The Demonization of GMOs

Issue 8, Volume 113

By Kikyo Makino-siller 

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When buying groceries, it is common to see certain brands of food products proudly bearing a “certified organic” sticker. As defined by the Department for Agriculture and Rural Affairs, organic products avoid using artificial fertilizers, pesticides, growth regulators, and livestock feed additives during production. In contrast, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are synthetically created through gene modification, an inorganic product of agriculture. In recent years, GMOs have become synonymous with bad food practices and harmful health effects. Fifty-one percent of American adults believe that genetically modified (GM) foods are worse for human health than organic foods. With the rising popularity of health fads and “clean” diets, GMOs have been scrutinized to no end.

Urban health myths cloud consumers as they browse shopping aisles and contribute to stigma toward GM produce. Some consumers even claim to have experienced allergic reactions due to genetic modifications in their food. A woman named Grace Booth experienced anaphylactic shock from corn tacos in 2000. Unable to identify an allergen, she blamed Cry9C, a pest-repelling protein used to genetically modify animal feed. Thus began the debate on the health risks of GM foods. Though the cause of Booth’s reaction is still unknown, the Food and Drug Administration concluded that there was no direct link between Cry9C and allergic reactions. One study concluded that the technology used for producing GM crops does not increase the risk of exposure to allergens. To further alleviate consumer worry, research also suggests that the treatment of animals does not differ noticeably between those on organic versus GM farms.

In addition, there is little evidence to support that GM crops reduce the diversity of non-modified species. There is a relatively well-known theory that GM crops are all the same species, thus making them more susceptible to disease because they are produced from the same genes. Supposedly, once disease hits, they will all die because none of the crops contain specific genes that make them immune or resistant. However, considering that GM crops can be modified to be disease resistant, it seems that there is no considerable reduction in species diversity or increase in disease. Therefore, it is important to step back from these preconceived notions to identify the unique advantages of GM agriculture.

First, GM crops increase yield, meaning that more food is produced per acre of farmland. Agricultural yield is incredibly important. As we continue to discover the devastating effects of clearing out natural landscapes for farmland and the consequences of an ever-decreasing amount of arable land, we must prioritize using our land to the best of our ability. In addition, evidence suggests that increased agricultural productivity correlates with considerable reductions in poverty throughout the world. This relationship is because food prices decrease for consumers when farmers profit from greater yield. Organic food farming in general uses about 40 percent more land than conventional farming.

These statistics further increase when looking at specific products. To produce the same gallon of milk organically, you need 59 percent more land than if the milk had been produced conventionally. Meat requires 82 percent more land. For crops, it’s more than 200 percent. Forgoing fertilizers and pesticides means that food production becomes much less efficient, requiring organic farmers to use more land to produce the same amount of food. However, genetic modifications mean that we can also forgo these chemicals without dire consequences. For example, pest-resistant crops can be created using genes from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, which produces a toxic protein when ingested by certain insects. Studies show that there is an overall decrease in pesticide and herbicide use when farmers adopt GM seeds. This reduction means that consumers worried about unhealthy chemicals in their food don’t have to limit themselves solely to organic options.

These comparatively low prices make GM foods more accessible than their organic counterparts. Overall, organic foods are 47 percent more expensive than their non-organic counterparts. Prices range from seven percent above the non-organic price for spinach to 82 percent for eggs. Roughly three billion people across the globe do not have access to affordable organics and must rely on genetically modified alternatives. This situation is especially important in the context of current global economies. Many people and economies are recovering from the pandemic, putting a strain on budgets. The price of groceries has drastically increased in the past few years, making food less and less accessible. Many families struggle to buy healthy foods like fruits and vegetables because they are already more expensive than their less nutritious counterparts. Seeing that a product is GM should not deter consumers from purchasing nutritious foods, and those grocery shopping should not feel guilty when they are unable to afford the organic option. There is no nutritional difference between the two options. Lower food prices ensure lower rates of hunger.

Food accessibility is a key factor in improving the standards of living for people everywhere. With a growing global population and an ever-increasing demand for food, it is estimated that farmers will soon need to produce up to 70 percent more food to meet demand. In 2021 alone, 193 million global citizens lived in food-insecure households. It is important to note that this crisis is due in part to large amounts of food waste and inefficient dispersal of resources. In farming areas with limited land or large communities to feed, there is no doubt that GM foods provide immense benefits.