National Consumers League

Understanding GMOs

92_gmo.jpgFew agricultural issues are as controversial and complex as genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Tinkering with the genetics of food is bound to set off red flags for many, especially those who are concerned about environmental issues. It’s important, however, to consider many aspects: economics, health, policy, environment, regulation, and labeling are a handful of the most important aspects to consider when weighing GMO pros and cons.

Health is likely the most important concern to an American consumer. Is it safe to be eating GMOs? Evidence here is unclear, some proving theories that GMOs are harmful, others disproving them. As with any issue it’s important to approach evidence with an open mind making a decision based on which studies you find to be most accurate and representative. While it’s possible to see associations between the increase in corn DNA as well as the increase in various health issues, like obesity and autism, that doesn’t necessarily mean the two are connected. The same connections could be made between health issues and increases in other technologies like cell phones. Additionally, specific concerns about the creation of new allergens have been raised. Testing and controlling for known allergens from GMOs, is well developed but possible threats lie in the development of new, unknown allergens.

Environmental factors prove to be a point of contention for GMO stakeholders as well. The apparent increased use of herbicides is disconcerting to say the least. Upon further inspection, glyphosate is the most increased herbicide, many others have been decreased. Glyphosate is notably less harmful to humans than other herbicides, but it is so effective that it eliminates important biodiversity (i.e., insects and plants) on farms. Some good news is that overall insecticide use has decreased among GMOs. Some insects have already developed a resistance to some GE crops but scientists predict genetic engineering will continue to reduce the need for insecticides. Additionally, in some countries GMOs help with soil preservation by lending themselves to low and no till farming.

Patents prove to be an especially salient issue for farmers. GMO seeds that have been patented are more expensive and thus difficult for poorer farmers to obtain which puts undue financial strain on those farms. Labeling is perhaps the biggest issue in the news now. Washington State recent voted down a proposed bill to require the labeling of foods made with GMOs. It has been speculated that more of these bills will pop up in the near future, putting pressure on industry to voluntarily begin labeling or in some cases stop using GMOs altogether.

As the GMO issue continues to grow and change, it’s important for each of us to critically evaluate its components. An ever-increasing body of scientific evidence lends itself to our ability to make informed choices, an opportunity each of us should seize.