Tomatoes growing fish tails. Breakfast cereal coated in scorpion venom. Lab-grown salmon without bones. Or the infamous sight of a needle protruding from an apple. These are just a few of the images that flood the collective consciousness when talk turns to GMOs. For as long as we’ve had GMOs in the public market, people have had reservations about them. But are GMOs dangerous, socially-irresponsible Frankenfoods meant to profit greedy corporations? Or are they scientific advancements that will save the environment and feed a world facing water shortages and increasing food insecurity?
Let’s start by defining the term GMOs
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are living things—crops, animals, bacteria, fungi—that have been changed on a genetic level. You’ve seen the propaganda that shows scientists injecting fish DNA into ripe, red tomatoes still on the vine. But genetic modification (GM) often occurs in the nucleus of a single cell. For reference, the modified DNA is so small that it can’t be seen, even under the most powerful microscope.
Genetic modification is something humans have done for centuries
According to Dr. Rick Meilan, a Molecular Tree Physiologist at Purdue University, the process of genetic engineering closely resembles the selective cross-breeding humans have done for centuries.
Take Norman Borlaug for example. Though most North Americans today don’t recognize the name, his work has impacted humanity on a global scale. Originally a farmer in the Midwest, Bourlag started breeding plants in Mexico on behalf of The Rockefeller Foundation and myriad other sponsors. At the time, stem rust, a fungal disease that impacts cereal grains, had plagued farmers for years. His goal was to develop stem rust-resistant wheat varieties. According to Charles C. Mann’s book The Wizard and the Prophet, the seed Borlaug developed—and the plant breeding techniques he pioneered—changed our world. They now span the globe as far as India and Pakistan.
Genetic modification and science go hand-in-hand
Specifically, Borlaug and his associates were trying to create strains of wheat, rice, and maize that could use a particular synthetic fertilizer. This fertilizer, created using the Haber-Bosch process is credited with feeding 45% of the world’s population. Roughly speaking, that’s about 3.25 billion people. Bourlag’s advancements in seed technology, combined with the development of Haber-Bosch’s synthetic fertilizer, created a “Green Revolution.” This is a prime example of how agriculture, science, and technology can be unstoppable when they cooperate.
With GM technology, these changes occur on faster, and with greater efficiency
Unfortunately for Bourlag, he had to use time-consuming breeding techniques to feed the world. He spent decades pioneering the Green Revolution at the expense of his own health and personal life. In today’s age, science speeds up the process he devoted his life to. “Rather than crossing two plants out in the field,” Dr. Meilan says, “[Scientists] insert a gene or two into individual cells in a lab.” Suddenly, changes that would have taken several generations of growing and selectively breeding can be brought about in a single growth cycle.
He notes another benefit of this targeted modification: “Through conventional breeding, you alter many traits simultaneously.” That means you have less control over the final result. The ability to modify a single gene has made us more precise in our adaptations than ever before. “We can alter an individual trait—we can take a gene that’s responsible for a given trait—and alter that individually without affecting any of the other properties of the plant.”
Transgenic capability allows for new combinations of traits
One crucial way that genetic engineering differs from traditional genetic selection is the ability for modifications to be transgenic. That means scientists can insert genetic material from one type of plant, animal, bacteria, or virus into another. For example, by introducing Bt toxin-producing genes from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis into potatoes, we’ve recently created a potato that naturally resists Colorado potato beetles. That means we can use fewer pesticides to grow those potato crops. Instead of losing generations of crops while the potatoes naturally develop a defense mechanism, GM technology accelerated the process. Because transgenic changes can’t happen in nature, many critics went a step further and framed it negatively as unnatural.
How bad press fueled the fear
About 20 years ago, the concept of transgenic engineering created an uproar. Media outlets caught wind of an experiment by Monsanto to make frost-resistant tomatoes. Their strategy? To insert antifreeze proteins from an Arctic fish into the DNA of the tomato plants. The public backlash was quick and decisive. The GM tomatoes never made it to the supermarket, but the press around them has continued to fuel misconceptions and fear of genetically modified foods.
But GMOs are about more than food
Many people don’t understand that GMOs have played a crucial role in modern medicine since well before commercially available GMO foods took center stage. In fact, since the early 1970s, genetically modified bacteria have been the workhorses of scientific research. Thanks to biotechnology, we’ve researched and developed an unprecedented number of medications in the last 40 years.
For example, biotech companies use genetically modified bacteria to create life-saving medicine, including insulin. Insulin is a hormone produced in the pancreas that helps our bodies regulate blood sugar. Unfortunately, certain diseases like diabetes prevent the pancreas from functioning correctly. To regulate blood sugar, people managing diabetes have to inject insulin from another source.
Before genetic engineering simplified the process, drug companies extracted insulin from slaughterhouse cows and pigs. Though the insulin produced by animals was a close match, the method for extraction could sometimes be dangerous. Now, thanks to GM technology, scientists can use bacteria to grow actual human insulin.
Not only do these bacteria grow medicines that cure diseases. They’re also used to make the vaccines that prevent them. GM vaccinations include the vaccines for cholera and hepatitis B.
