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  • Writer's pictureTamanna Mohapatra

All about GMOs

Since I concern myself with learning about food sustainability, I felt it was time to research and share what the world’s leading authorities are saying on this hot topic.

GMO..genetically modified organisms and GE..genetically engineered both refer to a way of growing food that uses bioscience in a very invasive way without being aware of all the short or long-term impacts of these types of foods. I have tried stating this definition without any bias and as simply as possible. Below I will mention quotes I read from two really well written articles on this topic.

The quotes I mention below are what were most relevant to me but it would be great if you would read the articles yourself and then comment what you felt was most critical/relevant from your perspective.

1st article was written a few years back by the Mother Jones magazine, titled: “What are GMOs and why should I care? (2013)” 2nd article was published in the New York Times and is a debate on this topic, titled: Can Biotech Food Cure World Hunger?(2009)

Key Facts from the 1st article:

What exactly are genetically modified organisms? GMOs are plants or animals that have undergone a process wherein scientists alter their genes with DNA from different species of living organisms, bacteria, or viruses to get desired traits such as resistance to disease or tolerance of pesticides.

How is it different from what has been done by farmers throughout the history of agriculture? Farmers have been raising their plants to achieve certain desired traits such as improved taste, yield, or disease resistance (aka green revolution), but this kind of breeding still relies on the natural reproductive processes of the organisms, where as genetic engineering involves the addition of foreign genes that would not occur in nature. Grist discusses this topic in more detail here.

Am I eating GMOs? Probably. Since several common ingredients like corn starch and soy protein are predominantly derived from genetically modified crops. The vast majority of processed foods contain GMOs. One major exception is fresh fruits and veggies. Meat, fish, and poultry products approved for direct human consumption are NOT bioengineered at this point, though most of the feed is derived from GM grains.

So what are some examples of food that are genetically modified? 1. Papayas: 77 percent of the crop grown in Hawaii is genetically engineered (GE). 2. Milk: RGBH is a GE variation on a naturally occurring hormone injected into dairy cows to increase milk production. As much as 40 percent of our dairy products, including ice cream and cheese, contains the hormone. 3. Corn on the cob: While 90 percent of corn grown in the United States is genetically modified, most of that crop is used for animal feed, ethanol, or processed foods. Sweet corn was GMO-free until last year when Monsanto rolled out its first GE harvest of sweet corn (sold by Walmart).

Aren’t food companies required to let me know whether their products contain GMOs? Not in the United States. The recent string of “Right to Know” bills in state assemblies across the country are aimed to require food companies to label any products that contain genetically modified organisms. Connecticut and Maine recently passed such laws, but those laws won’t go into effect until other states adopt similar measures. Biotech companies and the food industry say that such labeling would be expensive and pointless since genetically engineered foods have been declared safe for human consumption.

So if the food is safe, what’s all the fuss about them? First off, not everyone agrees that GMOs are safe to eat, especially over the long-term. The European Union remains decidedly skeptical, with very few approved GE crops grown on the continent and mandatory labeling in place for products that contain GMOs. Some scientists fear that GMOs could cause allergies in humans. Others point to the environmental consequences of the farming of GE crops.

How do GMOs affect the environment? One word: Pesticides. Hundreds of millions of extra pounds of pesticides. The six biggest producers of GE seeds are also the biggest producers of chemical herbicides and insecticides. For example, Monsanto’s Roundup Ready crops, are genetically engineered to be immune to herbicide so that farmers can destroy weeds without killing their cash crops. But the process has spawned Roundup resistant weeds, leading farmers to apply greater and greater doses of the chemical or even resort to more toxic methods to battle back the superweeds. All these chemicals harm the soil, need a lot of energy to produce, and once washed away pollute the water and create dead zones. Socially they make farmers economically and financially dependent on these seed/fertilizer companies.

