Genetically modified organisms, often shortened as GMOs, are almost certainly part of every modern American’s diet. According to 2018 USDA statistics, 92% of corn and 94% of soybeans planted in the United States are genetically altered. Other common genetically modified foods include potatoes, tomatoes, and canola beans (Starr & McMillan, 2016). Despite their ubiquity, 58% of Americans do not know that these food sare genetically modified (Chrispeels, 2014) and 39% believe that GMOs are worse for their health than foods that are not genetically modified (Funk & Kennedy, 2016). Are concerns over this widespread technology justified? Scientific evidence paints a clear picture of the realities of GMOs and how they relate to human health.
The mechanisms of genetic modification are relatively simple to understand with some background knowledge. Bacteria commonly carry circular DNA molecules called plasmids, which carry genes with specific functions and may be obtained from other bacteria or from the environment (Bacterial DNA – the role of plasmids, 2014). Genes may be cut out of the plasmid by humans and replaced with more beneficial one (Rangel, 2015). When this technique is used to modify plants, it means replacing a gene in the plasmid used by bacteria to infect the plant with a gene from another organism. Once the bacteria infects the plant cell, the foreign gene is transferred to the plant and becomes a part of its DNA. The plant cell may then develop into an embryo, and then a fully grown plant (Starr & McMillan, 2016). This is how genetically modified crops are created. The ability to directly add genes to plants creates new opportunities for agricultural scientists.
Crops have been created that are resistant to herbicide or insecticide, leading to higher yields of crops both in America and in developing countries. (Chrispeels, 2014). Crops have also been modified to increase nutritional value, such as when Golden Rice was introduced in 2000 to reduce the issue of vitamin A deficiency (Rangel, 2015). Environmental Scientist Mark Lynas (2018) states that in addition to these benefits, genetic engineering causes less disruption to a crop’s genetics than typical breeding methods. Lynas also argues that in-depth testing and labeling of new GMOs produced using methods proven to be safe is a waste of time and resources.
The most vocal opposition to GMOs comes from groups who claim that genetically engineered crops cause health issues. This is simply not the case. In reality, there is a scientific consensus that genetically modified foods are no more dangerous than non-GM crops. (Rangel, 2015). One myth that is particularly pervasive in anti-GMO groups is the idea that the consumption of GMOs leads to an increase in allergic reactions. In 1996, there was a single documented case of a GM soybean crop which tested positive for allergens, but those beans never reached the market and there was never an allergic reaction (Lim, 2014).
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