Disadvantages of Genetically Modified Food

You can overcome the disadvantages of genetically modified food by purchasing organic products. (Image: Claudia Totir/Moment/GettyImages)

Manufacturers tout the benefits of genetically modified food. Yet scientists have failed to get consensus on the safety of these products. That's because genetically modified organisms, GMOs, have many disadvantages. Being aware of these problems will help you make wise decisions for the environment, your children and yourself.

Understand Genetic Changes

Biochemists made a reasonable assumption during the early days of genetic engineering. The deoxyribonucleic acid, DNA, of any organism transmits all the blueprints needed to make and repair the organism to the ribonucleic acid, RNA. This information is then transferred to the proteins that build the physiological structures used by the organism to behave in the real world.

More recent research has proven this assumption false. Scientists now believe that genetic components constantly evolve in response to environmental conditions. Thus, under normal conditions, organisms actually genetically alter themselves. However, unlike genetic engineering, this trial-and-error process slowly happens over an extended period of time.

Learn More About GMOs

Scientists use the word genome to describe the genetic material present in every cell. Inserting foreign material — transgenic DNA — into the genome creates a GMO. Unfortunately, changing a single gene alters the entire organism. Changes may not happen right away, but will appear over time.

Read the Labels of GMOs

Europe and the U.S. have taken different approaches to labeling GMO foods. In Europe, manufacturers must label all genetically modified food. In the U.S., they only have to label foods with substantially different nutritional or allergenic properties.

This difference in policy has affected the popularity of GMOs. The lax policy of the U.S. has made America the worldwide GMO leader. The U.S. now has 172 million acres of GMO crops, and 90 percent of American soybeans, canola, cotton and corn are genetically altered.

Fortunately, the U.S. is getting more strict about GMO labeling. New regulations at both the federal and state levels have recently been implemented to protect consumers. While loopholes still exist, the new law requires manufacturers to label all bioengineered products. The impact of this change on the GMO sales in the U.S. remains unclear.

Reap the Benefits of GMOs

Creating GMOs offers the manufacturer many benefits. Some GMOs can resist pesticides and herbicides, so they grow strong while unwanted organisms wither around them. Genetically altered species can now thrive in climates and soils once hostile to them. They can better tolerate crowding and produce more offspring.

The consumer also benefits from GMOs. Genetically altering vegetables and fruits can make them more vibrant and last longer. Scientists can fortify them with more antioxidants, minerals and vitamins. The greater yields from GMO crops allow manufacturers to lower the price of many popular food items.

Know the Consumer Response

Consumers haven't embraced GMOs, despite their many benefits. The authors of a 2018 report in Food Control showed that only 5.8 percent of their sample had a favorable opinion of GMOs. Nearly 59 percent of them thought that GMOs posed a significant risk to human health.

Some of this negativity arises from consumer ignorance. In the 2018 report, 50.3 percent of people considered themselves properly informed about the disadvantages of GMOs. Yet, less than 25 percent could correctly answer three simple questions about GMOs. The report also showed that GMOs cause anxiety in many consumers. Manufacturers try to comfort people, but many studies offer data justifying their concerns.

Know the Government Response

The negative public sentiment toward bioengineering has made a huge impact. Controversial papers from Cornell University and researchers in France and Italy have provided a rallying cry, despite their limitations. Activists have used these papers to change public policy. Currently, 38 governments around the world have partial or full bans on genetic engineering.

Yet the GMO industry remains resilient in the face of such challenges and continues to rapidly grow. This growth is surprising given the controversy surrounding genetic engineering. Products created using bioengineering have several disadvantages.

Creating GMOs Is Unnatural

Some authors claim that genetic engineering produces results that are similar to traditional breeding. Yet these two methods of DNA modification are dramatically different. Only closely related real-world organisms exchange genes during natural selection. Genetic engineering happens in a laboratory, and it combines the DNA of two organisms irrespective of their physiologic similarity and geographic proximity.

Governments usually recognize this difference between engineering and breeding. The EU, for example, defines a GMO as an organism altered in an unnatural way. Governments also typically require risk assessments before introducing GMOs in the wild. Such assessments aren't needed in traditional breeding.

Creating GMOs Is Unpredictable

Researchers believe that genetic engineering gets more precise every year. While technically true, the results of a precise gene splice can wildly vary. A 2014 report in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences nicely illustrates this problem.

These researchers used the latest technology to analyze the results of genetically modifying corn and soybeans. Results indicated that far greater mutations happened in the GMOs than would be expected from natural selection. The new technology also detected GMO mutations overlooked in earlier work.

