unknown”

For a lot of people, the specter of GM foods looms so insidiously because of the unknown dimension of this technology and what can happen to it (and its consumers) in the real world. The question of regulation and testing is a hot button issue across the globe. Dr. Margaret Mellon of the Union of Concerned Scientists explains, “Lots and lots of people — virtually the entire population — could be exposed to genetically engineered foods, and yet we have only a handful of studies in the peer-reviewed literature addressing their safety. The question is, do we assume the technology is safe based on an argument that it’s just a minor extension of traditional breeding, or do we prove it? The scientist in me wants to prove it’s safe.”

The FDA, for its part, asserts that GM foodstuffs are the most highly regulated food products in the country with a system of individual consultations with companies that apply to grow and market their GM crops. The process, which takes several months, involves not only the FDA but the EPA and Department of Agriculture.

The concern of many here revolves around the process of inserting a gene from another organism, whether it be animal or plant, into another. Though you may think you’re buying a carton of grape tomatoes, what if the engineering process for it used, say, fish, to which you have a dangerous allergy?

According to the FDA, most food allergies can be traced to a handful of foods, including wheat, fish, eggs, shellfish, cow’s milk, tree nuts, and legumes (peanuts and soybeans in particular). If a food product contains a gene from one of the common allergy sources, the company must say so on the label “unless it can show that the protein produced by the added gene does not make the food cause allergies” through animal studies. We imagine this reassurance results in varying levels of comfort, especially if you’re allergic to pineapple.

Super Bugs

One of the selling points of GM crops is their engineered pest and disease resistance. It’s an appealing argument: the end of chemical pesticide and herbicide use. Yet, the specter of evolving tolerance looms. What if bugs or bacteria develop a tolerance for the engineered insecticide or bacterial resistance? What consequences are there in the long run from using antibiotic genes in crops that will be eaten by humans and foraging animals as well as livestock?

Small Farms versus Large Biotech Firms
Because GM seeds are more expensive, some critics say that small farmers won’t be able to afford them and won’t be able to compete with larger, industrial farms. Still others argue that creating a system that makes farmers dependent on biotech firms for seeds each year (GM crops are now engineered to create sterile seeds that cannot be used for the following year’s crops.) puts too much power in the hands of biotech firms.

On the flip side of this coin, others argue that small farmers will save money by not having to purchase expensive pesticides and herbicides. Plants can also be engineered to work within a wider variety of conditions, including the ability to grow in saltier soil or to resist frost by incorporating an antifreeze gene. (Yum!)

Food for the Poor
A common argument for GM crops is the ability to engineer crops that can grow in any environment, in denser conditions and with added engineered nutrients that will “go farther” in feeding a population.

Critics argue that the use of GM crops only makes poorer countries beholden to rich corporations and doesn’t solve the problems of distribution and power, which many see as the central causes of poverty and starvation across the globe.


A couple weeks ago news about Norway’s “doomsday vault” hit the presses. The vault, which is carved into the side of a mountain on a remote island north of Norway’s mainland, will preserve a representative cross-section of the world’s crop seeds in case of a global catastrophe. Though the vault’s plans were made public more than a year ago, it was back in the news after receiving its first shipment of seeds.

Clearly, preserving the world’s plant diversity is important stuff. But should we really just be locking away the remnants of the biodiversity nature developed over millions of years? Other seed preservation organizations argue that an ample number of hardy, nutrient-rich, naturally pest-resistant crop species exist within so-called “heirloom” and indigenous varieties that evolved with a region’s variations of climate, pests and diseases. For instance, the National Research Council asserts that reinstituting Africa’s “lost crops,” including indigenous fruit trees, could help alleviate hunger and environmental devastation caused by the toll of conventional agricultural development.

Do we understand the impact of national or even global crop “monoculture,” particularly when the crops are laboratory creations with little “test” time in the complexities of the real world?

It’s a lot to digest – or not. Industry specialists on both sides of the debate suggest that consumers who wish to avoid GM products look for the “100% organic” label on the groceries they buy. Foods with this label legally must not contain GM ingredients. As for those customers who support GM food development, they will likely be able to take advantage of an increase in those products during the next several years.

O.K., you got us here. We’ll come clean and admit we’re more than a bit skeptical (surprise, surprise), but we want to hear from you. What’s your take on GMO? Give us your perspectives.

lawndart, SteelePop, Johnny kgc, Steefe Flickr Photos (CC)

Further Reading:

Sounding the Alarm on Children and Food Allergies

Scrutinizing Soy

Marginal Revolution: Endangered Bananas

Eye on DNA: GMO Food Can’t Be All That Bad, Can It?

Eating Fabulous: Genetically Engineered Probiotic Bacteria May Reduce Food Allergies

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27 thoughts on “GMO Foods: Super Solution or Franken Future?”

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  1. Genetically modified food should be banned altogether. It just isn’t natural. We are going to get ourselves into a world of hurt messing around with this stuff.

  2. It is a much more complicated than that, Cheryl. Banning it in the United States says nothing as to what the rest of the world does. My biggest concern is the loss of biodiversity due to a few multi-nationals literally owning the rights to lines of fruits and vegetables. It is now legal to own the genetic sequence of living organisms. And with big money behind them they could effectively diminish to the point of no return the diversity of food available in the biosphere. With that said, if this (and other) problems could be effectively mitigated why not use science to create answers to a growing number of problems that exist – most notably feeding a population that is growing at exponential rates and already existing famine and hunger that exists across the planet.

