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6 Reasons to Stop Worrying About GMOs and Learn to Love Them

[EDITOR'S NOTE: Daniel Walton is a research assistant at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he extensively studied plant breeding and genetics and worked to improve the yields of soybean varieties. The editorial viewpoint of LIVESTRONG.COM is to avoid GMOs whenever possible and to support legislation requiring labeling of GMO food so that consumers can make their own informed decisions about what they are putting into their bodies. We have published our viewpoint as "6 Reasons to Avoid GMOs," and in the interest of enabling all opinions to be heard, we are giving Walton's post space here. You, the reader, have the right to come to your own conclusions. And please be sure to leave your comments below to let us know your thoughts on this very important issue.]

By DANIEL WALTON

Mutant corn causes cancer in rats. Genetically modified crops contain sickening toxins. Honeybees face extinction from pollinating plants with bacterial genes.

These are highly charged anti-GMO arguments, for sure. But they work.

The New York Times reported in 2013 that 75 percent of Americans expressed concern over GMOs. Ninety-three percent said they believe that products containing GMOs should be labeled. State legislatures have noticed. Connecticut, Maine and Vermont voters said yes to labels, and ballot initiatives are in the works in Oregon, Colorado and Arizona.

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Yet the best available science tells us that any concerns about "Frankenfood" are simply unwarranted.

The following 6 reasons may cause you to reconsider what you have heard and read about GMOs:

1. You Can't Modify the Evidence: GMOs Are Safe
In 1994, Calgene introduced the Flavr Savr tomato, the world's first genetically modified crop. It was a commercial flop, but since then, nearly 350 modified crop varieties have been released, and studies have continuously confirmed their safety.

Admittedly, a 2012 study did report that rats that ate genetically modified corn were more likely to develop large tumors and die of cancer. But the research journal retracted the findings after critics pointed out that the rats in the study were naturally predisposed to tumors at high rates.  Many scientists also dismissed the findings because the sample size was too small to be meaningful.

From 2002 to 2012, nearly 1,800 other studies were conducted, analyzing everything from GMO protein toxicity to the possibility that modified genes could penetrate human cells. The studies uncovered no evidence of any negative medical effects. GMOs did not produce cancer-causing toxins, allergic reactions or any malicious DNA alterations.

2. Ancient Native Americans: Our First Genetic Engineers
Ancient Native Americans invented the corn we eat today by manipulating the nature of its seed over generations. Teosinte, an early version of the crop, had a tiny cob with as few as five kernels. The cob would fall and shatter in the field, scattering seeds across the ground. So, instead of harvesting whole cobs, they had to harvest each kernel individually.

That could be tedious work. The Olmecs and Mayans started crossbreeding the best teosinte to gradually increase the number of kernels, an evolution that eventually produced the well-laden cobs we eat today. Through this process, these early genetic engineers modified thousands of genes until they ultimately created two different species: corn and teosinte.

Modern researchers modify only one or two genes at a time, making any modifications highly controlled and leaving almost no chance for surprise. This precision means scientists can change only the genes they want to target as they explore specific phenomena, such as drought tolerance or disease resistance.

3. GMOs Are Green
Farming means fighting pests, and in this battle many farmers resort to chemical warfare, complete with gas masks and airborne sprayers. When scientists genetically modify plants to produce Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) -- a natural insecticide -- crops are able to fend for themselves. It's been estimated that without Bt corn, more than 110 million pounds of harmful chemicals could have ended up in soils and waterways between 1997 and 2011. Despite worries that the protein might endanger honeybees, dozens of studies in which the insects were exposed to Bt found no negative effects on larvae or adults.

4. Altering Your Bottom Line
Eating GM food won't diminish your health, but not eating them might deplete your wallet. Simply labeling GMOs is an expensive proposition. Isolating GM crops from the rest of the food stream requires producers to build new infrastructure at every step of food production, from harvest through packaging and transport. The Washington Research Council estimates that these additional costs would raise the annual food bill for a family of four by more than $450. Completely eliminating GMOs would also raise food prices: A 2010 study from Iowa State University estimated that costs for canola, corn and soybeans would increase by 3.8, 5.8 and 9.6 percent, respectively. These ingredients are found in everything from breakfast cereal to salad dressing to soft drinks, so a trip to the supermarket would become more expensive for nearly everyone.

5. George Washington Carver Would Have Loved GMOs
The man who uncovered hundreds of uses for the peanut and the soybean would have marveled at the way scientists creatively use GMOs for medical purposes. For example, researchers have modified carrots to produce an enzyme that is lacking in people who suffer from Gaucher's disease, a condition that causes severe joint pain and osteoporosis. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the treatment in May 2012 after patients who took this "bio-pharmed" enzyme experienced significant relief from their symptoms. Modifying carrots to create this medicine is up to 25 percent cheaper than making it through other methods.

6. GMOs Will Feed the World
Studies estimate that global food demand will increase by as much as 60 percent by 2050. Traditional plant-breeding cycles take more than a decade, so GMOs represent a faster way to meet the growing need. GM blight-resistant potatoes and virus-resistant papaya, for example, could ensure the viability of important food crops in developing nations. Monsanto's DroughtGard corn promises to help Midwestern farmers, who could have to grow their crops in the drier, hotter conditions that may result from climate change. GMOs also can be more nutritious: "Golden rice" contains a corn gene that makes it a rich source of vitamin A. Simply replacing old rice cultivars with the new variety could save the lives of up to 2.7 million children annually.

Food for Thought
The fear of the unknown is powerful, especially when associated with something as intimately connected to daily life as the food you put in your mouth. But the best way to fight this fear is to learn the facts. You may find reasons to stop worrying and possibly love GMOs.

--Daniel Walton

Readers -- What are your thoughts on GMOs? Do you eat GMO foods or avoid them? Do you agree with Walton's statements? Did reading this piece get you to reconsider your viewpoint? Leave a comment below and let us know. We want to hear what you think! Also, please be sure to read our editorial counterpoint, "6 Reasons to Avoid GMOs."

Daniel Walton holds a Master of Science in crop sciences from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. As a research assistant at the university, he extensively studied plant breeding and genetics and worked to improve the yields of soybean varieties. Walton's work as a science writer has appeared in Real Clear Science and on Science Recorder and SeattlePI.com. He currently resides in Northern Kentucky, where he grows a substantial vegetable garden in his backyard.

Walton can be reached via his blog, Sword of Science, and on Twitter @DanielWWalton.

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