Technologies are typically intended to better our modern world and create a safer, healthier environment. However, some technologies in the food industry have become the exact opposite. Examining the controversy over Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), we find ourselves asking, “is this new technology hurting the natural quality of our food and long-term economic and ecological resources?” What you put into your body is a personal decision, however you should have the right to make that decision. The lack of labeling in regards to GMOs is not only an economic, environmental, and health phenomena, but also an ethical dilemma as well. According to the Center for Food Safety, over 64 countries require labeling for genetically modified food (Just Label It Campaign). The dangers of GMOs has now spread far beyond the idea of simply a disconnect between what is in our food, and into more complex issues such as why our food is not labeled, and the economic, ecological and health risks GMOs pose to our future. Now more than ever, there are reasons to say no to GMOs. Living in a country such as the United States, we need to use our consumer power to implement more regulations and labeling to halt the genetic phenomenon destroying our agricultural industry. The more aware we can be as a community, the better suited we are to have the tools and mindfulness to combat such a wide-scale health and environmental issue.
Back to basics: what is a genetically modified organism? Genetic modification is defined as “the process of forcing genes from one species into another entirely unrelated species” (GMO-awareness.com 2014). Genetic modification is not the same process as those of cross breeding or hybridization. Many argue that we have been genetically modifying crops for centuries, but that is not the case. Within cross breeding and hybridization, there are two related species, making it a more natural process. Genetic engineering “forcefully breaches the naturally-occurring barriers between species” (GMO-awareness.com 2014). Genetically modified crops could never be produced using any natural biological processes. How exactly are crops genetically modified? Foreign DNA is inserted into the primary plant species using one of three methods: 1. E. Coli bacteria and soil bacteria combine to cause tumors that allow the foreign bacteria to breach the host plant’s cells. 2. Electricity is applied to the host plant to rupture its cell walls, thus allowing the foreign DNA to invade (GMO-awareness.com 2014). 3. The use of a “gene gun” to blast the engineered DNA directly into the plants’ cells. Once the new gene has been introduced, the plant can be bred to create a new strain that passes the gene from generation to generation (University of Utah Health Sciences).
There are multitudes of reasons I have found the process of genetic modification to be concerning. Over the past 50 years, the United States has come into a type of food revolution, where the truths of many mass scale agricultural practices have come to the knowledge and shock of many Americans. This realization has forced a switch of lifestyle to many consumers’ decisions when it comes to buying food. Not every American who knows how their processed food is made will stop eating it, however in many instances, this spread of information regarding the state of the animals and ingredients has allowed them to know and make the decision when it comes to which brand or certification of food they will choose to purchase. With genetically modified food, Americans currently do not have this option. So why should we avoid GMOs and require that they be labeled? The risks of GMOs can be categorized into ecological, economic, and environmental realms.
The ecological consequences posed by GMOs are concerning to say the least. The use of GMOs could disrupt the environment and ecological habitat through the introduction of transgenic species. Transgenic species are highly threatening because they are inherently more resistant to natural defenses such as weather changes, and also have the potential to alter the natural vegetative composition of specific geographic regions and lessen biodiversity. Although the production costs of GMOs may be argued as cheaper and their crop yields higher for larger farmers, the use of GMOs would increase the likelihood that food producers would then grow fewer strains of crop. The reliance on only a few strains of crop heightens the risk of food-related disasters, such as the well-known Irish potato famine, which resulted in part because of Ireland’s reliance upon only a few strains of genetically uniform potato plants (Weiss). Despite the genetic uncertainty, GMOs could additionally cause ecological problems to existing non-GMO crops.
The next ecological issue in relation to GMOs is widely involved and comes from GMO contamination. GMO contamination endangers consumer health, the environment, and the farming industry. In the U.S., GMOs have repeatedly contaminated organic and non-GMO crops through wind, water and other forms of pollination. Organic farmers are greatly affected by this because they are now at risk of economic loss and injury from contamination of non-GMO crops, making their products now unmarketable. Unlike conventional pollution that breaks down over time, genetic contamination is permanent and can spread endlessly through a species. In 2000 StarLink Corn, a GMO corn not yet approved by the FDA for human consumption, was found in over 300 products that were not made with genetic modification. As of January 19th, 2013 there have been 366 documented instances of GMO contamination around the world (Weiss). As quoted from the European Commission, an executive body in the European Union, “Once a GMO is released into the environment, it could be impossible to recall it or prevent it’s spread and therefore adverse effects must be avoided as they might be irreversible” (Villar). Are GMO crops worth the destruction of organic markets and the health of non-GMO crops, and what are the health risks involved?
