The general public has stronger opinions when it comes to GMOs than global warming. In fact, it seems impossible to find unbiased GMO facts on the web or in scientific studies – which could be the source of consumers’ strong opinions on this subject. We researched a vast amount of materials available online and offline to make a general idea on whether GMOs are good or harmful. Here’s what we found:

What is a Genetically Modified Organism?

The term “GMO” refers to an organism whose basic structure, its DNA, has been altered by introducing genes from bacteria, viruses, plants, or animals into the nucleus of a cell. The result is a genetically modified organism that shows traits which could or could not occur naturally.

DNA - GMO facts

GMO Facts: Purposes and Uses

GMO commonly refers to genetically altered crops. The main purposes of genetically modifying crops are:

  • Increased resistance to pests, diseases, herbicides;
  • Reduction of spoilage;
  • Increased amounts of nutrients.

However, other organisms that have been genetically altered are widely used in medicine and pharmaceutics or in fuel production. GM bacteria are used in medicine to treat diabetes, hemophilia, or dwarfism. Food production is also aided by GM bacteria or fungi by using substances to extract, isolate, or process ingredients. GM viruses are used to produce eco-friendly lithium-ion batteries, treat genetic disorders, or kill cancerous cells, to name a few. Although new and not yet available, these medical techniques show great potential for the human species.

GMO Facts: How Genetic Engineering Works

To give you an idea about what genetically engineering an organism implies, we’re going to focus on GMO facts on crops – since these are the most common and vexed GMOs. Here’s how it goes:

The first step is finding a trait a certain species needs, identifying an individual plant that shows the best traits of said species and narrowing down the options of donor organisms. Next, scientists isolate the genes from the donor organism. This meticulous process is usually automated. The third step is inserting the genes into the plant. There are several techniques to do so, from using a small “bullet” covered in donor genes to “tricking” the seeds into accepting the genetic material.

agglutination with live antigen from GMO

Even though scientists generally know what to expect, genetically modifying an organism can be unpredictable; This is where thorough testing comes in. Generations of the newly GM plant are tested and analyzed to ensure stability and effectiveness of the new genome and the whole process takes years to complete.

The selection process is thorough: Out of hundreds or thousands of modified seeds from the original batch or from their descendants qualify for commercial use. these are then reproduced in the same conditions but on a larger scale and sold to farmers.

The result is a super-seed that can withstand harsh environmental conditions and can produce certain chemicals that are only harmful do some pests, but not humans. Many edible plants produce such chemicals naturally, such as dill, eucalyptus, or fennel. Therefore, toxicity because of such substances should not be an issue.

GMO Facts on Legislation and Economy

GMO foods are regulated by the Environmental Projection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. However, there are no special regulations for GM foods; They need to comply with general rules and requirements for foods.

According to the USDA, the U.S. is the largest exporter of grains and other agricultural products. A considerable fraction of these exports comprises of GMOs.

Genetically engineered seeds cost more than organic ones but usually generate more profit. Contrary to the popular belief, more GMO farmers struggle every growing season because of the premium pricing imposed by large companies in this industry. For example, pest resistant corn seeds for one acre of land cost about $115, $50 more than non-GMO seeds. However, at the end of the growing season, a farmer who used pest resistant corn seeds has almost $300 more per acre.

GMO crops are a viable agricultural solution for third world countries. The increased resistance to environmental factors deems GM seeds as a sustainable method of providing good to countries affected by famine.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service approved 29,134 field releases for GMOs, as follows:

releases of approved APHIS by GE trait

Debunking GMO Myths

All domestic crops surpassed genetic modifications one way or another over time. Although it does not imply inserting a foreign gene into the organism, selective breeding is a form of genetically altering a species. Genetic modifications also occur naturally, by cross-pollination. For example, farmers who grow regular and hot peppers need to be very careful about the positioning of the two crops since pollen from hot pepper plants can pollinate a regular pepper plant, thus making its fruits spicy. In Europe, a wild beet which naturally hybridized non-GMO sugar beet crops cost farmers a billion dollars a few years ago.

Not being genetically engineered does not make a food organic. It is one of the requirements, but for a product to be organic it also needs to be free of synthetic additives (this includes pesticides or chemical fertilizers), and must not use industrial solvents or irradiation during processing.

There are no relevant evidence GMO foods cause tumors. The 3-year study that claimed this was widely criticized and proven as flawed since the experiment was conducted on a species of lab rats which is prone to developing tumors in 80% of the cases. However, some studies concluded that a GMO diet is linked to kidney and liver problems.

In addition, even though tests are conducted during the development stage of a GMO seed, these mainly revolve around the stability and efficiency of crops derived from said seed – one of the most staggering GMO facts and the first thing that should change about this industry. Studies on chronic toxicity and other short or long-term effects are not precisely regulated. This means there is no obligatory minimal length for tests and trials on GMO crops for public consumption. Regulations on testing are weak or inexistent, being conducted by the company that handles and commercializes them; The FDA is not involved in testing or verifying the provided data. Here’s how a GMO seed becomes available for public use and consumption:

  • The company provides a safety research summary to the FDA.
  • If the internal study deems the product safe for use, the FDA does not question or double check the results.
  • The company is liable for making unsafe products available to consumers. However, studies proving this may take years.

GMO Statistics

  • USA is the #1 producer of GM foods, with over 175 million acres of genetically engineered crops in 2015.
  • In 2006, 39% of USA’s crops were non-GMOs. Today, less than 8% of USA’s crops are non-GM.
  • GM crops planted on over 90% of the U.S. are corn, soybeans, and cotton. Other common GM crops are canola, sugar beets, alfalfa, potatoes, squash, and papaya.
  • About 85 million acres of GM corn and 72 million acres of GM soybeans are cultivated in the US every year, which translates to 92% of all corn crops in America.
  • 95% or more of the corn crops in Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas are genetically engineered one wa y or another.
  • Over 70% of the farmers who grow genetically engineered organisms do so for their herbicide tolerance.
  • Even though a widely controversial subject, 67% of American shoppers are not willing to pay more for non-GMO products.

So What Does This Mean? Are GM Foods Safe?

transgenic pig and cheese chromatography of DNA

USDA’s official stand on this matter is that only safe foods are available for commercial use. However, there is no clear answer to this question; Long-term effects of GMOs, if any, are yet to be discovered as years go by.

Many studies showed that GMOs are safe, while others have proven them as highly toxic for consumers and the environment. However, the most reliable studies we encountered, those which were not privately funded, reached inconclusive results; It appears more unbiased testing is required before reaching a conclusion on this matter.

Even though controversial in first world countries, one of the most noteworthy GMO facts is that GMOs are considered a viable solution to poor quality of life in third world countries. They offer a sustainable agricultural system that could survive in extreme conditions like dry or arenaceous land, which can eliminate or reduce famine.

“We shouldn’t just arbitrarily lock away certain tools such as genetic engineering.

We just have to be mindful of how we use those tools.”

NORMAN ELLSTRAND, Professor of Genetics at University of California

Image sources: 1, 2, 3, 4.