Genetically modified (GM) foods are organisms that have had new genes added to themselves from other organisms. Being around since 1994, they are produced in a way that is very similar to genetic engineering. The technique used in this type of crop management has been introduced to ensure farmers and merchants are able to improve crop or food quality in a more efficient way. Some people arrogate that this technology will help those in the agricultural industry decrease the amount of wasted crops and foods. But while there are many benefits of genetically modified foods, there are also potential drawbacks that are present. Here are their advantages and disadvantages:
List of Advantages of Genetically Modified Foods
1. Insect Resistance
Some GMO foods have been modified to make them more resistant to insects and other pests. A report from the University of California in San Diego states that toxic bacteria (yet safe for human use) can be added to crops to make them repel insects. This means the amount of pesticide chemicals used on the plants are reduced, so their exposure to dangerous pesticides are also reduced.
2. Stronger Crops
Another benefit that GM technology is believed to bring about is that crops can be engineered to withstand weather extremes and fluctuations, which means that there will be good quality and sufficient yields even under a poor or severe weather condition. As populations across the world grow and more lands are being utilized for housing instead of food production, farmers are prompted to grow crops in locations that are originally not suitable for plant cultivation, and culturing plants that can withstand high salt content in soil and groundwater, not to mention long periods of drought, will help them grow healthy crops. Also, animals and plants that have been genetically modified can become more resistant to unexpected disease problems. We can just think of the technology as a vaccine for the species, except that it is encoded into their genes, rather than being shot into their immune system.
3. Larger Production
It has been easier to raise crops that are classified as genetically modified because all of their examples have the stronger ability to resist pests. This attribute helps farmers with producing greater amounts of crops or foods.
4. Environmental Protection
According to an Oklahoma State University report, the increase of GM animals and crops often requires less time, tools and chemicals, and may help with reducing greenhouse gas emissions, soil erosion and environmental pollution. This means the general health and beauty of the environment that surrounds farms will be improved, contributing to the preservation of better water and air quality, which can also indirectly benefit every person’s well-being.
5. Extensive Protection for Crops
GM foods were created with the use of genetic engineering—a technology that was designed to make sure crops will never be damaged in a fast rate. The method also allows farmers and merchants to preserve the good quality of foods more efficiently by using special substances.
6. More Nutritious Foods
According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, some GM foods have been engineered to become more nutritious in terms of vitamin or mineral content. This not only helps people get the nutrients they need, but also plays a significant role in fighting against malnutrition in third-world countries. In fact, the United Nations recommends that rice that is enhanced with vitamin A can help with reducing deficiencies of such nutrient around the world.
7. Decreased Use of Pesticides
It has been proven that genetically modified crops do not need pesticides to become stronger against various types of insects or pests that may destroy them.
8. More Income
With genetic engineering, farmers will have more income, which they could spend on important things, such as the education of their children for example.
9. Less Deforestation
To sufficiently feed the growing population of the world, deforestation is needed. But with genetically modified animals and crops, the use of this method will be minimized. This would decrease carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which would, in turn, slow global warming.
10. Decrease in Global Warming
As more plants and crops can be grown and at more areas, including those that were previously unsuitable for farming, oxygen in the environment is increased, decreasing the proportion of carbon dioxide and, in turn, reducing global warming. In fact, British economists noted in a study that genetically modified crops have made significant contribution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by over 10 million tons, which is equivalent to removing 5 million cars from the road each year. This means that people would not have to give up their vehicles.
11. Decrease in Food Prices
Due to higher yield and lower costs, food prices would go down. As people in poorer countries spend over half of their income on food alone, this means automatic reduction of poverty.
12. New Products
New kinds of crops are being developed to be grown at extreme climates, such as those present in dry or freezing environments. As an example, scientists have developed a new type of tomato that grows in salty soil. Another good discovery in genetic engineering of plants is the exclusion of the gene responsible for caffeine in coffee beans, creating decaffeinated coffee beans, which can then be grown naturally.
List of Disadvantages of Genetically Modified Foods
1. Allergic Reactions
According to research by the Brown University, resent genetically modified foods can pose significant allergy risks to people. It states that genetic modification often adds or mixes proteins that were not indigenous to the original animal or plant, which might cause new allergic reactions in our body. In some cases, proteins from organisms that you are allergic to might be added to organisms that you were not originally allergic to. This means your range of food choices will be lessened.
2. Not 100% Environmentally Friendly
Though it is claimed by many experts that genetically modified foods are safe for the environment, they actually still contain several kinds of substances that are not yet proven to be such. And what’s worse? These substances are remained hidden to the public.
