Genetically Modified Organisms are controversial — to say the least.
Battles over their legality are being fought all around the world, with many countries imposing all-out bans on their cultivation.
Proponents claim that GMOs are the answer to world hunger, while detractors argue that they will ruin the environment and lead to disease.
But is this all just hype and hysteria? Are GMOs really a threat to humanity? Can they improve food security? Or are they just misunderstood?
Here’s a look at 7 of the myths trying to end the GMO (just crops) conversation.
GMOs involve unpredictable technology
The name “genetically modified organism” may go down as the worst marketing decision of all time — it’s accurate, but understandably freaks people out. It conjures up images of scientists doing Frankensteiny things in labs. Who would want to eat a genetically modified organism?
In reality, the GMO process isn’t that farfetched. It can be thought of as accelerated selective breeding — when two or more plants are crossbred to produce a desired trait. The key difference is that instead of going through numerous trials of plant reproduction and potentially never arriving at the right conclusion, scientists are able to use sophisticated modeling technologies to know precisely what traits are possible and how to achieve them.
Then very small and contained changes are made to a genome to produce or suppress a trait — more vitamin C, drought resistance, a naturally occurring pesticide, more fiber, for example — and a GMO is made. The result is nearly identical to the original plant on a genetic level. Many GMOs could, theoretically, happen in the wild — it would just take way longer.
GMO eggplant crops are helping Bangladeshi farmers increase crop yield, reduce pesticide use, and earn more https://t.co/NO9tcWmFHg— Michael Johnson (@mjjohnson423) July 26, 2016
GMOs are dangerous to eat
All crops grown today went through “genetic modification” of some kind at some point — maybe not in a lab, but in the wild. Plants adapt over time and develop new traits or can be compelled, through human intervention, to develop new traits.
The most popular strain of corn in the world today wasn’t available a few centuries ago. Before it was modified in a lab, farmers bred the crop over time to be more sugary and bland.
Nobody doubts that the corn you see in the grocery store is edible — it may be unhealthy, but it’s edible.
GMOs, similarly, are perfectly safe and edible — there are no risks to eating GMOs. To repeat: more than 2,000 studies confirm this. They may have been changed in a lab, but these changes are all predictable and safe.
There's also a deep irony surrounding this concern — almost all medicine is genetically engineered, yet people still ingest it.
GMOs taste bad
Most people probably wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between a GMO and non-GMO food. GMOs involve very subtle genetic changes, and so taste, unless directly targeted, doesn’t really change. If anything, a GMO could taste better, since they can be designed to be tastier than non-GMOs. A few examples: tomatoes can be made juicier, apples crunchier, and honey dew sweeter.
GMOs require more pesticides and chemicals to grow
Many GMOs are designed to require less pesticides and chemical assistance to grow. For example, the most common cotton crop in India was modified to repel the bollworm, a pest that would otherwise be devastating and require heavy use of chemicals. All sorts of plants can be equipped with genes that repel pests and other threats in the wild. When a plant is able to repel a pest on its own, less pesticides have to be used.
For GMOs that don’t get traits like this, the amount of chemicals used is no different from what non-GMOs receive.
Boys picking good old GMO sweet corn, if this crop is any indication of our field corn, well it's gonna be good! pic.twitter.com/oja7rHZvkA— CPSDynagroCIN (@CPSDynagroSEIN) July 28, 2016
The real culprit of increased pesticide use is the rise of industrial and monoculture farming which degrades soil quality and plant resilience — not GMOs.
GMOs are controlled by corporations
While many multinational corporations have patented GMO seeds, they are not the only players in the GMO market. Many NGOs and medical and science groups are invested in creating GMOs that they oftentimes make fully available to farmers with no strings attached.
The risk of corporations controlling too much of the market is obviously alarming — just like the concentration of power in any market would be. One particularly troubling relationship occurs when a conglomerate owns an agricultural company and a chemical company that overlap. There have already been cases of GMO producers designing crops to work exclusively with a particular herbicide — a clear conflict of interest.
But not all corporations are doing this and many other groups without conflicts of interest are invested in creating improved crops through GMOs.
Also, companies like Monsanto aren’t suing farmers and driving them into bankruptcy for misusing seeds.
GMO seeds can’t be replanted
Monsanto has a patent that prevents certain seeds from being replanted — but these seeds are not used.
Regardless, most farmers buy seeds each year anew — GMO or not. This isn’t because seeds can’t be regrown each year. It’s because replanting seeds can lead to inconsistent and diminished harvests. Buying new seeds each year is a way to guarantee the consistency of a harvest.
GMO seeds, like non GMO seeds, will germinate and grow each year if allowed.
GMOs negatively disrupt natural environments
GMOs — like any plant — can affect the surrounding environment as it interacts with other organisms and particles get blown or carried around by the wind or animals.
But GMOs are no more inherently disruptive than non-GMO plants.
Like with non-GMO plants, this tendency to disrupt isn’t necessarily negative, unless the GMO crop is planted in a vulnerable environment. For example, a particular invasive species from a different part of the world can quickly overrun and alter a new environment, but only if the organism is introduced in the first place. If a GMO’s compatiblity with a particular environment is assessed beforehand, then risks can be determined and averted. GMOs are intensely scrutinized and these kinds of risk assessments are regularly carried out.
Also, animals, like humans, can eat GMOs without any problems.
GMOs are still being studied and many countries are weighing if they should be allowed to grow and be sold. A lot more information on GMOs will be revealed in the years to come as research increases.
What is clear at the moment is that they aren’t the doomsday inventions that many critics paint them as. Most of the time, GMOs are hardly different from non-GMOs and their effects on the environment and humans are harmless.
Going forward, they can become a useful tool in improving global health and ending global hunger.