What are GMOs?

GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, are created when a gene from one species is transferred to another, thus creating something that would not occur naturally.  It means that a geneticist can isolate a gene for a specific attribute, such as resistance to drought, and implant it into a different species.  The newly created plant will then develop drought resistance too.  So called ‘frankenfoods’ (a rather clever play on Frankenstein’s monster) are spliced for a number of reasons: taste, texture, durability, nutrition, and many more.  The genes don’t just come from other plants either, but have been sourced from bacterium and animals too – in fact, just about any organism that has a gene that may be helpful.   

There has been a lot of debate around the issue of GMOs lately, especially as groups continue to lobby for legislation forcing food companies to label foods specifically as GMO.  It’s easy to think that this is a topic that doesn’t affect you but actually, around 70% of all the food lining our grocery store shelves are genetically modified, and the US accounts for 63% of all GM crops worldwide[1].   So it seems that unless you eat entirely organic, the chances are that you are eating genetically modified foods – and far from being someone else’s problem, it’s actually an issue that affects us all. 


The bulk of the media attention that GMOs have received has focused on the negative and there certainly are negatives, much like anything else.  Perhaps the most argued case is that the health implications of genetically modified crops are as yet unknown, as the process is still in its relevant infancy.  Some scientists argue that there is a possibility that foods will pass on their mutated genes to the bacterium in the digestive systems, causing unknown damage.  In reality, we won’t know what the long term effects of eating GMOs are for at least another ten years or so and some of the possibilities are certainly frightening.  What’s worse is that experts predict that once GM foods have been released into general use, there will be no turning back – GMOs can contaminate existing seeds, causing them to mutate too, meaning that eventually, getting wholly organic foods would be near impossible[2]

Of course, most of the media attention stems from the fact that GMOs are not currently labelled as such in the US and campaigners argue that people have the right to know what they are eating, and to decide for themselves.  This seems especially poignant given that there are stringent labelling laws or even outright bans on GM foods in any European Union country, in the UK, in Japan, and in numerous other places too[3].  However, with all this hype and fear-mongering, it’s easy to wonder why we are propagating GMOs in the first place.  Are they really all that bad or are they, like many new developments, simply misunderstood?

 Misunderstood and Misused

It may seem that the initial wave of genetically modified foods available are good for one thing – feeding profits to greedy corporations, but that’s not what it’s all about and there are a number of companies hoping to set the record straight.  One thing is for certain – GM crops were not developed out of malicious intent or evil doing.  There was no crazed scientist splicing together species’ of plant that had no business being together.  In fact, the first GMO patented was in 1980 and was a bacterium that had been developed with a hunger for crude oil.  It was used to clean up oil spills.  Later, genetically engineered insulin appeared on the market, fully approved by the FDA[4], and made a great impact to those suffering from diabetes.  The potential for positive GMOs is huge, with scientists all over the world looking for ways to make food not only sustainable but healthier, tastier, and more beneficial for the consumer, not just for corporations.   


Pest resistance and the B.t gene:  The B.t gene, or bacillus thuringiensis, natural bacterium that produces proteins that kill insect larvae, has been transferred to corn.  With this modification, the corn can now produce its own pesticides against insects.  Crop loss from pests and insects is a massive problem within agriculture and leads to farmers using more and more pesticides.  This, in turn, can cause potential damage to human health, environmental health, and to wildlife.   Introduction of the B.t gene will lead to lower crop losses, less pesticide use, and lower costs[5]

Tolerance to inhabitable conditions:  As less and less arable land is available, crops need to be increasingly durable and able to withstand previously inhospitable conditions. Perfect examples of this are crops that are developed to withstand long-term drought conditions or soil with a high salt content.  Similarly, some plants (namely tobacco and potato plants) have been modified using a gene from cold water fish, giving the plant additional tolerance to cold conditions and meaning that they are much more likely to survive cold spells or freezing conditions[6]

Herbicides and Monsanto:  Herbicides are sprayed over crops by the ton in order to kill weeds and unwanted plants within the crop field.  This is time-consuming, expensive, and has a massive potential for damage to health, the environment, and even the crops themselves.  In response to this, food giant Monsanto developed a strain of soybeans that are resistant to herbicides, meaning that only one massive application of herbicide is all that is required to kill the weeds, whilst keeping the crops safe.  This reduces costs and limits damage.  Conveniently for Monsanto, however, the herbicide necessary is their own brand, Roundup, which has caused some controversy over whether this particular GM crop was developed as a ploy to gain higher profits rather than any more appealing outcome[7]

