Genetically modified foods, which are often referred to in a general classification called “GMOs,” have changed the grocery marketplace. Genetic modifications are a natural component of evolution. Even in the past, before technologies allowed for specific modifications, agricultural workers would breed the best plants and animals together to improve harvests and food yields.
Modern GMOs are a little different than artificial natural selection. GMOs use inserted genetic data into certain foods that would not normally be possible. Some strange GMO foods include blomatoes (blueberries and tomatoes), Granny Smith 2.0s (they don’t brown after being cut), and scorpio-cabbage (it is a cabbage that produces its own venom).
The idea of biting into a cabbage that produces its own venom to kill insects can make someone a bit squeamish. Some GMO crops even produce their own pesticides that are chemically similar to commercial products. Although these products are generally marketed as being non-harmful to humans, there is some rightful concern about artificially changing the natural course of Mother Nature.
Here are some of the key advantages and disadvantages of genetically modified foods to think about.
What Are the Advantages of Genetically Modified Foods?
1. Genetic modifications allow harvests to become more predictable.
If crops are able to produce a predictable yield each year, then consistent harvests can be achieved. Genetic modifications make this possible because it allows crops to be able to grow in conditions that may normally be detrimental to crops. Corn can be grown in the desert. Croplands can be developed in cold locations with short growing seasons. That means there is the possibility of having more food available for a larger human population.
2. GMO foods can be changed to improve their nutritional profile.
The goal of combining blueberries with tomatoes was to increase the amount of anthocyanin that people could receive in their diet. Anthocyanin is an antioxidant that may be able to fight cancer and provide other health benefits. The cost of this GMO food is often lower than natural blueberries or tomatoes, making it possible for most people to take advantage of the improve nutritional profile of the food during regular consumption.
3. Genetically modified foods stay fresh longer than other foods.
Artificial preservatives are often used to keep food products fresh on grocery shelves for long periods. A longer shelf life creates less food waste and improves the profits of those who supply the food products to the consumer. Genetically modified foods reduce or eliminate the artificial preservatives and that can improve a person’s overall diet while reducing their health risks of preservative exposure. Certain artificial preservatives may be linked to higher rates of food allergy triggers, heart disease, and even cancer.
4. Medication can be infused into food DNA.
Who really likes to go to the doctor to receive a shot in the arm, leg, or a more sensitive area? The vaccines that we need to protect ourselves from dangerous diseases, along with certain medications that are useful for daily living, can be introduced into the very foods that we eat every day thanks to modern GMO practices. This would make it cheaper for people to have the medication access they need and could change how a visit to the doctor is handled in the future. You could get your flu shot while eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
5. Genetically modified foods look more attractive.
The average person chooses an unhealthy food option to eat over a healthy option because it is perceived as being more attractive. The Bulletin of the European Health Psychology Society suggests that specific traits, such as color, size, scent, and memory of flavor contribute to food choices. Genetically modified foods can change the color of foods or add brightness, luster, and flavor to encourage healthier eating habits over time.
6. It is easier to deliver genetically modified foods to consumers.
The longer shelf life that GMO foods have make it possible to extend food distribution networks around the world. That gives us the possibility of reducing, if not fully eliminating, the food deserts which currently exist. Better food access means less overall food insecurity in the world. Food deserts are a major concern. 1 in 7 people globally live in a home that is classified as being food insecure. In the U.S., 1 in 5 children live in food insecure homes. Genetically modified foods could change this permanently.
7. Genetically modified foods reduce pesticide use.
Pesticides are often sprayed on croplands to prevent certain pests from harming crops, which would reduce the potential harvest. Many pesticides are based on a chemical composition that can be harsh to the top soil. Many farms are forced to rotate their fields not because they are growing the same crops each year, but because the pesticides add salts to the soil that need to be removed over time.
8. GMO foods reduce herbicide use.
Weeds are a major problem for croplands as well. A weed competes for the same resources that a food-producing crop requires to generate a harvest. The same issue which applies to pesticides applies to the application of herbicides. Spraying them too much, using traditional growing methods, can reduce soil nutrient levels over time. Genetic modifications which naturally prevent weeds from interfering can reduce the number of chemicals introduced into the growing environment. In return, consistent yields can be created.
9. Labeling programs can inform consumers about what they eat.
Genetically modified foods in Europe must be labeled. Several petitions have introduced a similar requirement in the United States. Several food producers have chosen to label their products already to let consumers know if they are eating ingredients that were genetically modified. That allows consumers to have full knowledge about the foods they choose to eat. Even with the potential benefits of this technology, no one should be forced into eating something that they don’t want to eat when there are numerous choices available to most marketplaces.
10. Nutritional benefits can be added to genetically modified foods.
The human diet requires a certain number of vitamins and minerals to maintain a healthy balance for life. Not everyone eats a diet, through choice or necessity, that is well-rounded in all these nutrients. The genetic modification process for food products can infuse these needed items into foods that may not normally contain them. By including these basic blocks of nutrition into more foods, fewer health issues due to malnutrition may arise over time.
11. Genetically modified core foods can reduce consumer costs.
The average person in the United States will eat nearly 1 ton of corn over the course of a single year. That includes about 42 pounds of corn syrup each year. Genetic modifications to a core food product, such as corn, can reduce the cost of growing it. That reduces the cost of other food products that are made from the core food, which can save consumers money at the grocery store. Even if the savings were just $0.50 per pound, that would result in a total per-person savings of $750 per year.
