GMOs

Are they good? Are they bad? A decision has yet to be made.

Imagine going to the grocery store; this is one of the first times you have had to go about buying your own groceries and making sure you are getting all the vitamins and nutrients that come from the foods we eat. In every section of the store, you see foods labeled organic, Non-G.M.O., or contains G.M.O.s. Does it matter which one you pick? Does one have more health benefits compared to the others? Are they all safe to eat? There is no clear answer because there is a lot of debate around G.M.O. use for our produce, but that does not keep people from buying those products.

Genetically modified organisms or G.M.O.s have been developed more fully in the last few decades. Genetic modification can occur in two different ways, in a laboratory or naturally. In a lab, a plant seed is taken and, using microscopic tools, has its genetic material spliced. Splicing genetic material involves the “cutting” of certain DNA amino acids and either leaving it as it is, or adding new strands of DNA to modify the seed. After splicing occurs, synthetic or natural DNA strands are added to organisms to make them grow bigger or be able to protect themselves from predators. The materials that are used are safe and effective, as far as we know from the research that has been done by genetic engineers. The materials engineered in the lab are usually based off of the amino acid strains of other plants, and sometimes animals, that have the qualities that they want the food to have. Naturally, plants are modified through the process of crossbreeding. Tested by scientist Gregor Mendel, cross-breeding is a natural and effective way of genetically modifying plants. The process includes taking the pollen from one plant and then crossing it to a second plant within the same family of plants, but a slightly different species, to create a new species of plant. Cross breeding is still used today by many farmers who have not made the transition to genetically modified seeds. It is a natural process that generally has the same effect of genetically engineering seeds in a laboratory. Both methods of modification are effective, but there is a great debate regarding whether or not synthetic modification or natural modification is more or less effective.

The effectiveness of genetic modification is a highly debated topic where many scientists back up the facts on the effectiveness of such innovative technology. The large amount of support that is given to these new farming methods is very high; having the ability to buy these seeds has made the job of farmers so much easier. Many farmers have been buying genetically modified seeds so that their harvests are larger and the season to pick their crops are longer. Some crops do not require pesticides because they have new defense systems being inserted into their DNA that fights against the pests that are trying to eat them. Other crops have been modified so they still need pesticides, but the plants are not killed or affected by the chemicals in the pesticide. Crops now grow faster and more efficiently for the fast-moving world and they are also increasing in size, providing more for farmers to work with and provides consumers more from the food they get in stores.

To the surprise of many, there is some backfire from consumers; these people are looking for foods that are all-natural and non-synthetically modified. The debate involves the fact that because GMOs are not found in nature, they will end up messing up our bodies because of the materials used to modify them. These materials will, in the long run, mess around with natural balance of environment and will cause many problems in the ecosystem including the possibility of accidental crossbreeding, contamination of fields that do not grow these strains of seeds, and the possibility of having to pay a company a fee for having their seeds on your land without establishing business with that company. Many consumers support the organic foods movement, but those foods tend to cost more in stores. If these GM foods were just crossbred or left alone, consumers would tend to buy the cheaper produce, but because they were modified in a lab, it is not likely that many are going to be keen on buying that and they will instead opt for the more expensive, but all-natural organic produce.

In terms of the environmental impact these GM foods have on the earth, we turn to investigate more deeply into some of the damage the production of such products has had on the land around the crops. Using pesticides directly on plants has had the tendency to cause problems with the pesticide being in the water drainage systems on farms. Some caused problems with fish being poisoned by run-off water and if the water is contaminated, re-using the water is not a good idea, because the pesticide could potentially kill off another plant being grown. Some pesticides have been made unusable because the insects that attack these plants have been mutating so they are no longer affected by the pesticide. Alternating pesticides would ensure that the pests attacking the food will not be able to keep up with the pesticides and mutate to be prone to specific chemicals. With genetically engineered foods though, scientists can ensure that there will be no pesticides necessary because they will have defense mechanisms built into their DNA. This would be effective in the grand scheme of things, but at the end of the day, these seeds can still cause environmental distress. As the seeds develop and become plants, they, like all plants will let off more seeds and pollen causing cross-breeding between genetically modified plants and potentially non-modified or modified plants. Then we do not know specifically how the plant is being modified and what it will end up being once it is grown. Many people who are anti-G.M.O. see this entire process as playing the role of God; scientists continually make newer, better seeds, and in the end, they are creating new organisms taking the place of what we were originally given by the Creator. This is seen more by those who are creationists and more religious, but they stand by their strong belief in God and they would rather eat organic foods that have not been modified from its original genetic makeup. These beliefs have been contributing to the debate revolving around the environmental impacts and the quality of these organisms.

Consumers are incredibly concerned with the quality of the products they pick up in the supermarket. The majority of concerned people include mothers and fathers with young children, young adults looking to stay healthy and live healthy lifestyles and the elderly. One concern is whether or not the food has the same nutritional value as regular unmodified foods. Scientists have shown us that the modified foods, unless the health benefits have been altered to be even better for us, are not usually modified to be better or worse than organic foods. Some foods can be modified to have more health benefits, such as increasing the vitamin content of the food. Others are not modified in such a way because they have not lost any health benefits. Another concern is whether or not the synthetic material can, in the long run effect a person’s health overall. Scientists again have proven that the materials used are not designed in a way that will affect the health of those who consume them but many consumers remain unconvinced and do not spend their money on foods that have been modified.