Increased Yield:  Conventional crop breeding is time-consuming, risky, and often inaccurate.  Genetically modified crops, however, grow faster and the results can be much more accurately predicted.  This means that use of the land is more efficient and more edible plants can be grown in the same time span[8]

Longer lasting food:  JR Simplot Co, the US’s largest potato producer, is trying to get a patent for their Innate potatoes, a spud that is less susceptible to black spots caused by bruising, which have an improvement taste, which will last longer, and which will reduce the formation of acrylamide, a naturally occurring chemical with potentially carcinogenic effects[9]

Nutrition:  By being able to add vitamins and minerals to certain foods greatly helps to reduce malnutrition, especially in third world countries where a range of foods is often unavailable.  In 2000, the Rockefeller Foundation did just that when they announced their ‘golden rice’, a strain of rice that has been modified to include beta-carotene, or Vitamin A.  This rice, they claimed, would help to prevent blindness in third world countries, where rice is the staple diet, and they plan to use the same technology to produce further examples of vitamins and minerals placed into foods[10].   Similarly, Pioneer, a company owned by DuPont, have developed a genetically engineered soybean called ‘Plenish’ that will produce an oil that is free from trans-fats.  This oil can replace hydrogenated fats used in frying etc. and will potentially improve health significantly[11].  

Vaccines:  A number of companies are investing in the development of vaccines that grow within foods, particularly in tomatoes and potatoes.  These food-based vaccines would be great for kids who are scared of getting shots but more importantly, they could be grown in poorer areas or in the third world, where vaccines are often costly and hard to store.  In cases like this, GMOs could save the lives of millions of people worldwide[12]


So whilst there are certainly bad guys within the world of GMOs, the wealth of potential benefits is immeasurable.  Of course, labelling produce as genetically modified would help us make informed choices but in the meantime, embracing this technology could make the world a significantly better place to live. 


[1]{C} UCSC, 2005, Benefits of GM Food [online]  Available at: www.classes.soe.ucsc.edu/cmpe080e/spring05/projects/gmo/benefits.htm [accessed 10/19/2014]

[2]{C} Shilo Urban, 2010, 8 Reasons GMOs are Bad for You [online]  Available at: www.organicauthority.com/foodie-buzz/eight-reasons-gmos-are-bad-for-you.html [accessed 10/19/2014]

[3]{C} Ibid.

[4]{C} Shireen, 2013, GMO Timeline: A History of Genetically Modified Foods [online], Available at:  http://gmoinside.org/gmo-timeline-a-history-genetically-modified-foods/ [accessed 10/20/2014]

[5]{C} Deborah B. Whitman, 2000, Genetically Modified Foods: Harmful or Helpful? [online]  Available at:  www.csa.com/discoveryguides/gmfoods/overview/php [accessed 10/19/2014]

[6]{C} Ibid.

[7]{C} Ibid.

[8]{C} UCSC, op. cit.

[9]{C} Marc Gunther, 2014, GMO 2.0: Genetically Modified Foods with Added Health Benefits [online] Available at:  www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2014/jun/10/genetically-modified-foods-health-benefits-soybean-potatoes [accessed 10/19/2014]

[10]{C} Gary H. Toenniessen, Vitamin A Deficiency and Golden Rice:  The Role of the Rockefeller Foundation, [online]  Available at:  http://www.rockefellerfoundation.org/uploads/files/4c1fc130-3db5-477d-a1b2-d2cfa60f5f65-111400ght.pdf  [accessed 10/20/2014]

[11]{C} Marc Gunther, op. cit.

[12]{C} Grain, 2000, Eat Up Your Vaccines [online]  Available at: http://www.grain.org/article/entries/245-eat-up-your-vaccines [accessed 10/20/2012]

Creative Commons License
FRANKENFOODS: MONSTROUS OR MISUNDERSTOOD? A LOOK AT THE UNDERSTATED BENEFITS OF GENETICALLY MODIFIED CROPS by UrbanSculpt Staff Writer Victoria Froud, MA is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at www.UrbanSculpt.com.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at http://urbansculpt.com/terms-and-conditions.