  3. I am reminded of the lawsuit in which Monsanto sued a Canadian farmer for violating their patent rights. He had grown Canola for 40 years (non-GMO). Apparently, Monsanto’s GMO canola from neighboring farms cross-pollinated with his crops when the winds blew, leaving much of his crop containing the GMO gene. Monsanto sued him because he “violated their patent rights” even though he had done nothing to plant their seeds and, in fact, wanted nothing to do with their GMO seeds. He eventually won, but it shows how easily the GMO crops can contaminate other “clean” crops.

  4. like minded individuals – businesses etc need to collaborate. Interested?

  5. BAN the stuff! this is one reason I buy all organic. Im allergic to so many foods already, I never know whats causing my reactions when I don’t eat organic. I have a lot of friends with the same problem, and it’s a growing one. Do people really not see the connection between the rise of allergies and the rise of modified and engineered EVERYTHING? nature is the way it is for a reason. Humans should leave it alone.

    1. Unfortunately Organic and GMO are not exclusive, most organic stuff you buy is GMO. Unless you buy directly from an organic non GMO farmer or healthfood store.

  6. i am not sure that GM foods are the best solution to the world’s growing population as even if we do produce a huge quantity of food it is not certain that it will be correctly distributed among the countries affected by famine.

  7. I don’t think genetically modifying an organism is wrong just by doing it – like violating species, etc. – but the effects it has is just wrong. Our ecology could be severely damaged! I really, really hope it would stop.

  8. what can you say about GMO foods? are they healthy or not? is it safe to eat? can you explain further to me those GMO foods!!

  9. i think GMO’S are bad ideah because, they make them so that bugs and animals wont think about gettin in to them instead of using pest stuff but eventually the bugs and other creatures will run out of food casuse they arent trying to eat the other stuff witch will probibly kill of the bugs then the birds wont get food!!CREATING the domino effect!!this could also cause a population problem cause when u end world hunger u get more and more healthy people witch causes more healthy kids (unless gm doesnt kill) but it will all lead to disaster!!!

  10. It is not a matter of if pests and diseases will mutate to overcome the defenses of the genetically engineered plants, rather when. Their life cycles are so short there is no way to keep them “contained.” Also when do you stop tinkering with a plant’s genetics? Tomatoes are a prime example of this. First tobacco mosaic virus became an issue, so they breed tomatoes to resist the virus. Then verticillium wilt became an issue, and then nematode disease, etc. The answer is not to tinker with genetics, but to give the plant the ability to resist pests and diseases on their own by improving their health. Variation on a theme, but in this respect plants are not any different than us. First and foremost is the soil, and again the “low tech” method is the best—compost! Also by improving the soil you improve the nutrition of the plant. Since this isn’t a gardening site I will stop there, but it is an economically and ecologically friendly way to address the problem.

  11. There are a number of alarming possibilities connected with GMO, but you can’t stop progress. That has just never worked. Everything is a trade off. GMO technology has amazing potential. Saying that it’s unnatural is just silly. Don’t say anything to the millions of people with IVF babies about “unnatural.” But remember when Louise Brown was born? Everyone thought we were headed straight for Brave New World. Technology is not inherently evil.It’s just another tool People will learn to use it and will eventually learn to use it more wisely than not. Just like we learned to use fire. (Ok,no, Grok, not fire! That stuff can kill you! It destroys forest, hurts babies, makes a terrible mess — really, you shouldn’t be allowed to use fire.)

  12. so the government is going to rule on GMO salmon … is this the same governing body that once told us DDT was ok to use? oh, yeah, that took that back. once gmo plants/animals deplete the real things, will we be able to “take it back?” Why do we want to use our children as guinea pigs??????
    say NO to gmo.

  13. Wow, typically quite very good to find out other folks through the hole world in my looking, I seriously value the time it ought to have taken to place collectively this wonderful post. type regards

  14. I don’t know if GMO foods are safe or not for humans in the long term. The problem is no one does. And we aren’t being allowed to pursue independent research on the safety of GMO’s for long term human consumption.

    At the very least I think we need to require food that contains GMO’s to be clearly labelled, so that people still have the ability to make an informed choice. Individual liberties should not be infringed to protect the interests of large corporations, so these GMO activities should not be allowed to infringe upon small independent / organic farmers.

  15. I honestly dont get why people think GMO’s are so bad. Whats the difference from us selectively breeding plants and animals, or creating hybrids to get the qualities that we want, compared to inserting the actual genes we want present?

    and yes i have experience with this stuff. (Chemistry BS, concentrations in biochem, bioinformatics, biotech)

  16. Plasmids are essentially naked virus DNA that is modified with desired trait DNA, and then incubated with the cells of the plant organism to imbed the desired trait in the plant’s genome. The problem is that the plasmids can ‘pop back out’ of the plant’s DNA. No studies have been performed on the effects of exposure of human intestinal and liver tissues to released plasmids. There is nothing preventing the plasmids from inserting into your DNA.

    1. Very interesting article!! To me it just makes sense that if something is “modified” and consumed, the result is a “modified” outcome (read harmful).