In 1996, we started to see increased health issues in people known to have eaten more GM foods. What are the health issues they began to find? The American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM) urges doctors to prescribe non-GMO diets for all patients. Human studies have found that GM food can leave material behind inside us. Genes inserted into GM soy, for example, can transfer into the DNA of bacteria living inside us (The Institute for Responsible Technology 2014). Along with long-term serious health effects, there are more common and quickly-onset chronic diseases being associated with the digestion of GM foods. In fact, the number of Americans with chronic illness used to be 7%, but has since moved up to 13% within the last nine years. Food allergies have skyrocketed due to genetic modification, and disorders such as autism, reproductive disorders, digestive problems, and others are on the rise (The Institute for Responsible Technology 2014). Chronic health effects are increasing in the world such as cancers, hormonal, reproductive, nervous, or immune diseases, even in young people (Séralini, et al. 2009).
Human health problems are only a fraction of negative GMO effects. What about our environment? “Over 80% of all GMOs grown worldwide are engineered for herbicide tolerance. As a result, use of toxic herbicides like Roundup has increased 15 times since GMOs were introduced. GMO crops are also responsible for the emergence of “super weeds” and “super bugs:’ which can only be killed with ever more toxic poisons like 2,4-D (a major ingredient in Agent Orange)” (Non-GMO project 2015). One of the main reasons GMOs were created was to make crops withstand pesticide and herbicide use, which was an environmental issue within itself without GMOs. The main toxic herbicide, Roundup, made by none other than Monsanto, one of the largest GMO patent-selling corporations, has also been linked to sterility, hormone disruption, birth defects, and cancer, however it can be argued that there is not significant research yet to prove all the long-term health effects. Even our air is susceptible to the damages of GMOs. “The very process of creating a GM plant can result in massive collateral damage that produces new toxins, allergens, carcinogens, and nutritional deficiencies” (The Institute for Responsible Technology 2014). Beyond our crops and air, you cannot forget the animals that are also suffering from genetic modification. “GM crops and their associated herbicides can harm birds, insects, amphibians, marine ecosystems, and soil organisms. They reduce bio-diversity, pollute water resources, and are unsustainable” (The Institute for Responsible Technology 2014).
When confronted by accusations of GMOs and their risks, pro-GMO corporations often argue two positions: absolving of world hunger, and economics. It is claimed by corporations such as Monsanto that they have a product suitable for tackling hunger: “Golden Rice, genetically modified to contain vitamin A, can help an estimated 2.7 million children suffering from vitamin A deficiency, which causes blindness and can lead to death” (Monsanto Company). Monsanto also claims that “Twenty years from now, the earth’s population will need 55 percent more food than it can produce now – with the same or fewer amount of resources, such as land and water. GMOs, together with other tools, can help meet this demand” (Monsanto Company). The unfortunate reality is that GMOs do not solve hunger. GMOs and the use of biotechnology may actually contribute to world hunger by making farmers dependent on private corporations such as Monsanto for seed or other agricultural necessities, leaving the matters of what we eat in the hands of very few individuals. Regardless of GMOS ability to produce more abundant crops, hunger is a result of poverty and poor governance rather than a lack of food (Weiss).
The other most prominent argument for GMOs is that they provide tremendous economic benefits, but yet again, is this really the case? As I mentioned before, although the production costs of GMOs may be cheaper and their crop yields higher for larger farmers, the use of GMOs would increase the likelihood that food producers would then grow fewer strains of crop. The reliance on only a few strains of crop heightens the risk of food-related disasters. In addition to the risk of loosing food, there are high concerns that GMOs may increase poverty and income inequality by reducing the necessity of manual labor and disadvantaging farms and farmers who lack the means to make the expensive shift to GMO crops, which they are not required to do, but if they did not they would no longer be able to compete with the market (Weiss). Another recent economic issue is that biotech companies have developed “terminator technology” designed to create edible but infertile GM seeds. The “terminator technology” harms farmers who employ traditional methods of reusing seeds from one year’s crop for the following year’s harvest by forcing them to buy new seeds annually. Additionally, because GM crops can be grown in first world environments previously unable to produce such crops, the export markets of developing nations are hindered. Furthermore, small farms are confronted with the burdensome task of competing with “big business farms” that can more easily assume production costs and other expenses that accompany the use of GMO crop production” (Weiss).
In the United States we luckily have a fair amount of consumer influence into what is put on our shelves. With this power we can choose to avoid the long-term health, and environmental degradations that will ultimately become a reality if we choose not to label GMOs. Technology is a blessing and a curse. If we are going to choose to implement new technologies such as genetic modification of our crops, we need to know the long-term effects of this technology before we put it into the bodies of our people. The intended purpose of GMOs is inaccurate, making them now just simply a source for big corporation profit, health issues, and environmental degradation. By letting corporations take over our food industry we have completely disrupted the local healthy way of distributing food, and instead given too much power to big business, who is not concerned with our health and environment. Next time you think of local and organic food, think no-GMOs. Next time you hear about corporations overtaking the American agricultural industry, remember no-GMOs. We cannot afford to live in a genetically modified world.
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