3. Lower Level of Biodiversity
One big potential drawback of this technology is that some organisms in the ecosystem could be harmed, which in turn could lead to a lower level of biodiversity. When we remove a certain pest that is harmful to crops, we could also be removing a food source for a certain species. In addition, genetically modified crops could prove toxic to some organisms, which can lead to their reduced numbers or even extinction.
4. Decreased Antibiotic Efficacy
According to the Iowa State University, some genetically modified foods have antibiotic features that are built into them, making them resistant or immune to viruses or diseases or viruses. And when we eat them, these antibiotic markers will persist in our body and will render actual antibiotic medications less effective. The university also warns that ingestion of these foods and regular exposure to antibiotics may contribute to the reduced effectiveness of antibiotic drugs, as noticed in hospitals across the planet.
5. Unusual Taste
Genetically modified foods are observed to have unnatural tastes compared with the ordinary foods that are sold on the market. This could be the result of the substances that were added to their composition.
6. Not Totally Safe to Eat
It is proven by scientific studies that GMO foods contain substances that may cause diseases and even death to several kinds of species in this world, including us humans. For instance, mice and butterflies cannot survive with these foods.
Cross-pollination can cover quite large distances, where new genes can be included in the offspring of organic, traditional plants or crops that are miles away. This can result in difficulty in distinguishing which crop fields are organic and which are not, posing a problem to the task of properly labeling non-GMO food products.
8. Gene Spilling
It is unclear what effects, if there are any, the genetic pollution resulting from inadequate sequestering of genetically modified crop populations would have on the wild varieties surrounding them. However, it is stressed that releasing pollen from genetically altered plants into the wild through the insects and the wind could have dramatic effects on the ecosystem, though there is yet long-term research to be done to gauge such impact.
9. Gene Transfer
Relevant to the previous disadvantage, a constant risk of genetically modified foods is that an organism’s modified genes may escape into the wild. Experts warn that genes from commercial crops that are resistant to herbicides may cross into the wild weed population, thus creating super-weeds that have become impossible to kill. For genetically enhanced vegetation and animals, they may become super-organisms that can out-compete natural plants and animals, driving them into extinction.
GMO foods can cause a lot of issues in the merchants’ daily life. How? These products might encourage authorities to implement higher tariffs to merchants, who would be selling them.
Some countries may use genetic engineering of foods as a very powerful weapon against their enemies. It is important to note that some scientists have discovered that these products can kill a lot of individuals in the world by using harmful diseases.
12. Widening Gap of Corporate Sizes
This disadvantage can possibly happen between food-producing giants and their smaller counterparts, causing a consolidation in the market. There would be fewer competitors, which could increase the risk of oligopolies and food price increases. Moreover, larger companies might have more political power and might be able to influence safety and health standards.
13. New Diseases
As previously mentioned, genetically modified foods can create new diseases. Considering that they are modified using viruses and bacteria, there is a fear that this will certainly happen. This threat to human health is a worrisome aspect that has received a great deal of debate.
14. Food Supply at Risk
GMO seeds are patented products and, in order to purchase them, customers have to sign certain agreements for use with the supplier or creator. As the reliance on these seeds expands around the world, concerns about food supply and safety also continue to arise. Furthermore, these seeds structurally identical, and if a problem affects one of them, a major crop failure can occur.
15. Economic Concerns
Bringing a genetically modified food to market can be a costly and lengthy process, and of course, agricultural bio-technology companies want to ensure a profitable ROI. So, many new plant genetic engineering technologies and products have been patented, and patent infringement is a big concern within the agribusiness. Also, consumer advocates are worried that this will raise seed prices to very high levels that third-world countries and small farmers cannot afford them, thus widening the gap between the rich and the poor.
One way fight against possible patent infringement is introducing a “suicide gene” into GM animals and plants, which would be viable for only a single growing season and would produce sterile seeds that do not germinate, prompting farmers to buy a fresh supply of seeds every year. However, this would be financially disastrous for them, especially those in developing countries, who cannot afford to do this and traditionally set aside a portion of their harvest to plant in the next growing season.
Genetically modified foods can potentially solve many hunger and malnutrition problems in the world, as well as help protect and preserve the environment by increasing yields and reducing reliance upon chemical pesticides and herbicides. However, it is important to proceed with caution to avoid unfavorable consequences for the surroundings and our health, considering that genetic engineering technology is very powerful.
Remember that there are really potential benefits and risks to these products, which you will learn further as you dig deeper into this subject. You can also read a brief fact sheet to familiarize yourself more with their purported benefits and problems. By doing so, you will be well-informed about these foods and the way they can affect your life.
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Master's Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.