Some items in our food supply, such as alfalfa, corn, potatoes and soybeans are genetically modified or engineered.
While these types of food are limited and highly regulated, they are some of the most misunderstood and polarizing food items.
“The misunderstandings around GMOs and GE foods speaks to our tendency to believe that anything natural is good for us and anything unnatural is bad,” said Jaime Gnau, a registered dietitian at Missouri State University. “That’s considered the natural fallacy.”
Understanding the terms
GMO stands for genetically modified organism. It refers to any crops or foods that have been genetically modified through gene alteration in agriculture.
“This has been going on for thousands of years,” said Gnau, who’s also a clinical instructor of biomedical sciences at MSU.
“Our crops are genetically modified through selective breeding and crossbreeding to get the traits that make the crops stronger, more flavorful, etc.”
As for genetically engineered (GE), it’s specific to the process of combining DNA from different organisms in one plant. The goal is to get a targeted trait quickly without changing the rest of the plant.
“Essentially, genetic engineering does what selective breeding and crossbreeding have been doing for thousands of years. But it’s more precise and takes a lot less time to do it,” Gnau said.
Making the case
She highlights a few key reasons for GMOs and GE foods:
- Insect resistance – reduce pesticide use and make crops resistant to their natural predators.
- Herbicide tolerance – decrease amount of tillage (turning soil to prepare for seeding) because of better and more flexible weed control; this reduces carbon emissions.
- Disease resistance – improve crops’ ability to resist pathogens.
- Enhance nutrition – give crops more nutrient-dense properties.
An example of a GE crop is Golden Rice. It’s a type of rice engineered t0 produce beta-carotene, which it doesn’t naturally do.
Beta-carotene is a precursor to vitamin A and its deficiency is one of the leading causes of preventable night blindness in the world. Vitamin A deficiency is common in many developing countries.
“Increasing nutrient density in foods can improve quality of life and even save lives around the globe,” Gnau said.
Two most common myths around GMOs and GE foods relate to environmental and health concerns, notes Gnau. While some concerns are valid, the benefits outweigh the cons.
On average, genetic modification (GM) technology has reduced chemical pesticide use by 37% and soil erosion by 93%. It has also increased crop yields by 22% and farmer profits by 68%.
“There’s a big decline in farmers. So, the ability to increase crop yields with fewer farmers is crucial to feed the global population,” Gnau said.
The belief that foods produced by GM technology are unsafe for consumption is untrue, she adds. For a GM or GE crop to be approved for commercial use, it must undergo a long research and review process, and pass strict safety regulations.
“More than 90 government bodies globally review and approve GMOs,” Gnau said. “To get into our food system, GMOs take about 13 years and cost about $130 million of research, development and regulatory approval.”