The foods people eat and how those foods are grown and manufactured has long been a topic of contention. Recently, the subject of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, has garnered its share of attention.
GMOs are organisms that have been altered via genetic engineering. Foods that contain GMOs have been produced in part in a laboratory by foreign genes from plants and animals. While there are some people who say that foods containing GMOs are safe for consumption, others argue that that may not be the case, saying such foods create new, unintended toxic substances that could exacerbate allergies and increase cancer risk.
Foods containing GMOs are largely crops that are modified using the latest molecular biology techniques. In the laboratory, certain traits, such as increased resistance to herbicides or improved nutritional content, are enhanced. By modifying plant genetics, a scientist can isolate a particular gene that makes a crop drought-tolerant and increase its potency to make that crop thrive better in drought-stricken areas. Genes from one plant can also be transferred to another plant to create desired traits. If a particular gene is unsavory to certain insects, this gene can be put into other crops to deter those insects.
In the past, crops were bred to feature specific, desired traits with the hope that breeding two different flowering plants to form a hybrid would bring out the best features in both species. However, the process is time-consuming and genetic modification in the laboratory generally produces faster, less expensive results.
Proponents of foods containing GMOs say that desired traits can be produced in these foods more readily, which is advantageous to the agriculture industry by creating larger, more tolerant crops. In addition, GMOs may help crops become more resistant to disease, reducing reliance on herbicides and pesticides needed to fight disease. GMOs also may help certain crops grow better in colder climates and where soil conditions are salty.
But some environmental activists, public interest groups and even religious organizations argue tampering with foods is not proper. In addition, such opponents say the potentially harmful environmental and medical impact of laboratory-built crops warrants concern.
In 2000, a study published in the journal Nature found that pollen from a genetically modified corn crop called B.t. corn caused high mortality rates in monarch butterfly caterpillars. Unintented harm to other organisms living in close proximity to GMOs is a significant concern.
In addition, there is concern that foods that contain GMOs and those that do not may cross-breed and create super-plants. Such plants may become disease- and
herbicide-resistant, thusly choking out the intended crops. In June 2013, Monsanto Co., the world’s largest seed company, was sued by an environmental group and a Washington farm over claims it failed to take steps to prevent genetically altered wheat from contaminating regular wheat after Monsanto field-tested the modified wheat in 16 states.
Another area of concern is the health implications of introducing foreign genes into foods. The effect of such practices on the human body are largely unknown. Unexpected allergic reactions or even physical changes in the body may occur. Evidence as to the safety of GMOs is insufficient.
Many European nations have backed away from growing crops containing GMOs. Things in North America aren’t as cut and dry. Efforts are ongoing to have GMO ingredients listed on the labels of packaged foods produced in the United States, but no such labeling is presently required. That’s disconcerting to some, as there is a high likelihood that many of the packaged foods sold in the U.S. contain some GMOs.
The debate about foods containing GMOs figures to continue. Shoppers must determine whether they want to consume foods that contain genetically modified ingredients or they prefer natural alternatives.