If you're confused about the pros and cons of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) you're not alone. This relatively new technology is riddled with bioethics questions, and the arguments for and against GMOs are difficult to weigh because it's hard to know the risks until something goes wrong.
What is a Genetically Modified Organism or GMO?
The legal definition of a genetically modified organism in the European Union is "an organism, with the exception of human beings, in which the genetic material has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination." It is illegal in the EU to deliberately release a GMO into the environment, and food items containing more than 1% GMOs must be labeled.
This alteration of the genes usually entails inserting genetic material into an organism in a laboratory without natural mating, breeding or reproduction. Instead of breeding two plants or animals together to bring out certain traits in the offspring, the plant, animal or microbe has DNA from another organism inserted. Creating GMOs is one type of genetic engineering.
A transgenic organism is a GMO that contains DNA from another species. A cisgenic organism is a GMO that contains DNA from a member of the same species, and is generally regarded as the less risky type of GMO.
GMOs have been used in various ways, including creating mice with certain traits for the purposes of vivisection, but the GMO debate is centered on food products for direct human consumption and on feed for livestock.
Am I Eating GMOs?
If you live in United States, you are most likely eating GMOs and/or livestock who were fed GMOs. Eighty-eight percent of the corn grown in the U.S. has been genetically modified to be herbicide-resistant and/or insect-resistant. Ninety-four percent of the soy grown in the U.S. has been genetically modified to resist herbicides.
One of the biggest controversies surrounding GMOs is labeling. Unlike other controversial foods like veal, trans fats, MSG or artificial sweeteners, GMO ingredients in food are rarely, if ever, identified on the label. GMO opponents advocate a labeling requirement so that consumers can decide for themselves whether to consume GMO products.
Pros - Arguments For Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)
- GMO technology can develop crops with higher yield, with less fertilizer, less pesticides, and more nutrients.
- Traditional breeding can be very slow because it might take several generations before the desired trait is sufficiently brought out and the offspring must reach sexual maturity before they can be bred. With GMO technology, the desired genotype can be created instantly in the current generation.
- In some ways, GMO technology is more predictable than traditional breeding, in which thousands of genes from each parent are transferred randomly to the offspring. Genetic engineering moves discrete genes or blocks of genes at a time.
- GMOs may not be natural, but not everything natural is good for us, and not everything unnatural is bad for us. Poisonous mushrooms are natural, but we shouldn't eat them. Washing our food before eating it is not natural, but is healthier for us.
- GMOs have been on the market since 1996, so if all GMOs were an immediate health threat, we would know it by now.
GMO advocates oppose a labeling requirement because the label would appear to be a warning.
See page 2 for arguments againt GMOs, and an analysis of GMOs and animal rights.