From tomatoes engineered to be hardier for travel, to pest resistant corn, many of the foods we find on the shelves at the local grocery store today are genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.
Our modern understanding of genetics has given scientists the ability to select traits from one species of plant or animal and impart them into another, and major biotech companies around the world are doing just that. While food created in a lab may sound like something out of a science fiction movie, the fact is, whether you realize it or not, most of the food you eat probably comes from genetically modified sources. Even if you grow most or all of your own food from organic seeds, there’s still a very strong possibility that your vegetables are not as pure as you think.
Genetic engineering has been going on since the early 1970s, but it wasn’t until 1986 that scientists found a way to make tobacco plants resistant to herbicides. This was seen as a boon by farmers, who could now save time by spraying weeds without worrying about killing off their main crops. Over time, other applications were found, as scientists made fruits, vegetables, and grains larger, hardier, and resistant to pests or chemicals, among other features. This enabled farmers to grow greater quantities of food, and ship it farther from its point of origin, with less effort, leading to widespread claims that genetic modification could be the key to wiping out global hunger.
More than a quarter of a century later, though, that hasn’t happened, and many people, including farmers, are now critical of GMOs and worried about just how widespread they have become. For some, the very idea of tampering with nature is the core issue, but farmers have been using selective breeding to produce superior crops and livestock for as long as humans have been engaged in livestock. And, for the most part, critics of GMOs are not anti-science. So what’s the problem?
One common complaint is that genetically engineered foods are simply not as good as their natural counterparts. Something always gets lost in translation, and that “something” is usually flavor. In the process of making tomatoes, apples, or strawberries that are larger or better able to withstand the rigors of traveling across the country for several days, for instance, flavor is often sacrificed.
Another concern is that pest resistant plants may be responsible for killing off helpful insects such as bees and butterflies, in addition to pests. This not only has an effect on the health of specific species and local ecosystems as a whole, but can also affect food production. Bees and butterflies are pollinators, and are necessary to crop production. Their loss is detrimental to the very thing that the pest resistant plants were created to promote.
One major reason farmers around the world worry about the growing prevalence of GMOs is that the plants grown from them are patented. It is illegal for farmers to grow them without buying the seeds from their producers. This is problematic because non-GMO crops can, and do, easily cross-pollinate with GMO crops, literally spreading these lab-created traits on the wind. It’s not unusual for organic farmers to find GMOs in their fields, through no fault of their own. This opens the farmers up not only to lawsuits from the patent holder, but can also jeopardize their organic certification.
One increasingly common trait being added to modern produce is the so-called terminator gene, which prevents farmers from saving seeds to use for future planting. Plants featuring this gene produce seeds that are sterile and will not grow. This forces farmers in developing nations, who have been accustomed to saving seeds for generations, into buying seeds from the major GMO seed companies year after year.
Critics of GMOs want to see mandatory labeling so consumers know what they’re getting, but biotech companies have fought to prevent any such laws wherever they’ve been introduced. In fact, the United States Food and Drug Administration doesn’t even allow organic food producers to add a voluntary “non-GMO” label to their products. The story is different across the Atlantic Ocean, where the European Union has placed a blanket ban on genetically engineered crops. While that news may be encouraging to opponents of GMOs, it’s clear the debate over their use won’t be ending any time soon.