The acronym GMO stands for “Genetically Modified Organism.” Genetic engineering is a fairly common practice in the medical field that has enabled developments like vaccines, insulin shots, and anti-venoms. However, this subject quickly lands itself in more controversial grounds when we discuss its application to food and agriculture.
To be clear from the start, our discussion of genetic engineering is not referring to selective breeding. This age-old practice is a natural method of promoting the reproduction of plants with desirable features. Selective breeding is a slower but safer way of steering crop genetics in a more fruitful direction (pun intended)—but this is not what we’re talking about here.
We want to focus on the modification of plant DNA through genetic engineering. This laboratory-based practice involves the insertion of foreign genes into plant DNA with the goal of increasing crop yields, lowering costs for farmers and producers, and reducing the need for herbicides. While this may all sound great, it is not yet clear what long-term consequences may arise.
Genetic engineering is a volatile process that actually carries the possibility of damaging a plant’s genetic makeup, which means unwanted mutations are bound to occur. Risks include diminished crop performance, alteration of the plant’s nutritional content, toxic and allergenic effects, gut health problems, and harm to the environment.
In fact, the implementation of GMOs does not always reduce the need for herbicides in the long run, and may actually augment it.
For example, Monsanto’s widespread line of Roundup Ready crops was specifically developed to be resistant to glyphosate, the active ingredient in their patented broad-spectrum systemic herbicide (Roundup). Glyphosate is now routinely applied to a wide variety of crops such as soy, corn, sugar beets, and cotton. However, the widespread use of this chemical has forced nature to adapt, giving rise to herbicide-resistant superweeds.
It is no surprise that chemicals designed to kill living organisms can also harm other “non-target” species. Herbicides often impact the entire surrounding ecosystem—especially the insect population. The plant-killing toxins also damage the soil’s living organisms, including beneficial bacteria and fungi, leading to an overall decrease in crop yield.
There is no conclusive data on the benefits of GMOs, and ardent support for this practice tends to come from biotech companies that stand to benefit from the proliferation and sales of these crops. It is not clear that these corporations are indeed trying to tackle world hunger, as some would argue.
The bottom line is that the full extent of the consequences of producing and consuming GMOs is largely unknown. If anything, our lack of knowledge and understanding should inspire a sensible amount precaution.
Ultimately, there is no need for fear, but it is good to be conscious of the risks. It’s our responsibility as consumers to make our own informed decisions. Not purchasing GMOs is one of the most effective ways to discourage large producers from growing and manufacturing products made with GMOs.
Here are some practices we can integrate into our daily routines to keep our diet as clean as possible:
• Buy organic
• Avoid processed foods
• Look out for products verified by the Non-GMO Project
• Keep an eye on soy and corn and other commonly genetically modified products
• Choose dry grains, beans, nuts, and seeds
• Keep in mind that most animal products and by-products contain GMOs
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