Genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, have been getting more attention lately than in previous years. With so many processed foods on the market and the huge demand for food in developed countries, GMOs are present in the majority of the foods available to consumers today.
Currently, GMO crops take up about 40 million hectares of farmland throughout the world. GMOs are planted with the main purpose of being resistant to herbicides. This is said to prevent the erosion of soil from mechanical tilling. Initially, GMO crops were intended to be an answer to the weed control problems that farmers often encountered.
However, many groups are not only calling for product labeling mandates, but also for the removal of genetically engineered (GE) ingredients from our food supply. Those in support of the use of GMOs believe that they have few or no harmful effects on humans. Critics believe that GE products have not been thoroughly studied to determine their long term affects on human health and the environment.
Here, we’ll examine both sides and learn whether GMOs pose a threat to our already fragile environment.
One of the biggest concerns with the use of GMOs is cross pollination, also known as gene flow. The cross pollination of genes occurs when the pollen – and herbicide resistant traits of GMO crops – spread to other plant species. The so-called transgenes may cause resistance in insects or the overgrowth of harmful weeds, both of which present challenges for farmers.
Ecologist Allison Snow, who studies the effects of GMO crops, believes that transgenes will easily move to nearby crops through cross pollination. On the other hand, advocates of GMO crops believe that only closely-related crop species would be affected by cross pollination. Most US crops don’t have related species growing nearby, making this an insignificant threat in their view.
Increased Use of Herbicides
Since GMO crops came onto the scene in the mid-90s, the use of one of the most popular herbicides, glyphosate, has been more prevalent than ever before. Farmers currently use about 16 times more glyphosate than they did prior to the introduction of GMO crops.
Not only does this increased use cause health concerns for farmers, it is detrimental to the environment and wildlife. One of the primary victims of this increased herbicide use is the monarch butterfly, whose population has declined drastically due to the excessive spraying of crops.
Proponents of GMO crops assert that the major benefit is that crops are drought resistant, and as a result crop yields are increased. In actuality, GMO crops are designed to resist repeated doses of herbicides. Since these crops are so herbicide-resistant, approximately 527 million pounds of herbicide was used over the first 16 years of these crops’ commercial use in the US.
Not only are large quantities of herbicides being used, toxic pesticide use has also increased. This can have negative effects on humans, animals, and the environment.
For example, the toxic pesticide chlorpyrifos is classified as a neurotoxin that has been linked to brain damage in children. The pesticide paraquat has been correlated with Parkinson’s disease. Additionally, toxic pesticides like atrazine, a known endocrine disrupter, infiltrate water sources.
GMOs were originally intended to make crops more abundant in order to address growing demand. However, these crops may have caused more problems than anticipated.
The potential long-range effects of GMOs on human health have yet to be identified, and this is one reason product labeling is important to many people. Consumers want all the information in order to make decisions about whether or not they want to ingest foods made with GMOs.
Ecologists hold the position that the government should be more active in regulating GMO crops as well as the practices that have made their use so prevalent in the first place. They also believe government entities should ensure that studies of environmental effects are not biased in favor of GMO seed companies.
As it stands now, much of the USDA’s biotech research funds are reserved for risk assessment, rather than case-by-case evaluations of genetically engineered ingredients. In some cases, the risks to human health have been documented, yet GMO crops continue to receive approval.
There are many activist groups that are committed to spreading the word on GMO crops and their potential to interfere with the environment. Consumers interested in learning more should research the stances of these groups, and may also be interested in following scientific news regarding breakthroughs in the efficacy and safety of GMO crops.