In a world full of change, our food is also undoubtedly changing.
One of the biggest changes in the past century has been the introduction of genetically modified (GM) foods. A food that has been genetically modified has had its DNA changed by means that do not occur naturally within nature or crossbreeding (Sivaji et al., 2020).
GM food crops have become a huge part of our food system because of their resistance to pesticides and herbicides, along with increasing shelf life, and enhanced or added nutrients (Sivaji et al., 2020). According to the FDA in 2018, 94% of soybean and 92% of corn crops planted in the U.S. were GM. Since the majority of our packaged foods are made with soybeans and corn, this means they also have components that are GM (Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, 2020).
You might be thinking, “How can I know if I’m eating GM foods? Are they regulated?” Those answers depend on where you live. Some countries require GM foods to be labeled. The U.S. is following suit, with an act that will require some companies to start labeling GM ingredients in their products by 2022 (GMO Facts).
What are the pros and cons of GM foods?
Like all foods, GM foods/crops have pros and cons. One pro is that GM foods have helped produce more products such as “138 million tons of soybeans, 274 million tons of corn, 21.7 million tons of cotton lint, and 8 million tons of canola” between the years of 1996-2013 (Sivaji et al., 2020).
Longer shelf lives, and the addition or enhancement of nutrients, are other pros (Sivaji et al., 2020). GM foods have also helped our economy by increasing farm income to $116 billion in 2012, around triple from the previous 10 years (Sivaji et al., 2020).
Some cons are three major health risks that are associated with GM foods: toxicity, allergenicity, and genetic hazards. An example is soybeans that have been enriched with the amino acid methionine. The genes used to enhance these within soybeans come from Brazil nuts. Those that are allergic to Brazil nuts are then allergic to those specific soybean products that have been enriched with such genes (Sivaji et al., 2020).
Another con is that GM foods are resistant to pests and herbicides. This is good until the insects start to evolve and are no longer affected by such modifications (Sivaji et al., 2020).
Lastly, GM crops can also lead to disturbances within the food web by creating insects to evolve in ways we have not seen before, which can ultimately disrupt the food chain (Sivaji et al., 2020).
However, GM foods do not always harm the cropland. Just like non-GM farming, if the land is turned over for a product too fast, it can cause damage. Likewise, new growth throughout the year can lead to good quality soil. Therefore, genetically modifying a crop does not determine the effect it has on the land but rather how the crop is treated (GM plants, 2016). The majority of GM foods are generally safe for humans and animals to consume (GM plants, 2016).
What is the difference between organic, conventional, and genetically modified?
Many people ask themselves if they should buy organic over GM foods. However, they perhaps do not consider conventional farming which is different from organic and GM.
Conventional farming is when chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides are used on crops (Organic vs. Conventional, 2018).
In the U.S., organic is defined as crops grown without the use of artificial pesticides, GMOs, petroleum-based fertilizers, or sewage-sludge fertilizers (Robinson). The actual plant within the crop can be either GM or non-GM.
Most local and market farmers tend to use more of a conventional method of farming than an organic one. It is hard to know the difference between a conventional, organic, or GM farmed piece of produce. Organic food tends to be more expensive because of the label of organic versus that of conventional or GM foods. Organic foods are also seasonal, unlike conventional and GM foods that are available most of the year. However, just because a food is GM does not make it unsafe to eat. GM foods must go through tests before they are released for human or animal consumption (GM plants, 2016).
So, what should you do?
One way of farming is not superior to the other. Each way has its pros and cons. Know the facts and make a decision based on your personal needs. Since GM crops are still a new science, some of the benefits and consequences are still unknown. Some helpful tips to remember are:
Look for labeling on products.
Ask farmers at the market what they use on their crops.
Look up products you are unsure about.
This article was written by Paula Valle and Kaycee Patrick with the Cox College Nutrition Diagnostics Dietetic Internship.
Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. (2020, March 04). GMO Crops, Animal Food, and Beyond. Retrieved July 07, 2020, from https://www.fda.gov/food/agricultural-biotechnology/gmo-crops-animal-food-and-beyond
Genetically modified (GM) plants: Questions and answers. (2016). Retrieved June 27, 2020, from https://royalsociety.org/topics-policy/projects/gm-plants/
GMO Facts. (n.d.). Retrieved June 27, 2020, from https://www.nongmoproject.org/gmo-facts/
Organic vs Conventional. (2018, December 03). Retrieved July 08, 2020, from https://rodaleinstitute.org/why-organic/organic-basics/organic-vs-conventional/
Robinson, L. (n.d.). Organic Foods: What You Need to Know. Retrieved August 5, 2020, from https://www.helpguide.org/articles/healthy-eating/organic-foods.htm
Sivaji et al., 2020. Genetically Modified Food: Promises and Problems. Research Today 2(5) Spl.:312-315.