Does your toddler turn up his nose when his apple starts to brown? If so, he’s not the first, and he certainly won’t be the last. There is another option: the Arctic apple, a genetically modified apple variety that won’t turn brown when it’s cut up. On the surface, it sounds great: your toddler will eat more apples, and you’ll have less food waste. But when you stop and think about it, some important questions come up.
Apples brown because of polyphenol oxidase enzymes, which cause discoloration when an apple’s tissue is exposed to oxygen. What did scientists add to, or take away from, the Arctic apple so these enzymes don’t function as they should? More importantly, is this apple safe to eat after this modification?
This question is at the forefront of the GMO debate. Anxiety about GMOs is high, and many people, especially parents, are fearful about feeding their children genetically modified foods. But are GMOs really that bad for us? Do they pose a risk to the environment? Let’s take a look.
What Are GMOs?
GMO stands for Genetically Modified Organism. A GMO is a plant, animal, or organism whose genetic makeup has been changed to make it “better” in some way. The genes from one organism are taken out of the DNA and inserted into the genes of another unrelated organism, creating new strains or breeds that would never occur in nature. The inserted genes can come from viruses, bacteria, plants, animals, or even humans. Scientists can also insert pieces of DNA that were created synthetically in a lab environment.
Genetic modification is really just a step up from selective breeding, crossbreeding, grafting, and hybridization —techniques humans have been using ever since we evolved from a hunter-gather society to an agricultural society. Early on, we learned that it was possible to improve crops and domesticated animals by controlling the breeding process — for example, choosing which animals could mate and pass on desired traits, and culling animals with traits we didn’t want to see in future herds. It’s through the artificial selection process that we have the Labradoodle dog, hairless cats, and the dairy cow. None of these animals existed until humans began to play with selective breeding.
We also wouldn’t have corn, which is probably the oldest example of selective breeding. Humans began modifying corn over 10,000 years ago, saving the tiny edible seeds from a scruffy tall grass to plant the next year. Over thousands of years, thanks to us picking and choosing the seeds from the strongest and tastiest plants to grow the following year, that scruffy tall grass evolved into corn. It’s now one of the world’s most widely grown crops.
As a species, we know that taking control of nature’s evolutionary process can lead to positive results, and we’ve benefited greatly from this practice. But selective breeding can only happen between sexually compatible plants or animals. Genetic modification is the next step. We now have the knowledge, tools, and technology to alter an organism’s DNA and create “super breeds” that contain exactly the characteristics we want and none of those we don’t. And, thanks to our modern tools and advanced knowledge, this can now happen between non-sexually-compatible plants or animals.
How Does Genetic Modification Work?
There are several methods that scientists can use to insert new DNA into a plant or animal.
One common method is to use the Agrobacterium tumefaciens bacteria. Many viruses and bacteria transfer their DNA into a host cell as part of their natural life cycle. Scientists use this naturally occurring process to insert new strands of DNA into a plant cell. They put the gene they want to insert into the bacteria, which then invades the plant cell and transfers the new gene. The plant cells that successfully accept the new gene turn into plants that have the desired traits.
GMOs were first introduced into the food supply in the mid-1990s. Now, according to some estimates, up to 75% of the food in our supermarkets contains genetically modified ingredients. Some examples of genetically engineered foods include:
- Soybeans. Soybeans have been modified to tolerate Glyphosate herbicide (Roundup). This modification allows farmers to kill weeds without harming the crop. Soybeans have also been modified to produce greater yields, resist pests, and contain an increase in fatty acids, among other things.
- Corn. Corn has been modified to resist the corn borer, a common crop pest, or to resist drought. There are currently 142 different types of genetically modified corn grown in the United States, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports that over 90% of corn acreage in the United States is for genetically modified crops.
- Papaya. Papaya has been genetically modified to resist the papaya ringspot virus (PRSV). According to Cornell University, 50% of Hawaii’s papaya crops are now genetically modified to resist PRSV.
- Cotton. Cotton has been genetically modified to resist Glyphosate herbicide (Roundup). It’s also been modified have higher yields and resist many insects, including the bollworm, the crop’s most insidious pest.
- Mushrooms. Some white mushrooms have been genetically modified so that it takes longer for them to turn brown. This prolongs their shelf life and leads to less food waste.
While genetic modification has been grabbing headlines recently, the process is nothing new. Genetic modification has been around for over 40 years and has been widely used in cheese, medicine, and agriculture. It’s only since the mid-1990s that genetically modified foods have trickled into our food supply — and these days, that trickle has become a flood.
Are GMOs Safe?
Europe has banned GMOs as food ingredients. Here in the United States, however, manufacturers aren’t even required to label their products as genetically modified. But according to a study conducted by Consumer Reports, 92% of Americans want labels indicating whether or not a product contains GMO ingredients.
This lack of oversight raises plenty of eyebrows. Despite the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) assurances that GMOs are safe, the U.S. Right to Know organization reports that the agency conducts no testing on GMO foods. All safety tests are conducted on a voluntary basis by manufacturers and submitted to the FDA, which doesn’t even require companies to disclose all of the information about the tests.
That said, there is wide consensus in the scientific community that GMOs are completely safe. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released an in-depth report about GMOs in 2016. According to their research, GMOs pose no health risk to humans. A report by the World Health Organization (WHO) came to the same conclusion: there are no documented negative health effects of GMOs in humans. Another study, published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, analyzed 20 years of research on GMO safety and determined that negative health effects from GMO consumption have not materialized.
Other scientists aren’t so sure. Michael Hansen, Ph.D., senior scientist at Consumers Union, an authority on genetic engineering, stated in a Consumer Reports interview, “There hasn’t been enough research to determine whether GMOs are harmful to people. But scientists around the world agree that GMOs have the potential to introduce allergens and create other unintended changes that may affect health.”
A joint statement released by over 300 European scientists and published in Environmental Sciences Europe also challenges the claim that GMOs are completely safe. These scientists agreed “… that the scarcity and contradictory nature of the scientific evidence published to date prevents conclusive claims of safety, or of lack of safety, of GMOs.” In other words, in their opinion, there hasn’t been enough research to conclude with any certainty whether GMOs are truly safe or not.
So, what does all this mean for you and your family? Well, it’s certainly a mixed bag. Plenty of experts claim that GMOs pose no risk to human health, while others are still skeptical. Right now, we’re all guinea pigs in a big food supply experiment, and no one can predict how things will evolve in the coming decades.
Benefits of GMO Foods
Genetically modified foods have a bad reputation with the general public. However, genetic modification could answer some of the most pressing problems the human race faces, the biggest being, “How do you feed a population of 7.6 billion people?” This question is even more urgent when you look at the United Nation’s projection that by 2089, the world will have an estimated 11.16 billion people.
Our current food production rates can’t keep up with our exploding population. But thanks to genetic modification, more people in developing countries can grow critical crops, such as corn and cotton, to feed their families and generate a stable income. According to research published in the journal PG Economics, in 20 years, genetically modified crops have “… been responsible for the additional production of 180.3 million tons of soybeans, 357.7 million tons of corn, 25.2 million tons of cotton lint and 10.6 million tons of canola.” This extra food has fed a lot of hungry people.
In our own country, more people have access to healthy, nutritious food than ever before thanks to genetic modification. Genetically modified crops also provide a number of other benefits…..Read More>>>