Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are widely used in a number of ways in biological research, medicine, and agriculture.
This article, however, is going to stick to how the technology pertains to food.
GMO crops are fruits and vegetables that have had their genomes tweaked in order to make a more desirable result. This could mean accentuating genes that regulate traits like size or sweetness, or down-regulating genes that make the plant more susceptible to certain diseases.
The technology has become a massive source of controversy and discussion, but unfortunately, not everything going around about it is true.
Here are seven myths about GMOs most people have heard, along with the reality check of why you shouldn't always believe what you hear.
Myth 1: GMO foods aren't nutritious.
One of the biggest claims people make about GMOs is that they are less nutritious than organic produce. A 2012 analysis of the data found that while certain organic foods are marginally more nutritious than GMO, there isn't really much of a difference, especially when you factor in the cost difference.
There are actually some instances where genetic modification has been used to make a crop even more nutritious than it would normally be.
Scientists were able to make a product called Golden Rice that is enriched with vitamin A, giving it more of a golden-orange color. Because diseases caused by vitamin A deficiencies are related to the deaths of millions of children each year, lives could be saved and improved by simply eating this fortified rice. Unfortunately, Golden Rice has not been widely implemented because of fear and ignorance about what GMO actually means.
Myth 2: GMO crops will cause cancer, asthma, and other diseases.
GMOs are often wrongfully believed to cause a host of diseases, including cancers, because of a select few studies that got a great deal of media attention. The problem is, however, that those studies did not stand up to scrutiny. There were criticisms of experiments being poorly designed or that the conclusions didn't really make sense based on the data.
The best way to understand the true health impact of something is to look at the biggest picture possible and try to identify patterns. A 2014 meta-analysis that looked at three decades of data, which was the equivalent of 1 trillion meals, was not able to yield any information that GMOs are inherently harmful or contributed to an increase of disease.
Myth 3: Other countries have banned GMOs, so the U.S. should, too.
There are currently 38 countries that have at least a partial ban on the growth of GM crops, which has led some to believe that these countries recognize an inherent harm in them that the U.S. is choosing to ignore. While it makes for a nice conspiracy, the truth isn't quite as scandalous.
Certainly, there are many more countries than that which don't grow GM crops, but it has more to do with the fact that GMOs haven't been approved yet, not that they've actually been banned. Even if they don't grow the crops themselves, some countries are still able to import them to feed humans and/or livestock.
Besides, banning GMOs on the sole reason that other countries don't have them is the agricultural equivalent of jumping off a bridge just because our friends were doing it too. Even in countries where GMO bans exist, the decision is usually made out of unfounded fears and the local scientists generally disagree that there is any evidence to support the restrictions.
Myth 4: Farmers are unable to save seeds from GMO crops to use the next year.
It's true that Monsanto has created a seed that is sterile, unable to reproduce. What's not true, though, is that it's in use. In 1999, the company made a public statement that the technology would never be commercialized, nor will it conduct research that could allow this to happen accidentally.
GMO seeds are absolutely able to reproduce, otherwise, those who oppose GMOs wouldn't fear seeds blowing into organic fields, contaminating crops.
Farmers do buy new seeds every year, but it's not because they wouldn't be able to grow anything from their old seeds. Many crops are now hybridized, meaning the best parts of two different crops have been blended together to create an ideal product. The problem, however, is that it's hard to predict how the genetic information from those crops will recombine and appear in the offspring. Buying seeds each year ensures that they will get the types of plants they want.
Myth 5: GMOs are unnecessary.
Humanity is currently facing an exploding growth in population, with expectations of reaching 9.7 billion mouths to feed by 2050. We are also dealing with human-driven climate change that is making conditions harder to grow food.
Genetic modification can be used to create crops that are better able to survive as the environment changes, such as decreased rainfall in some areas and increased rain in others. It can also make crops that are bigger and more nutritious (like the Golden Rice) that will allow farmers to get the most out of every plant.
GMO crops may not be able to solve this problem all on their own, but they will definitely help reduce mass starvation around the world as our numbers increase.
Myth 6: Non-GMO foods are better because they don't use pesticides.
Many people choose to spend more on organic food because of a false belief that there are no pesticides used on them. That is totally false, and some of the pesticides used on organic farms are well-documented to cause harm to people.
A story once went viral about a family that switched to all organic food and saw a dramatic decrease in certain pesticides in their bodies. The trouble is, the "experiment" only focused on chemicals used on conventional crops and completely ignored the ones used on organics. The information was so cherry-picked and misleading, the company behind the story ended up getting sued because of it.
Whether produce is GMO or organic, it should be washed before eating it anyway. The FDA doesn't recommend using any cleansers, only simply holding the fruit or vegetable under running water and using a produce brush and thoroughly scrub the peel.
Myth 7: If GMOs are safe, there's no reason to oppose labeling.
At first glance, this one actually makes sense. If there's nothing to fear with GMOs, there shouldn't be any reason to let people know when foods contain them. The trouble here, though, is that simply saying that a product contains GMO ingredients doesn't actually give much information about what that actually means.
A GMO label won't give consumers any information about which ingredients were genetically modified and why. It won't let anyone know about the safety of the product and can easily become misleading.
There are many food products with labels claiming they are "natural," but because there isn't a legal definition of what that means, many people just assume that it must be better even without any evidence to support it. In much the same way, a GMO label could create an illusion of fear.
While the current argument may be, "If they're so safe, there's no reason not to label it," the new argument could very quickly become, "Why is there a label if they're so safe?" It starts more problems than it solves and will only contribute to misunderstandings about the true safety of the technology.
The final word:
Yes, on the surface, GMOs sound really scary, and it can be easy to assume that something that came from a laboratory is going to be less safe than something called "organic" or "natural," but that isn't really how it works.
GMOs make it possible for farmers to get better and more reliable crops while using fewer resources. This helps to keep costs down, making it easier for every family to afford a meal.
It is, of course, important to keep tabs on new GM technologies and ensure nothing harmful enters the environment, but we shouldn't reject GMOs entirely when there just isn't any evidence to justify it.
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