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We Are Obsessed with GMOs, But What The Heck Are They?

Posted in Food Safety on June 7, 2018

Genetically modified organisms, or GMOs for short, refer to species with new traits created through genetic manipulation where genes from another species are inserted into the organism’s genetic code, often through transgenesis.

GMOs have not always been viewed with a positive mindset, and the main reasoning for this is that many feel that the positive arguments for GMOs are not convincing enough, the results are “unnatural”, and there is an inadequacy of answers to various criticisms.

Despite this skewed view, GMOs have had plenty of successes cementing itself as a positive aspect of science and consumerism. Over 1700 studies have been conducted to study the safety of GMOs, out of which more than a hundred of them have been independently funded. Authorities such as the U.S. Drug and Food Administration, World Health Organization, American Medical Association, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and other international organizations have also reviewed and confirmed safety of food modified using biotechnology.

GMOs in Agriculture

The first and perhaps most significant area that GMOs have played a part in is agriculture. In a technical way, humans have been practicing genetic modification on crops and livestock for thousands of years now through artificial selection. GM crops can be seen as an extension to artificial selection, the practice of which started in the 1970s. GM foods are designed to be superior to unenhanced cultivars in several ways including higher yield of produce, improved favorable characteristics, and stronger resistance to pests and herbicides.

One major example of a GMO success would be the development of a genetically modified crop that could survive the presence of an herbicide called Roundup. The active ingredient of this herbicide known as glyphosate would normally kill not just the weeds but the crop as well. The bacterial gene that produced the protein resistant to this herbicide is inserted into soybean, cotton, corn, canola, sugar beet, and alfalfa, hence creating GM cultivars. Naturally, controversies linger with regards to safety of these crops. Health issues due to glyphosate’s chemical residues and toxins may arise causing chronic inflammation within the body. However, inconsistencies exist making it tough to determine whether the adverse health impacts are solely due to GM foods or may in fact be associated with Western dietary habits. On the other hand, benefits that include cost savings, better weed management, and simplicity of use outweighs the negatives, especially when demand for food is continually rising.

Another example would be Golden Rice – a cultivar of rice which has been modified so that the plants produce and contain more vitamin A and beta-carotene inside their seeds – a solution to combat vitamin A deficiency (VAD) in certain parts of the world. With Golden Rice, the opposition has manly lied in context of its unclear beta-carotene synthesis pathway due to the complexity of genetic engineering, raising questions about its effectiveness to tackle VAD – when other safer and more reliable options are already available. Moreover, the golden color of the rice which is an indicator of the concentration of beta-carotene in the endosperm may steer consumers away.

Another example is the potato cultivar known as Amflora which has been bred to produce higher yields of a certain type of starch that are better for use in industrial applications such as paper manufacturing, adhesives, and textiles. In the case of Amflora, detractors worry about the plant’s resistance to a few antibiotics – added as genetic markers – and how it may spread onto bacteria. However, Amflora’s starch can be a suitable alternative solution to industrial logging.

GMOs in Medicine

The advent of genetic modifications serves to also expand possibilities within medicine. In 2002 a genetically engineered strain of Lactobacillus was developed to carry an antibody against Streptococcus mutans known to cause most dental cavities. Since Lactobacillus are known to drive fermentation and are categorized as probiotics for use in cheese and yogurt, they could be used to slow down or even prevent tooth decay. However, since probiotics are known to be a natural component of the human gut, and can be added to food for their health promoting effects, the idea of GM probiotics has been suppressed unless and until the intricacies of their reaction within the gut ecology are well understood. Another interesting development is the edible vaccines, developed through plant-based genetic modification that falls under the category of food. However, it is not clear what part of the vaccine (the transgenic modified fruits or seeds) discharges the antigenic protein into the bloodstream that will then stimulate the immune system to produce antibodies against the pathogen. Edible vaccines could be a boon to the less-developed regions of the world, where there is limited availability of refrigeration and sterile needles.

Can people avoid GMOs?

Most certainly! There are guides and other types of informative websites that share an extensive list of food products that are non-GMO, and the USDA Organic labelled products are there for the sole reason to let consumers know that the product is not genetically modified.

Is it feasible to avoid GM foods completely?

That’s a big NO! Corn, soybeans, or sugar beets are difficult to get without a GM component, since more than 90 percent of these crops are bioengineered in the United States and are ubiquitously found in processed foods. 60 to 70 percent of processed foods sold in the market have at least one GM ingredient and do not require labeling. Many of these ingredients have little to no traceable DNA in them, and this is why the U.S. Department of Agriculture does not mandate manufacturers to add a label to indicate those GM foods.

However, when it comes to taking a step towards ensuring transparency, newer labeling efforts have been presented that include mention of ‘contains a bioengineered food ingredient’, the inclusion of the bioengineered (BE) label, or use of a QR code that would link consumers to a page that imparts all the information.

The merits of GMO cannot be underestimated. Despite constant opposition of its applications, the technology of genetic modification can still provide ways to solve some of the problems plaguing modern society.

By: Neha Lalchandani, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)