Cliffnotes for GMOs: What You Need to Know in 800 Words or Less

Some people may wonder what's in the food they're eating, but when it comes to GMOs we have to ask: do the companies who make these genetically engineered foods even know?

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If you’re ever in the mood for a migraine, start researching GMOs.

Seriously, I feel like I’m eight years old, playing an exhausting round of he-said-she-said. But I’m going to do my best to sort it all out for you in 800 words or less, because you deserve to not be so darn confused about the food you’re eating.

Are you ready? Deep breath. We can do this.

First of all, GMO stands for Genetically Modified Organism. Sometimes you’ll hear the process referred to as Genetic Engineering (GE) or biotechnology. Scientists find some gene from one thing and stick it into the DNA of something else. If those “things” belong to the same family, it’s called cisgenic. If those “things” belong to different families, it’s called transgenic. So if, in theory, a scientist were to put a gene from a Granny Smith apple into the DNA code for Golden Delicious apples, that’s cisgenic, because they’re both apples; but it’s transgenic if they were to put a gene from a spider into the DNA code for a tomato, because spiders and tomatoes are not the same. Obviously, transgenic biotechnology is a touch more controversial. Cisgenic is basically what farmers have been doing forever, but they called it “cross-breeding” and it took a long time and less expensive equipment.

Keep breathing. We’ll get to the science and the name-calling gossip in just a second. Before that, one more very important point: the debate on GMOs is not just about your health. This debate is political and economic. It’s about our food and yet, in the end, it really has very little to do with the food at all. That’s why it’s so complicated. We aren’t just asking if GMOs are safe to consume; we’re also asking if they’re sustainable and ethical to produce. And that’s where the sparks really fly.

(SOME OF) THE PROS

– There is an overwhelming amount of evidence showing that genetically modified feed does not have an appreciable impact on animal health and productivity. In fact, a large number of international health organizations have made public statements regarding biotechnology’s safety.

– Genetically engineered crops are designed to reduce the need for toxic insecticides which do pose serious health risks, particularly for those working in the fields.

– European countries developed GMO bans not for health and safety reasons, but for political ones regarding self-sufficiency and protectionism. (See? Politics.)

– One initial study did not find an association between Bt corn (a GMO) and honeybee health, though the scientists emphasized that more research is needed in this area. Hold that thought.

– Crops genetically engineered for insecticide resistance promote more species diversity in the surrounding fields compared to conventional crops. Also, hold onto to that one.

(SOME OF) THE CONS

– Other studies have shown concerning associations between glyphosate, the herbicide used on “Round-Up Ready” (GMO) crops, and bee colony health. Anecdotal reports from beekeepers and farmers, though not the hallmark of flawless science, also appear a bit bleak. Oh, and Bt corn (a GMO) might also mean bad news for the butterflies.

– Despite claims that GMOs are intended to reduce the need for chemicals sprayed in fields, they actually result in higher herbicide use, which can lead to herbicide tolerance and “superweed” development. Exposure to these chemicals has been associated with cancer, Parkinson’s, hypothyroidism, and immune suppression.

– Health aside, biotechnology allows a company to put a patent on life. The companies then own those crops (and, now, animals) they engineer. That’s a scary thing.

– The Environmental Working Group published a report debunking the oft-made claim that we need GMOs to feed the world’s growing population. In short, traditionally bred crops far outperform the GE crops across the board.

THE BOTTOM LINE: FIT OR FLOP?

Here’s what my research taught me: GMOs are both helpful and harmful to crop diversity, bee colony health, monarch health, reduction of chemicals sprayed on crops, and sustainability, depending on who you ask. Every single argument from one side of the fence directly contradicts an argument made from the other side.

It makes me think that we don’t really know what effect these crops are having or will have on our planet. It also makes me wonder what phenomenal feats we could accomplish if we funneled all of that biotech money into some of the more traditional methods discussed in the EWG’s report.

If you ask me to evaluate the current evidence on safety, I have to give GMOs the thumbs up, but safety is only part of the story. There are also the farmers bullied by the likes of Monsanto, an agricultural system obfuscated by politics, and yet-to-be seen latent and long-term consequences of a science younger than I am. And to that, I say: FLOP.

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