Any time you eat non-organic food, there is a 70 percent chance you are ingesting genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Modern genetic modification is different from historical alterations — such as plant breeding — because, today, genes are transferred from one species to another. For instance, when you eat GM food, there is a good chance it has been injected with genes from the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) — hence Bt Corn.
Are these GM foods a path to end world hunger and ensure a robust harvest in the face of possible harsh future climates? Or, are they a way for corporations to gain global control over agriculture for profit, releasing organisms that have unknown effects on the environment and human health?
According to the USDA, in 1996, less than 5 percent of soy products were genetically modified. Within 12 years, that amount increased to 90 percent. These have been in our foods for over a decade and, as far as we can tell, nothing has really gone obviously wrong. Is that why most Americans are not hearing about GMOs?
–>> Update: See GMOs Linked to Organ Disruption in 13 Scientific Studies
A 2006 survey by The Pew Charitable Trust revealed that 58 percent of Americans had heard “not much” or “nothing” about genetically modified foods. 46 percent of Americans oppose the introduction of GM foods into the U.S. food supply. While probably 100 percent of those surveyed had eaten GMOs, only 26 percent thought they had.
In 2001, 75 percent said it is important for them to know whether a product contains genetically modified ingredients, and that further scientific research is needed. Despite these public concerns, the FDA did not think it was necessary to label GM foods. Could this be because companies that benefit from GM food production spend millions of dollars lobbying the FDA?
Putting that thought aside, let us suppose the government has our best interests in mind and has done the studies showing GMOs are worth the risk. So, now, what is the advantage of putting bacteria genes in our foods? Bt crops kill insects that eat the crops, theoretically reducing the amount of pesticides that need to be applied to crops (though, with GM crops increasingly being “resistant” to pesticides, many farmers lay the pesticides on as well). Decreasing the amount of pesticides applied to crops, if it happens, is beneficial on many fronts.
–>>Also see: THE GMO Video
GM advocates say biotechnology increases crop yields and develops more nutritious plants. Thus, they claim this will provide more nutritious food for those who are hungry. They say another benefit is that more land can be preserved since less cropland needs to be used. (While there have been some crop yield increases for some crops, it is not what was projected by GM companies and is nothing at all in some cases. Additionally, in the long term, some GM crops may reduce crop yields.)
However, crop yields aside, many argue that people are hungry not for lack of food, but because they do not have the money to buy food. It is a question of politics and distribution rather than quantity. It remains to be seen if biotechnology will increase yields and decrease costs in such a way that will make any significant impact on world hunger.
While no short-term negative health effects have been documented, according to the American Medical Association (AMA), long-term negative health effects are “theoretically possible” and have been found in a number of GM studies performed on animals.
Environmental consequences are also undetermined. It is not known what effect GMOs will have on non-pest insects and animals. Studies have shown mixed results. Some have found that GM plants decrease fertility or increase mortality of some insects, and other studies indicate no negative effects. If insect populations do decline from GM crops, this could decrease the food supply for birds and other wildlife.
The AMA says: “New technology currently being developed to introduce pharmaceuticals into plants via virus-based vector systems will further raise concerns.” For instance, these pharma-crops could contaminate non-GM crops, or the seeds could be mixed. In the extreme case, this could leave us only with foods that have some sort of pharmaceutical in them. In the same sense, GM plants with fitness-enhancing transgenes could pollinate weeds, making invasive weeds more prolific and more difficult to destroy (update: this has happened, many refer to these as “superweeds” now).
Currently, there is no clear threat of GM crops decreasing plant biodiversity. However, if a gene were introduced to increase the plants’ wild competitive ability, there might be a potential to disrupt natural ecosystems.
The fact is, not enough studies have been conducted to determine if these crops are safe or not. The AMA says: “Substantial information about (GMOs) actual effects on the environment and on biological diversity is lacking. As a consequence there is no consensus as to the seriousness, or even the existence, of any potential environmental harm from GM technology.” But don’t tell that to Monsanto, they would rather take the chances of complete destruction of our food-supply over any chance of losing out on profit.
Have you heard of Dr. Árpád Pusztai? He is one of the main reasons Europe banned import and cultivation of GM crops. In 1998 he purportedly found that rats fed GM potatoes had immune problems and did not grow as well as those fed non-GM potatoes. Some scientists questioned the accuracy of his experiments, yet some say he was ultimately suspended due to pressures from the UK government. Much more is available on him in the GMO video above.
Is this why there is little research on the possible dangers of GMOs? Are scientists scared they will be derided by corporations and those in power? Only time will tell what benefits or detriments GMOs will have, but do we really want to wait and see?
I am but one of many tree-hugging vegetarian bicyclists living in progressively green Portland, Oregon. I have a Master's of Urban Studies and Planning from Portland State University, and I worked for a bit at the Portland Office of Transportation. I have lived, traveled and studied in many European cities and towns to learn about their compact, pedestrian-scaled and bicyclist friendly infrastructure. My goal is to create communities that are socially cohesive, beautiful, and easy to travel by bike and foot; thereby reducing pollution, improving physical health and building community.