The hot and splicey debate over GMOs

A primer to the good, bad, and unsavory of genetically modified food and fuel

By Jessica A. Knoblauch

If you ate today, chances are you consumed a genetically modified organism (GMO). A GMO is a living organism—be it animal or vegetable—whose genes have been tinkered with by scientists in the hopes of somehow improving that organism. People often don’t know that they’re eating a genetically modified food because most don’t taste, look, or smell much different than conventional foods. They are also not labeled any differently than conventional foods, at least not in the US.

Most GMOs are of the plant variety, but they’ve also been used to “improve” other living species like pigs and goats. And despite our lack of awareness about GMOs, make no mistake—they are everywhere. Twenty-three countries grow biotech products and global biotech crop land covers about 282 million acres, according to a report by the nonprofit International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA).

Genetically engineered foods first entered the marketplace in 1994 in the form of a tomato known as the Flavr Savr. Since then, GMOs have grown significantly. But whether the proliferation of GM foods is a sign of better times or a cause for concern depends on who you talk to. Biotech advocates and industry leaders tout genetically modified crops’ versatile ability to resist just about anything, including pests, disease, herbicides, and even drought. For example, genetically modified herbicide-tolerant soybeans often need only a single herbicide application compared to the several applications often necessary for conventional crops, which benefits both farmers’ pocketbooks and the environment. Genetically modified food could also ease world hunger by producing higher yields, thereby helping to fill the plates of the more than 800 million starving people in the world. According to Monsanto, yields from GM crops of corn, cotton, and soybeans in the US increased by up to 8 percent, compared to the expected 1 to 2 percent increase from new conventional varieties.

One can’t argue with stopping world hunger and assisting small farmers, but whether these initiatives are actually being accomplished is still up for debate. GMO dissenters label biotech company claims as nothing more than hype, or even worse, just plain myths. And in fact, several studies have found that GM crops often don’t yield more than conventional crops, and sometimes they even produce less. Other studies have found GM crops actually increase the need for pesticides through the creation of “superweeds” that have developed pesticide resistance.

The long-term safety of these so-called “Frankenfoods” is also heavily disputed. GMO opponents say that much of the problem lies in an unsatisfactory and largely voluntary regulatory system. Currently the USDA, EPA, and FDA oversee GMOs: Critics argue that none of the three agencies go far enough in determining safety, while biotech advocates maintain that these foods are some of the most thoroughly tested and highly regulated products out there.

As the safety debate continues to flare up with each published study, small farmers struggle and third-world families continue to starve. Meanwhile, GMOs are rapidly spreading from coast to coast (sometimes intentionally, sometimes not). And though the technology could solve many pressing problems, it could also be our worst nightmare and create bigger problems, much like other heavily peddled silver bullets such as DDT have done in the past.

Underlying this contentious issue is the question of whether genetic engineering is “playing God” or simply speeding up the natural process of evolution. In the coming week, we’ve peered into some of the latest happenings in the GMO sector. Take a look at the issues we’ll be examining:

Safety: Scientists are bio-engineering meats that tout eco- and health-friendly features, but whether these Frankenfoods are safe to eat is up to the FDA. 

Food: Our Q&A with HarvestPlus director Howarth Bouis discuss how plant breeding can create crops that are more nutritious.

Fuel: Genetic manipulation of algae is a hot topic among alterna-fuel enthusiasts, but if the species isn’t properly contained, they have the potential to wipe out an entire ecosystem.

Law: Regulating the GM field proves more difficult than splicing genes. Meanwhile, traditional farmers get caught in up in legal battles with GM bigwigs like Monsanto.


personally, to a point, I think we need to accept progress & trust our politics to set some boundaries for safety. If that permits more people to eat more than enough & stop starving, I think that's already a way to progress. After that, we cannot control everything all the time, but does this mean we need to stop trying progress? Then if I was talking about what I believe is "real" progress, I'd send you all read the book on "the Law of attraction" and see how we can really improve this world !! :o)

The next time I see a fish taking a tomato out on a date, I might start to buy into the "simply speeding up the natural process of evolution" idea, as if that was needed.