What’s The Deal With GMOs?

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A big thanks to Myles Power for proof-reading this blog post. Myles is a Chemist and pseudoscience-debunking extraordinaire! You can see what he’s up to in his YouTube, Facebook and Twitter accounts.


A recent study which surveyed people from the US, Germany and France has found that those with the strongest anti-GMO beliefs tend to know the least, but think they know the most about them (1).

This doesn’t come as a big surprise.

There is a lot of fear-mongering about GMOs, and people are often wary of technologies that they don’t understand.

This could also be related to the ‘Dunning–Kruger effect’ – as people with a low level of understanding in a certain area often mistakenly overestimate their knowledge, due to not understanding the overall complexity.

So to clear up some of this confusion, this post discusses some key points about GMOs.

What are GMOs?

GM stands for ‘genetic modification’, and GMO stands for ‘genetically modified organisms’.

GMOs are any plant or animal that has its DNA changed using genetic engineering.

Humans have been selectively breeding plants and animals for hundreds of years to achieve desirable characteristics such as:

  • Tastier fruit and vegetables
  • Cattle for milk and meat production
  • Domesticated wolves (which we now keep as pets i.e. dogs!)

It is commonly believed that GMOs are ‘unnatural’ – but this is no more ‘unnatural’ than previous breeding techniques (2).

How Safe are GMOs?

There are pros and cons to the use of GM technology.

A possible downside is unknown ecological side-effects related to cross-breeding between GMOs and other plants or animals.

However, cross-breeding already occurs between plants and animals which have been bred for specific purposes. Furthermore, there are often strategies in place to contain GMOs, in order to reduce the risk of harmful cross-breeding.

Other criticisms of GMOs include the fact that they are patented by big companies, which can impact farmers as well as intellectual property rights.

On the other hand, GM technology has lots of important uses.

For example, this can be used for:

  • Producing food which is more nutritious
  • Increasing the shelf-life of food products
  • Creating crops which are resistant to diseases and pests (which reduces food waste and reliance on pesticides)
  • Producing more food using less resources (which has knock-on benefits for the environment and helping to combat world hunger)

Most scientists agree that GM foods are safe to consume, and that the overall benefits outweigh the risks.

This was highlighted in a poll from 2015 by the Pew Research Center which found that 88% of scientists thought GMOs were safe to consume, whereas only 37% of non-scientists thought so (3).

There is no one answer as to whether all GMOs are good or bad, as this is a production technique rather than a specific group of food.

However, this technology can be used to make important progress in food production.

Examples of GMOs

This technology can be applied in many different ways. One of the most famous applications of GM is the creation of ‘Golden Rice’. This is rice which is high in beta-carotene (which converts into vitamin A), and was developed to combat vitamin A deficiency (VAD), which is the leading cause of preventable childhood blindness in the world (mainly occurring in the developing world).

A more recent example is the production of a plant-based source of haem iron for the ‘Impossible Burger’.

A type of GM salmon called ‘AquaAdvantage Salmon’ has also been developed which grows faster than ordinary farmed salmon. This has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the USA.

There are many possible future applications for GM technology being explored.

For example it may be used to try to reduce the amount of allergens present in certain foods (2).

Resistance Against GMOs

Many people are wary of GMOs, and feel that they are unnatural or unsafe. But as highlighted above, the scientific consensus is that this is a safe and useful approach.

Part of this resistance may be related to the increasing popularity of organic food, as the use of GM technology is strongly discouraged in the production of organic products (4). Check out this post I wrote for The Food Medic Education Hub for more information about organic food.

The overall use of GMOs in Europe is lower than in other parts of the world, such as the US.

This is because the EU is very conservative when it comes to food policy, so it is slow to approve GMOs for use in Europe. Use of GM technology also varies between different countries in the EU – for example 22% of Spain’s maize production is GM, whereas Northern Ireland have introduced a ban on producing GM crops (5-6).

Unfortunately, at the extreme end of the scale some people in the anti-GMO movement have taken dramatic steps to hinder GM progress.

For example, in 2013 Greenpeace protesters destroyed a field trial of golden rice in the Philippines (7). In some cases actions like this have bullied farmers in developing countries into opting out of these experiments, which is awful considering the important impact on farming and nutrition this could have in the local area.

Summary:

GMOs are plants or animals which have had part of their DNA changed using genetic engineering techniques.

As with everything there are positives and negatives related to this, but this is considered to be a safe and useful technique by the vast majority of scientists.

Despite the bad image that GMOs get in the press, GM technology has been used to make some fantastic advancements in food production, and it has a lot of potential for further exciting applications.

_______________

For more information about this, Sense About Science have a great resource called: ‘Making Sense of GM’

References:

  1. Fernbach et al. (2019) “Extreme opponents of genetically modified foods know the least but think they know the most” Nature Human Behaviour. doi: 10.1038/s41562-018-0520-3 [accessed January 2019 via: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41562-018-0520-3 ]
  2. Sense About Science (2009) “Making Sense of GM’”[accessed January 2019 via: https://senseaboutscience.org/activities/making-sense-of-gm/ 
  3. Funk & Rainie (2015) “Public and Scientists’ Views on Science and Society (Pew Research Center, 2015)” [accessed January 2019 via: http://www.pewresearch.org/science/2015/01/29/public-and-scientists-views-on-science-and-society/]
  4. European Commission “EU LAW ON ORGANIC PRODUCTION: AN OVERVIEW” [accessed January 2019 via: https://ec.europa.eu/agriculture/organic/eu-policy/eu-legislation/brief-overview_en
  5. ISAAA (2009) “Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops: The first fourteen years, 1996 to 2009” [accessed January 2019 via: http://www.isaaa.org/resources/publications/briefs/41/executivesummary/default.asp
  6. BBC Website (2015) “GM crop-growing banned in Northern Ireland” [accessed January 2019 via: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-34316778]
  7. Genetic Literacy Project (2018) “Golden Rice: The GMO crop Greenpeace hates and humanitarians love” [accessed January 2019 via: https://geneticliteracyproject.org/2018/02/13/golden-rice-gmo-crop-greenpeace-hates-and-humanitarians-love/]

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