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Written by Rina Wolok   
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Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Genetically Modified Organisms: The Debate

With hundreds of millions of people around the world living in hunger, food security is a major modern day issue. What is the best way to solve this massive dilemma? There is no time to dilly dally, waiting for the perfect solution to arise, so why not use a form of technology that already exists? Genetically modified crops have the potential to be much more hardy and productive than their non-modified counterparts. Already, corn has been bred to be able to grow in African climates, helping to alleviate hunger in certain populations. Why invest precious time and energy in exploring other techniques for alleviating hunger when the tremendous potential of genetically modified crops is just beginning to be realized around the world?

Genetic modification sounds pretty wonderful, doesn't it? It is true that many people who work in genetic engineering have the best interests of starving people at heart. However, there are also lucrative labs in universities and elsewhere around the world (primarily in the United States) that have been developing genetically modified crops solely for the purpose of making a profit. Many of these biotechnology companies have asserted that they should be able to patent the seeds they develop. Is it ethical for humans to patent a form of life? Around the world, fears have arisen regarding the safety, the unknown health and environmental implications of growing and eating crops that have been genetically modified. Nations have begun to consider whether or not to allow the planting and consumption of these crops, and bans have been instituted in Europe, Africa, and even several counties in California.

What are Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)?

Genetically Modified Organisms, also known as GMOs, are organisms that have been engineered to contain one or more genes that were not originally in the organism's genome. Altering one gene can change one or more characteristics of the whole organism. GMOs are also called transgenic animals, plants, microbes, etc. Roundup Ready corn is one of the most well-known examples of a GMO, and one that is made to be resistant to a powerful herbicide called Roundup. Roundup is a common, broad-spectrum herbicide, which means that it does not just kill one specific type of weed, but rather a huge range of weeds and other plants. Farmers use Roundup to wipe out weeds in their corn fields, while letting the corn survive and grow strong, with improved access to light, water, and soil nutrients that would have otherwise been "stolen" by weeds.1

Primary Advantages of GMOs

Perhaps the most compelling argument in favor of GMOs is that they have the potential to make a difference in the lives of populations around the world that are struggling to achieve food security. Currently, “854 million people across the world are hungry,” which means that there is still much work to be done even in providing for the basic needs of all people.2 There are many aspects of genetically modified crops that make them appealing to farmers in developing countries (and, for that matter, farmers everywhere). For example, GM crops can be engineered to be able to withstand harsh conditions, such as cold, heat, drought, and disease. This can save farmers the huge cost of losing a crop due to disease or unexpected environmental conditions. With global warming on the rise, it is important to have crops that can withstand extreme weather. GM crops can grow outside both early and late in the season, increasing yields and decreasing the need for high-input greenhouses that struggling farmers certainly cannot afford.

GM crops can also be made to have high pest resistance and high nutrient uptake efficiency. When pest resistance is encoded into the plant's genome, then the farmer has less necessity for pesticides. This leads to decreased expenses for the farmer, decreased pesticide runoff into waterways, and decreased environmental toxins. Much of the fertilizer that is applied by farmers typically runs off into waterways as well, causing numerous environmental problems that can lead to human health problems, such as nitrogen poisoning. With decreased use of pesticides and fertilizers, there is also decreased use of the fossil fuels that are burned in the manufacture of these products. Not only do farmers in developing countries prefer not to pollute their environments, but they also simply cannot pay the cost of these polluting pesticides and fertilizers.

Primary Criticisms of GMOs

In spite of the fact that GMOs seem to be a “wonder solution” to what is arguably the world's most important problem (hunger), critics do bring up some good points that are worthy of consideration, even by the most enthusiastic of GMO supporters. For example, the spread of GM crops could spark the development of “super pests” and “super weeds.” GM crops are often made to be able to survive the application of powerful pesticides and herbicides. This allows farmers who plant GM crops to spray their fields with these pesticides and herbicides, killing virtually all insects and all plants, except for the crop itself. If some pests and weeds have mutations that allow them to survive in the presence of these powerful chemicals, then those pests and weeds will give rise to a new generation of chemical-resistant offspring, rendering the pesticides and herbicides useless.3 Also, when companies are able to patent GM seeds and make them such that they cannot produce new generations of seeds, but rather have to be purchased every year, then this makes poor farmers increasingly dependent on big biotechnology companies. This increased dependency leads to a sense of hopelessness among farmers who are already struggling to make ends meet.4

Another problem with GMOs is that their consequences for human and environmental health remain largely unknown. In the United States, GM foods can be put on the market without being tested for potential allergens. With food allergies on the rise, especially among children, some people feel that distributing GM foods is too risky. Also, GM foods do not have to be labeled in the U.S., so we probably ingest GM foods daily without even knowing it. Even foods that were raised using 100% organic materials and practices may still have accidentally been cross-pollinated with transgenic crops from neighboring fields. Furthermore, GMOs could cause unintentional harm to beneficial species. For example, when corn was genetically engineered to contain a pesticide, it was shown that populations of monarch butterflies were negatively affected.

What to think?

After exploring the many criticisms and advantages of GMOs, it's evident why there is so much debate. The issue is not clear-cut or simple. Some people choose to shop in the organic aisle at the supermarket in part because they fear GM foods, while others rave about the many accomplishments that scientists have made in GMO laboratories in the past thirty years. Ultimately, it is up to each of us to decide for ourselves how we feel about GMOs and if we plan to do something active about their presence in our lives.

However, as we sit back and ponder how we plan to allow or not allow GMOs in our own lives, we must remember that there are people in the world whose decision regarding GMOs will have much more dire consequences than will ours. If a struggling farmer in a developing country can choose to plant GM crops and feed his family or plant non-GM crops and not feed his family, what do you think his decision will be? Is it fair for anyone to advise him on this decision, or should he be allowed to choose for himself no matter what? Should a government ban GM crops that could potentially save the lives of its citizens? After all, the primary reason for fear of GMOs is fear of the unknown, and, throughout history, all groundbreaking discoveries have started as one little potentially dangerous light bulb in the creative, exploratory mind of a scientist.

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Please refer to sources 5 and 6 for more information.
2Quotation from source 9.
3Please refer to source 2 for more information.
4Please refer to source 8 for more information.


1. “Transgenic Crops: An Introduction and Resource Guide”

2. “Genetically Modified Foods: Harmful or Helpful?”

3. “Golden Rice is Part of the Solution”

4. “Saving the World, One GMO at a Time”

5. Wikipedia article on GMOs

6. “Advantages and Disadvantages of Roundup Ready Corn and Soybeans”

7. “Do Genetically Modified Foods Cause Allergies?”

8. “Terminator Technology”

9. “Hunger Facts: International”

10. “The Costs of Nitrogen Enrichment”

11. “How Consumers Process Information at Heart of Debate Over Labeling of
Genetically Modified Foods”

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Last Updated ( Wednesday, 25 May 2011 )