12. The technologies of genetic modification can be employed elsewhere.
Image being able to change the DNA of a virus so that it is no longer harmful to humans. Maybe one day, cancer cells could be genetically modified to self-destruct once discovered. The technologies that we use for genetic modifications in our food supply can be used elsewhere. Understanding food genetics allows us to understand the genetic profiles of ourselves, other plants and animals, and potentially the universe. We have no idea what potential breakthrough may be waiting around the corner because of the processes that GMO foods have introduced to us.
What Are the Disadvantages of Genetically Modified Foods?
1. Genetically modified foods could increase medication resistance.
Having food products that can provide medication benefits to individuals may have many benefits. It may also have numerous unintended consequences. The amount of resistance that is currently being seen in bacterium populations to certain antibiotics is proof that nature knows how to adapt. Repetitive exposure to foods with medication qualities may not only reduce the effectiveness of that medication in each individual, but it may also speed up the resistance factor. Over time, that may cause problematic health consequences that may have no feasible fix.
2. There are legal issues involved with growing genetically modified foods.
Many genetically modified foods are patented. Utility and plant patents in this field have a lifespan of 20 years. This is done to protect the investment of the company involved. The average cost of a new GMO food product is $136 million. Without patents, companies would experience financial losses. Yet farmers who have their fields contaminated with GMO crops face legal liabilities that would normally not be present. Farmers growing patented crops, even without intent or knowledge of doing so, are held financially responsible by courts around the world.
3. It creates unnatural combinations of DNA.
Genetic migrations are known to occur within species. This happens with plants and animals. It is how we have dogs that are very small, like a Chihuahua, and dogs that are very large, like a St. Bernard. That’s how we have numerous corn species, different grains, and other food products. What GMO foods do is combine unnatural combinations of DNA to create a new food product. Combining scorpion DNA into cabbage DNA is just one example of this process. These combinations may create allergy triggers and unintended consequences, even if research shows certain combinations are not harmful to humans.
4. It is difficult for independent research to be influential in this field.
Genetically modified food patents are primarily controlled by 6 companies. That isn’t just in the United States. That is globally. About half of the seed producers in this field do not allow any independent research on the crops that can be produced. That prevents researchers from being able to determine what long-term benefits or consequences may exist from consuming GMO foods. That is done to protect the profits of the companies involved. Since most genetically modified foods involve wheat, soybeans, or corn, just about every food producer is at the mercy of this patents.
5. There may be health risks to the consumption of certain GMO foods.
Let’s use the combination of blueberries and tomatoes in this example one again. The goal of this food is to improve the consumption of a certain antioxidant. In doing so, there may be health benefits that can help people fight cancer when consumed in significant amounts. Yet, at the same time, large doses of antioxidants may actually be harmful to people who have been diagnosed with cancer or are cancer survivors.
6. Some genetically modified foods may alter natural habitats.
In December 2017, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved a genetically modified food called AquAdvantage Salmon for use. It was ruled that the salmon are safe to eat, and the DNA introduced into the fish is safe for the creature. The fish grow faster than typical salmon, so if they were to escape their enclosure, natural salmon populations could be greatly reduced, if not eliminated. Nicknamed the “FrankenFish,” it is a combination of Chinook salmon and Ocean Pout DNA.
7. There may be additional cancer risks associated with genetically modified foods.
Research in the area of carcinogen risks and genetically modified foods is controversial because of inconsistencies in reporting and experimental design. One of the most discussed research papers has been published twice, but has also been retracted at least once. It found that rats who ate genetically modified foods almost exclusively had a much higher risk of developing malignant tumors compare to rats that ate natural foods. There is virtually no long-term research that has been published about GMO foods and what does exist is generally inconclusive.
8. Cross-pollination could have unintended consequences.
Farmers have the right to choose GMO crops or non-GMO crops. In a community, let’s say the ratio is 80% non-GMO and 20% GMO. Cross-pollination between these crops is going to occur because of insect interaction, wind dispersion, and other methods that nature uses to ensure plant maturity. When a GMO plant interacts with a non-GMO plant, a new species is essentially created. What happens to those seeds may have long-term consequences that are completely unpredictable. Even worse, the DNA from a GMO crop may be patented and then found in the non-GMO fields, exposing everyone to a higher legal liability risk.
9. The economic benefits of genetically modified foods may be minimal.
Genetically modified foods can reduce the risks of a crop failure, but there are no clear economic benefits to growing them when compared to non-GMO crops. Part of this is due to subsidies and insurance that is in place to cover crop loss. The other part of this equation is the fact that GMO core foods are a commodity, just like non-GMO core foods, so they are traded at the same rates. Non-GMO crops are even known to produce a similar yield when compared to their genetically modified counterparts.
I recommend that you read these 23 statistics on genetically modified crops that support some of these pros and cons.
These advantages and disadvantages of genetically modified foods show us that it offers a window to greater food production for a changing world. The climate has been growing warmer. The oceans have been slowly acidifying. Record droughts have hit multiple parts of the planet. At the same time, human population levels are expected to reach 10 billion by 2050, if not before. Genetically modified foods, despite their potential negatives, could be the answer.