Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The GMO Lowdown Part 2: Pros and Cons of GMOs

I was planning on getting this article out last week, but one, I want to make sure I get the most relevant and right facts to you all and two, I’ve been having a lot of discussions lately around GMO’s (including most of yesterday on a trip to and from Iowa!) and had to include some thoughts I’ve heard from others!

There is a lot of misinformation floating around out there when it comes to GMO's. Most of the time, GMO's are seen as the Frankenstein of foods. However, there are far more positives out there that are not often highlighted. I want to reiterate that my goal here is not to sway you one way or the other. Instead, I want to present you with the most relevant thoughts and truthful facts to help YOU make educated decisions when it comes to the food you and your family consume. So here you go!

The Pros of GMOs:

1.     Increased yields: GM crops have led to significant advances in agriculture both in the United States and around the world. Because GMO’s are created to have higher yield and withstand harsher conditions—think drought resistant corn or tomatoes that can grow in salt water—proponents of GMOs say they will help us feed the extra 2 billion people that will fill the plant by 2050. Keep in mind that much of this population is occurring in underdeveloped nations, which have less productive acreage so the utilization of GMOs have the potential to help farmers create sustainable livings while feeding the growing population.

2.     Environmental Efficiency: Often times, GMOs are associated with pesticides and herbicides, when in fact, using GMOs allow farmers to use less chemicals than traditional farming. GM crops have been engineered to be more tolerant to weeds pests which means less herbicides have to be used. In addition,  some GM’s are less appealing to pests, so less pesticides have to be applied—a win win for both consumers and farmers who can save on input costs! Back to point number 1, because there are increased yields, more can be grown on less land and with less water as varieties are developed to grow in drier conditions.  Also, GM fish have been making appearances and have the potential to save wild fish populations…read about that here: 

3.     Nutrition: It is estimated that 1/3 of the world’s population is food and nutrition insecure. The International Union of Nutritional Sciences outline four benefits from GM foods: enhancement of nutrient and food security, more targeted health benefits, and reduction of diet related, adult onset chronic diseases. The most dramatic results are seen in lower income countries where biofortification is necessary to combating malnutrition. A claim to fame for GMOs that most people have heard of is Golden Rice. In 2000, the first strain of Golden Rice was created to provide beta carotene in the diets of people, especially children, living in impoverished nations that often suffer from blindness caused by Vitamin A deficiency. Then in 2005, a new variety was released which produces up to 23 times more beta carotene. By 2009, a study was conducted that showed that just one cup of Golden Rice could provide half of the recommended daily allowance of Vitamin A, a game changer for nearly 500,000 children a year who go blind from lack of Vitamin A.
4.     Renewable Resources: Many crops can be genetically modified to produce oils, starches, fibers, and proteins to be used for energy and other industrial purposes. While we’d have to make sure to keep these crops separate from the food supply, imagine if we could eliminate the use of petroleum and other non-renewable resources by growing all the energy we need—that’d be pretty cool, right?

5.     Biotech Research: I hadn’t thought much about this until a friend of mine from high school, Zach, shared with me the incredible contributions of GMO research in the medical field. Here’s what he had to say: “As someone who has done plenty of bench work, I understand that GMOs are also invaluable to medical research. For instance, I studied mutations in in the BRCA1 gene in E. coli and the insulin taken by diabetics everyday is made from recombinant DNA that has been spliced into E. coli or yeast. I think so much goes back to education. People tend to be afraid of, and are easily swayed, on topics they don’t understand. Educate them on the facts and the issue goes away. However, this is far easier said than done.” Take a look at this video that illustrates how genetic modification of bacteria led to insulin production for human use—pretty cool, huh? 
6.     Lower Cost/More Accessibility: The U.S. has the safest, most reliable, and most affordable food system in the world. Yes, you heard that right—our farmers work hard to provide us with low cost food (In 2012, we only spent on average 6.4% of our income on food compared to the average of 25.2% in India) that is thoroughly  tested and regulated, more so than any other country. This is something we often take for granted, as 1 in 9 people across the globe go hungry. Those of us who are fortunate enough to have the access and income to choose between organic, non-GMO, traditional, cage free, conventional, etc. foods have years of research and technology development in the agricultural industry to thank for increasing availability, variety, and quantity of food.

As with anything however, there are concerns regarding GMOs that I hear day in and day out that I believe are important to address. 

The Cons of GMOs:
1. Pest/disease resistance: There is some concern that the use of GM crops that utilize biotech traits to be resistant to certain bugs or diseases that damage crops may allow for adaptation of these pests and diseases into so called “superbugs.” While no one can say that won’t happen, chances are it could also happen if we do the alternative, which is apply chemicals (organic or not) to combat pests and diseases. The ultimate alternative would be to not take any action against these damages, but then we wouldn’t have enough food to feed the current population let alone a growing one!

2. Genetic Drift: This is a huge challenge, especially when trying to develop a non-GMO and organic supply chain. Technically called “adventitious presence,” this is essentially when a trait is spread via pollen in the air from a field planted with GMO crops to a field that is either organic or non-GMO. Keep in mind this is how plants breed—via pollen—so there is a chance that a field of non-GMO corn may have a few stalks of GM corn because of this genetic drift. No big scary concerns here, just the challenges that come when having to test the corn for this presence, as many a times corn may be rejected from the Japanese non-GMO market because .9% of the crop happened to have this trait introduced by accident.

3. Allergic reactions: This is a valid concern for those who have severe allergies—say for example that a gene from the almond was used in a tomato variety. This could pose an issue if the gene used was the origin of an allergen, however, I believe scientists are in tune with this and there is enough genetic research that they won’t intentionally add an allergen to a food. What may be more important here is the transparency of knowing the science behind a GM food you choose to consume. Many people are also concerned that new allergens could be created. While there is no evidence of this, I even encourage you to think about the opposite—what is biotechnology was developed so that the allergen causing gene could be REMOVED from the crop all together?

4. Not “Natural”/Playing God:  This one is an ethical balance beam. We’ve been crossbreeding plants and animals for centuries, and genetic engineering could be viewed as just the transfer of this crossbreeding to the lab with more precise technology. While it may not seem “natural,” you must decide for yourself what your definition of natural is. Many people also say we shouldn’t “play God.” I don’t think this is fair to say about agriculture when the same could be said about medicine—from vaccines to pain relievers to cures for cancer to in vitro fertilization. Humans have evolved and progressed to where we are today because of technology,innovation, and efficiency. There is a reason farmers 
adapted GM crops and doing away with it may just set us back.

5. International Trade: An economic argument I have heard against GMOs is the fact that many foreign countries have strict regulations when it comes to accepting GMO crops, if at all. While the ongoing TPP and T TIP trade talks currently going on work to address these standards and concerns, it is a valid point that by producing an overwhelming majority of GMOs, we are limiting our international trade capability. 

I hope this gives you a foundation of understanding when it comes to the issues surrounding GMOs. Next post, I will highlight some crazy myths surrounding GMOs and give you the facts!

As always, feel free to let me know if you agree, disagree, or if I left something out, etc. Your opinions and perspectives matter to me!

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