GMOs have drawn the most fire
Despite the benefits GMOs bring to medicine and biotech, a lot of people still fear GMO foods. Even though GMO crops make up 90% of all soybean, cotton, and corn crops in the United States. A 2018 article by the Pacific Standard found that a lot of fear stems from a lack of scientific understanding. Even though about 90 percent of scientists believe GMOs are safe, only a third of consumers share this belief. So how are organizations like the American Medical Association, the National Academy of Sciences, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the World Health Organization busting GMO myths? By outlining the incredible benefits of biotech in agriculture. It’s important to remind consumers that non-GMO agriculture is still big-business. A $2 billion business to be exact. The marketing effort against GMOs is a billion dollar industry in and of itself. And people with the resources to buy expensive organics are the target demographic for scientifically-unfounded campaigns.
Reasons to genetically modify food crops
Why can’t we just grow things the way we always have? The simple answer: because we’re not living the way we always have. Industrial and commercial agriculture have played a massive role in climate change, not to mention inequality between developed and developing nations. We’re living in humanity’s most technologically advanced era. It’s unreal that millions of families around the world still struggle to feed themselves healthy meals.
The scientists, researchers, and innovators behind modern agriculture want to change the way we think about growing, harvesting, and distributing food on a global scale. And GMOs might be the key to enacting that change. After all, the goal of most genetic crop modification is simple. We need to make plants stronger, increase the amount of food they yield, boost their disease resistance, or reduce their reliance on resources like water. This is critical in a day and age where farmland and freshwater are being reduced due to urban development, a growing population, and climate change.
As if that weren’t enough, farms need more efficient technology to compensate for the labor force, which is constantly shifting from rural areas to urban centers. We’ve all heard the one about the smalltown kid headed to the big city. But it’s not often we hear about a generation leaving Los Angeles, New York, or San Francisco to save the family farm in Kansas.
GMOs and Feeding a growing population
Experts predict the world’s population will hit 10 billion by 2050. And according to many scientists, GMOs are crucial to feeding a growing population. Thanks to certain modifications, we can grow more on less land, while using fewer resources.
We’re also able to make crops more nutritious. In many countries, Vitamin A deficiency kills as many 670,000 children under the age of 5. By developing genetically modified Golden Rice, which contains 23 times more Vitamin A than other kinds of rice, the scientific community is saving lives.
Reducing the impact of pests and insects
Many GMOs are designed to be pest- and insect-resistant. By changing the genetic makeup of a plant so that it naturally repels corn borers and bollworms, we’re able to use less chemicals throughout the growing process. Keep in mind, if we ditched pest control altogether we’d also be throwing out 60% of our global food production. Whether we’re using chemicals or GMO tech, pest control is crucial to feeding over half the planet.
Building on nature’s foundation
In his interview for Purdue University, Dr. Rick Meilan notes that “A lot of people think that using GM technology we are only inserting genes, but actually, using the same technology we can alter the expression of native genes.” Consider the cancer-fighting properties of tomatoes and broccoli. Now, what if you could turn up the dial on those nutrients? GM technology creates foods that do what nature intended—but better. This type of genetic modification can also make plants more disease resistant. In fact, it may have already saved the papaya. Next time you cut into a sweet, juicy papaya on a hot summer day, don’t forget to thank science!
Surviving climate change
So much of agricultural production depends on the weather. With widespread hurricanes, flooding, and drought, the weather is less predictable than ever. And according to a report by the NAS Committee on Genetically Engineered Crops, this could be just the beginning. “Climate change will affect both the yields and the quality of produce in a number of ways,” the committee members wrote. “Increased temperatures will speed crop development and thus limit potential yields. In colder climates, increased temperatures may extend the growing season, particularly of crops with indeterminate growth such as cotton.”
Luckily, through genetic engineering, crops can be grown in less than ideal conditions. Imagine crops of corn in the high desert or rice paddies in the arctic. As weather systems become increasingly extreme, genetic modification may be the key to combating climate change.
Preserving natural land
Let’s face it. Farmland is a finite resource. We can’t just make more land where there isn’t any. According to a 2015 report, without GM crops we’d need more than 48 million additional acres of farmland to meet the demand for corn, soy, cotton, and canola. With GMOs, we can produce more food using less land. That means we’re able to preserve natural areas and support biodiversity without anyone having to go hungry.
Reducing food waste
If you’ve ever had to dig overripe bananas, rotten tomatoes, or slimy spinach out of your fridge, then you know the guilt that comes with food waste. But you’re not alone. Roughly one-third of the food produced in the world for human consumption every year—that’s about 1.3 billion tons—gets lost or wasted. Through GM technology, scientists are creating shelf-stable produce. With food that doesn’t rot or brown as quickly, we have more time to distribute, sell, and eat it.
So why do the “Frankenfood” myths persist
It’s part of human nature to resist change and fear the unknown. Thanks to misinformation and smear campaigns, many people are terrified of apples with anti-browning genes and corn that resists bollworms. But if GMOs hold the key to feeding the future—and we believe they do—then it’s more important than ever to start changing public perception. Because a world without GMOs sounds like the stuff of nightmares.