Genetically Modified Organisms: Benefits and Concerns

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Understanding the Misconceptions of Science

By Don Lincoln, Ph.D., Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab)

Plants and animals that are genetically modified are called genetically modified organisms or GMOs. They are a part of the food pyramid. But why is there a strong resistance among some groups against genetic modifications?

The picture shows a fruit being modified by a scientist with a syringe.
Some examples of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, are corn, zucchinis, yellow squash, and soybeans. Many people have concerns about using GMOs, however, more than 2,000 studies have found them to be safe. (Image: photka/Shutterstock)

Evolutionary Pressures

If the amount of sunlight in Norway changes, there would be an evolutionary pressure towards darker skin. People with such skin would survive more and would have more successful babies.

Selection pressures are not just for survival traits. Sexual selection is another way to increase the existence of a trait in a population. For example, the male peacock is pretty with a beautiful tail that it uses to preen for females. The ones with the biggest tale have more babies. On the human side, males with extra muscles were selected for their ability to hunt, fight better, and protect their families more easily. The idea that dominant traits will be the most common and recessive traits will be rare is just wrong.

Learn more about the misconceptions and nature of science.

Genetically Modified Organisms

Plants and animals that are genetically modified are called Genetically Modified Organisms or GMOs. GMOs have entered the food stream, especially soybeans, which have been modified to resist an herbicide called Roundup. Resistance to herbicide means that farmers can use more of it to kill weeds. 90 percent of soybeans produced in the US have genetic modification and, including all modifications to soybeans, 94 percent have been modified. Even corn, zucchinis, and yellow squash are modified. The squashes are modified to contain an insecticide that keeps insects away to increase yield.

Are GMOs Harmful?

It is easy to find the stories guaranteeing that GMOs are cancer on a plate, resulting in a terrible and painful death. But that is not true as people have been eating GMO foods for years without getting into trouble. GMOs may have issues, but one should dismiss irrelevant claims.

Over 2,000 studies found that GMOs are safe, and the most persuasive is the study released in 2014 of farm animals that covered the period before 1996, when there were no GMOs in the food supply, to after, when the percentage of GMOs rose dramatically. The study included 100 billion animals and the researchers found no difference in the health of the farm animals before or after the introduction of GMO foods. There was also no indication of issues with human health having eaten meat that came from those animals, which ate the GMO grains.

That study totally disproved the claims that GMOs are ultra-deadly. If they were, researchers would have seen anomalies in a large fraction of the livestock.

Learn more about the truth of genetically modified organisms.

Concerns About GMOs

People are still worried, as there is no disputing that large corporations are more concerned about profits than the health of their consumers. The cigarette industry denied for decades the health dangers of tobacco. People are rightfully concerned that GMO companies might be doing the same thing. Monsanto is the multinational corporation that is held up as the villain for the same.

The National Academy of Sciences

Photograph of the exterior of National Academy of Sciences in the US.
The concerns of many people that GMOs are dangerous for mankind have been rejected by the National Academy of Sciences. (Image: AgnosticPreachersKid/CC BY-SA 3.0/Public domain)

One of the most trustworthy scientific institutions in America is the National Academy of Sciences that gets at the real truth. It is an organization of the most prestigious and accomplished scientists in the nation.

Periodically, they look into a topic of public interest. They did that for GMOs as well. What they found was that there was absolutely no evidence that GMOs were dangerous.

Learn more about the real difference between nuts, fruits, and seeds.

Difference in Modifications

GMO means the very broad category of any genetically modified organism, an umbrella phrase that makes it very hard to take it seriously. For instance, the modification to tobacco, making it more pest-resistant is different from the modification to soybeans that makes them more resistant to an herbicide. Putting these under the umbrella of a single term is worrisome. One modification is very different from the other, with different consequences. What is needed is that there be a robust regulatory oversight, preferably by an independent agency because the industry cannot oversee itself.

Ongoing Modifications

Science evaluates each and every genetic modification to find out if there is a medical risk associated with it and genetic modification isn’t new. Humans have been modifying the genome of plants and animals since time immemorial. Compare a wolf with a Pekingese, or ancient corn with the version that is eaten now. The Pekingese or the current corn did not get that way without genetic modification, although those modifications were gradual and old-school.

This is a transcript from the video series Understanding the Misconceptions of Science. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Negatives of Genetic Modification

The genetic modification done in laboratories is not different but faster and more direct. On the other hand, genetic modification can be done for harm as well. It is possible to engineer existing diseases in ways that make them more deadly. Ebola is one of the deadliest diseases known to man, but the virus isn’t all that robust when exposed to sunlight or a dry environment. If researchers modified the genome of the Ebola virus to survive those environments, it would be more dangerous.

Power of Genetic Engineering

Illustration showing different products of genetic engineering.
Genetic engineering has a lot of potential to revolutionize areas of food production and to create pesticides to get rid of insects and diseases. (Image: Gita Naseri & Mattheos A. G. Koffas/Public domain)

Genetic engineering has both tremendous power for good by improving the yield of crops and for doing evil by making dangerous things more dangerous. That is just a fact and the technology is not going away. The good thing is that scientists are able to measure the effect of genetic modification and find out if it is hazardous or not. The science is sound but this is a complicated issue. It’s not just science but also societal and political, something to be concerned about.

Genetic engineering is an important technology with the power to revolutionize the world in terms of food production, editing human genomes to get rid of unwanted diseases, and controlling pests. But, like any powerful technology, it can be abused. The key point is that genetic engineering is important and here to stay. The technology needs to be permitted under critical and independent scrutiny.

Common Questions About Genetically Modified Organisms

Q: What is a GMO?

Plants and animals that are genetically modified are called Genetically Modified Organisms or GMOs. For example, soybeans have been modified to resist an herbicide called Roundup. Resistance to herbicide means that farmers can use more of it to kill weeds.

Q: What are examples of GMOs?

Some examples of GMOs are corn, zucchinis, yellow squash, and soybeans. 90 percent of soybeans produced in the US have genetic modification.

Q: What is genetic engineering in simple terms?

Genetic engineering has tremendous power for good by improving the yield of crops. The scientists are able to measure the effect of genetic modification and find out if it is hazardous or not. It is an important technology with the power to revolutionize the world in terms of food production, editing human genomes to get rid of unwanted diseases, and pests.

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