Creating GMOs May Be Unsafe

Investors believe in the safety of GMOs, but independent scientists dispute the claims of safety. Mutations are rare in natural organisms and more common in GMOs. Not all mutations have dire consequences, but some may cause serious damage. The research documenting the dangers of GMOs has many flaws, but one case stands out.

In 1989, more than 1,500 people experienced eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome after ingesting the sleep aid L-tryptophan. Years of forensic research suggest that a GMO caused this life-threatening condition. Unlike other manufacturers, Showa Denko used a genetically engineered strain of Bacillus amyloliquefacien to produce the sleep aid. The fermentation process created a toxin now believed responsible for at least 38 deaths.

Creating GMOs May Be Ineffective

Adding foreign genes to crops can increase their resistance to pests. Bioengineering advocates often claim this benefit increases yield without harm. They consider genetic engineering tactics safe for the environment, plants and you. Yet several problems have arisen while implementing this gene-based resistance.

First, gene-based resistance seems to have an unexpected expiration date. A 2013 report in Nature Biotechnology tested which of 13 major pests overcame the resistance caused by splicing a Bacillus thuringiensis gene into eggplant, cotton and corn crops. This number went from one in 2005 to five in 2013. If this trend holds, soon all major pests will be immune to Bacillus thuringiensis.

Second, a paradoxical relationship exists between infestation and yield. Farmers often buy expensive, genetically engineered seeds expecting a greater yield, but this cost benefit can only happen with a large infestation. Further, determining your pest infestation level brings more costs that offset the benefit of using GMOs to rid yourself of them.

Stay Aware of Vertical Transfer

Activists often fear that GMOs will contaminate traditional crops and wild species. Yet in the case of most crops, the wild species either no longer exists or remains distant from the field. However, genetic transfer can happen to wild species. Geneticists call this phenomena vertical transfer.

A 2013 review in Environmental Sciences Europe describes many cases of vertical transfer. Consider, for example, the case of genetically altered bentgrass grown during a field test in Oregon. A strong storm caused widespread dispersal of pollen which contaminated a local colony of wild bentgrass. Despite containment efforts, the two genomes intermingled at a 50-50 ratio. To make matters worse, interbreeding created hybrids during a field test that went awry in Idaho.

This case should cause concern as Oregon is the main producer of bentgrass seeds, and they're sent worldwide from this site. Such a distribution network could lead to global contamination without repair. The case also illustrates the difficulty of retrieving an escaped GMO.

This dire situation can become especially problematic depending on the genetic trait transferred. In this case, the altered bentgrass had tolerance to the herbicide g__lyphosate. Imagine what would happen if all bentgrass had this quality. Farmers would have to use different — likely more toxic — herbicides. Such use would increase the effort, time and cost needed to manage the new strain.

Be Wary of GMO Monitoring

Many authors claim that GMOs are monitored, yet the industry is largely self-regulated. Most bioengineers believe that the Asilomar Conference resolved the issue of GMO safety. In 1975, many genetic scientists pledged not to create dangerous organisms. Given this pact, scientists now feel like governmental regulation is an unnecessary burden fueled by anti-GMO activists.

Yet these scientists haven't noticed the shift in their values toward those of their employers. Many people, after all, are motivated by money and not the common good. However, the activists have a similar problem. Their bans on GMOs seem more motivated by personal political success than anything else.

Thus, self-interest groups are now the only ones tracking GMO safety. This situation has led to questionable products like New Leaf Potatoes and Flavr Savr Tomatos. These items were pulled from the market because the GMO industry lacks standard ways of making evidence-based decisions. The industry also failed to listen to consumers' concerns about the disadvantages of genetically modified crops.

Keep Clear of GMO Allergens

Splicing in a gene from a conventional product known to cause allergies brings up the possibility that the new product may cause allergies as well. This nightmare scenario seemed to happen when a manufacturer added a Brazil nut gene to soybeans to increase their nutritional value.

Small-scale testing done by the manufacturer showed that the allergenic potential appeared, and, because of this predictable result, the GMO wasn't released. That's fortunate, given that tree nut allergy can cause death and given the unlikelihood of such a product having a warning label.

Remain Vigilant for GMO Toxicity

Very few long-term experiments address the impact of feeding animals or humans GMO products. Two studies testing fish have shown ill effects. A 2007 report in the Journal of Fish Diseases showed that GMO intake triggered an immune response in adult salmon, and a 2014 report in PLoS One showed that it caused permanent changes to the digestive system of juvenile salmon.

It's essential to note that neither study found catastrophic damage, and that findings in fish may not apply to humans. Nonetheless, nearly every scientist addressing this issue calls for further research. Most of them also press for better GMO labeling. Reaching this goal would let you make informed choices about what you consider effective and safe bioengineering.

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