A fairly common problem that results in consumers not buying particular products is due to the fact that they do not know for sure if any genetically modified products were used in the making of these foods. Consumers tend to opt for the foods that are labelled “Non-GMO” or “Made with Genetically Modified Products,” so why are some major companies refusing to label their products? Transparency with consumers about what is in their food will increase the gross income of many companies that have been losing business because they lack labelling. Some companies that do not clearly mark their foods use QR Codes that bring consumers to a website describing if they are or are not GM food; if they do use GM foods in their products, the company then provides a description of why they used the product. Some companies are scared of being transparent with their consumers because they want to keep their consumers, and if they find out what is in their products, there could be a decrease in their income, due to a decrease in sales.

Recently, in 2015, Vermont proposed a new law that would require all companies that wanted to sell their food in the state were required to have clear labels stating whether or not their products contain ingredients that have been genetically modified. The only food, the state declared, that did not need to be labelled included dairy products such as cheese, made in the state. This was most likely made, in some critics eyes, as a protective measure to ensure that their products were not questioned, genetically modified or not. The law was passed in 2016 and was effective immediately which made consumers victorious in their askings. With the law being passed in Vermont, many companies across the U.S. decided to provide labelling in all 50 states which really just made things easier for companies in the long run. Once the law was passed, there would be detriments to companies that decided to not label their products; if the company did not fix the labelling issue within a six month period, they would be facing civil penalties of almost $1,000 per day, per product that was not labelled correctly. This was one big step in the right direction when it comes to pleasing the consumers.

This GMO crisis is not only in the United States; taking a trip across the Pacific Ocean, there is some societal and governmental crisis occurring with the rise of GMO seeds becoming more and more popular. In China, the government has basically banned the use of GM seeds with their crops, with the exception of papayas. The problem with one crop being genetically modified, is that the farmers in China do not necessarily know if the seeds they are using for their crops have been modified or not. The government is afraid of these seeds producing unsafe food, so they try to keep GMOs out of the country, but many farmers want to learn more about these seeds and how they could increase productivity. In Japan, there is more of a societal issue with GM seeds being used in different farming regions. When farmers in Japan have access to these seeds, they run other farmers who do not uses these seeds out of business. This then leads the poorer farmers to getting angry because of the unfair advantage that some of these richer farmers have being able to buy the GM seeds and running them out of business. These crises have gone international, and it will only get worse as the influence of GM foods attracts more and more farmers. The safety of our food may or may not be guaranteed because of the amount of food we import from other countries, so knowing what we are eating is going to become more and more difficult.

As always, many foods are processed and determined safe to eat by a series of organizations. A few of these organizations include USDA Organic, the Non-GMO Project, and the NSF Safe Water program. Each of these organizations does something different to ensure that the products we tend to buy are safe for consumers to buy. USDA Organic ensures purity in consumable products by mandating 95% of ingredients are grown without genetic engineering. The Non-GMO Project provides third party verification that products are non-GMO, not only in source, but also in manufacturing and packaging. And the NSF Safe Water program verifies and certifies that sourcing, disinfecting, treatment, and bottling of water process is uncontaminated. All of these organizations have been established to ensure that all consumers will know that the food they eat and the water they drink is safe for consumption. Companies are forced to have their products tested, but by having them tested, they can safely assume that they will make more money because their products would be more thoroughly tested for purity.

The rise of capitalism throughout the world has caused a sudden increase on the high demand for food grown quickly while still being healthy and good for consumers. But this growing need for more food and products, means that it is very not likely that we will always know what is in our food. GMO seeds are usually modified so their growing season is extended, and the amount of product that is produced throughout the season increases. This then ensures that the farmers have an increase in profit, which then allows for more seed to be bought from the seed supplier. The companies that sell seed to farmers, charge enormous amounts of money for their seeds. This fee that is due to them then enables the genetic engineers to work on newer, even more efficient seeds that can then be bought by farmers. These large companies are really trying to make more money, and in turn, they are finding new ways to make their products grow faster, have longer growing seasons, and give off more product in each harvest. This may or may not end up being effective, but the whole debate revolving around these new products has caused a load of questioning, uncertainty and has seemingly disrupted the natural order to living things.

Looking at the facts, there is nothing wrong with foods made with or without GMOs. Each product provides the same health benefits, both are safe to eat, and most modifications are made using materials from natural sources such as other plants or sometimes animals. Yes, some of the materials used in labs are synthetic, but scientists have tested them thoroughly, and these foods go through testing at different organizations to ensure that they are safe for consumption. If they were not, then they would not be sold. The entire process of growing GM foods is expensive though. The companies that provide farmers with seed tend to charge their customers large amounts of money just to buy and harvest these crops. Farmers pay these companies by buying more seed, fertilizers and pesticides from the company; often times, farmers also must provide the company with some of the profit from their harvest too. These companies patent their seeds so no one can use them, unless they are specifically bought by farmers. The sudden need for more crops requires these seeds that provide more product in each of bag of seed, which in turn requires farmers to buy more. The process is incredibly costly, but necessary for the continuity of a strong business for farmers. The environmental costs to GM foods are detrimental to crops and many organisms. Runoff from crops sprayed with pesticides can cause water problems within ponds, lakes and rivers where there are fish and other animals that could easily be killed off. Other plants might be watered with the contaminated water so those crops could be killed off by the chemicals in the water. Nowadays, the thing that many people focus on is the labelling of their food. Most companies, in the United States at least have begun labelling all their products, making consumers happy, which means that the companies are making more money. Consumers know what is in their food which makes them more likely to trust that brand more. There is a certain amount of transparency needed to help consumers make the decision to choose one product over another, and labelling has definitely helped. This business has become largely capitalistic, but most consumers are looking for quality over quantity. There are no huge differences in the health or safety benefits when comparing GMO and Non-GMO products.