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Genetically modified (GM) foods have generated plenty of debate, with some saying these foods are hazardous to our health and the environment, while others say they are safe, resist disease better, and can provide food in starving nations.

With all of the controversy swirling around, it can be difficult to keep up. Learning some of the facts about genetic engineering and GM foods can be a good way for consumers to decide on which side they stand.

What are GMOs?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), genetically modified organisms (GMOs) can be defined as “organisms in which the genetic material (deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA for short) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally.” Recombinant DNA (rDNA) technology, also called genetic engineering, allows selected individual genes to be transferred from one organism into another, also between non-related species. The resulting organism is said to be genetically modified, genetically engineered, or transgenic.

The top genetically engineered crops in the United States are corn, soy, canola, and cotton.

Are GM Foods Safe?

Among the biggest aspect of the debate on food derived from rDNA biotechnology is whether they are helpful or harmful to humans and the environment.

Opponents of genetically modified foods have several criticisms, saying:

  • the food causes harm to other organisms
  • genetically modified crops could inadvertently crossbreed with other crops
  • insects might become resistant to the toxins produced by genetically modified crops and these pesticide-resistant bugs could damage crops without anything to stop them
  • the food could make disease-causing bacteria that is resistant to antibiotics

Although a major news topic today, the genetic engineering of foods is not a new concept, says Mahlon Burnette, who teaches the biological sciences at South University. Burnette is the former director of scientific affairs for the Grocery Manufacturers of America, now the Grocery Manufacturers Association. The association is the trade association for corporations making food, beverage, and consumer products. In his former role, Burnette worked in many areas of food science, manufacturing, and safety.

Find out what those agencies we have to trust, including the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and WHO, have to say about our food.

Traditional breeding involves crossing two organisms usually within the same species to combine desirable characteristics. On the other hand in modern biotechnology, desired genes can be inserted into a non-related individual, so the DNA is recombined. 

“If you do genetic modification the old-fashioned way, you do one blending and hope the desired traits are passed on,” Burnette says. “Plant and animal breeders have been doing that since agriculture was first domesticated. We are doing the same things, except faster.”

Agencies responsible for ensuring food and health safety say foods from rDNA technology are safe to eat, and newer biotechnological techniques can rapidly improve the quantity and quality of food available.

In a 1991 joint report, WHO and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) concluded: “Biotechnology has a long history of use in food production and processing. It represents a continuum embracing both traditional breeding techniques and the latest techniques based on molecular biology. ... The use of these techniques does not result in food which is inherently less safe than that produced by conventional ones.”

Genetically Modified Foods

Doubts remain despite the support of GM foods by U.S. government officials. Since the application of modern biotechnology in food production was started, there’s been mounting concern about such GM food among consumers and politicians, especially in Europe.

In 1998, a de facto moratorium led to the suspension of approvals of new GMOs in the European Union (EU) pending the adoption of revised rules to govern the approval, marketing, and labeling of bioengineered products. The EU lifted the moratorium on GM crops in 2004. And in a recent development, the EU has allowed member states to choose whether to restrict or ban the cultivation of GM crops in their countries.

Although he believes foods produced by rDNA technology are safe, Burnette says it is good that people question the food sources and processes.

“The people who call them ‘frankenfoods’ have a right to ask ‘is someone is watching,’ because one of the first things I learned about computers is that computers allow us to make bigger mistakes faster, and that is not [to] be discounted,” he says.

Possible Benefits of GM Foods

GM food crops have been altered to have shorter growing cycles, stronger resistance to both insects and disease, and produce higher yields, which proponents say could help feed people in developing countries. In addition, some say these foods are also more nutritious and have a longer shelf life.

Consumer Awareness

Less than 1% of Americans claim farming as an occupation today, so the majority of the public does not know where their food comes from.

With most of the population far removed from their food supply, education on food sources and processes is important in being a savvy grocery shopper.

“Find out what those agencies we have to trust, including the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and WHO, have to say about our food,” Burnette advises. “Also, learn what their scientists say about the food product and process. Then make a decision.”