Key Opinions from the 2nd article:

What I find very scary about this article is the heavy dependence on science and technology to solve our problems without addressing the disadvantage caused by such dependency and the lack of addressing related issues such as preventing existing food waste to help feed the poor vs. focusing on creating more and more food at the cost of the soil, depleting water resources and increasing dependency on a few ‘for profit’ food companies. This is my two cents. Here’s a quote each from the world’s leading authorities on this topic:

Paul Collier is a professor of economics at Oxford University. He is the author of “The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What Can Be Done About It.”

  • The debate over genetically modified crops and food has been contaminated by political and aesthetic prejudices: hostility to U.S. corporations, fear of big science and romanticism about local, organic production.

  • Food supply is too important to be the plaything of these prejudices. If there is not enough food we know who will go hungry. 

  • Climate change has made its adoption imperative. Opponents talk darkly of risks but provide no scientific basis for their amorphous expressions of concern.

  • Genetic modification alone will not solve the food problem: like climate change, there is no single solution. 

Vandana Shiva is the founder of Navdanya, the movement of 500,000 seed keepers and organic farmers in India. She is the author of numerous books, including “The Violence of the Green Revolution” and “Soil, Not Oil.”

  • Food security over the next two decades will have to be built on ecological security and climate resilience. We need the real green revolution, not a second “Green Revolution” based on genetic engineering. 

  • We need biodiversity intensification that works with nature’s nutrient and water cycles, not against them.

  • Genetic engineering has not increase yields significantly according to recent studies. Instead, small farms based on principles of agri-ecology and sustainability produce more food.

  • Green revolution technologies and strategies, reliant on monoculture and chemical fertilizers and pesticides, have destroyed biodiversity, which has in many places led to a decline in nutrition output per acre.

Per Pinstrup-Andersen is a Professor of Food, Nutrition and Public Policy at Cornell University and the 2001 World Food Prize Laureate.

  • While new technology must be tested before it is commercially released, we should be mindful of the risks of not releasing it at all.

  • Science must play a key role in such action, along with appropriate government policies and investments in rural infrastructure and markets.

  • Science must be put to work. The most appropriate scientific approaches, including genetic engineering and other molecular biology must be applied.

  • The challenge we are facing is not whether the world resources are sufficient to feed us all now and in the future, but whether we will change our behavior.

Raj Patel is a fellow at the Institute for Food and Development Policy, and author of Stuffed and Starved”.

  • The U.S. leads the world in genetically modified agricultural technology, yet one in eight Americans is hungry.

  • The cause of hunger today isn’t a shortage of food — it’s poverty.

  • We do, however, need to transform the way we farm. Among the farming techniques endorsed by studies performed is agroecology, which builds soil, insect and plant ecology. The result is a farming system that uses water frugally, sequesters vast amounts of carbon and doesn’t require external inputs.

  • Genetically modified crops had failed to show much promise in feeding the world. To do so we need both political and technological change. 

Jonathan Foley is the director of the new Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota. His research is focused on global land use, agriculture and climate.

  • You’re either with Michael Pollan or you’re with Monsanto, but neither paradigm can fully meet our needs.

  • While the Green Revolution of the 1960s made it possible to feed hundreds of millions more people than in earlier eras, the number of undernourished in the world has started to rise again.

  • Additionally, the successes has come with tremendous environmental and social costs, which cannot be sustained.

  • Currently, there are two paradigms of agriculture being widely promoted: local and organic systems versus globalized and industrialized agriculture. 

  • The careful use of genetically modified crops may be appropriate, after careful public review.

Michael J. Roberts is an assistant professor of agricultural and resource economics at North Carolina State University. He is the writer of the Greed, Greens and Grains blog.

  • There is a real threat to worldwide food security over the next 10 to 40 years. The threat comes from global income inequality combined with projected global warming, which could cause tremendous declines in crop yields.

  • Demand growth today comes less from population growth and more from rising incomes and meat consumption in China. 

  • Genetically modified crops have shown modest yield gains in developing nations, but  no growth in tolerance to extreme heat, which is the key challenge going forward.

  • Public funding of crop science research has diminished over the years. Now seems like a good time to increase that kind of investment.

Additional references:  GMO OMG- a movie on this topic.

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