This Thanksgiving, you may have undergone some frenzied shopping for the big meal. You may have shopped at a Jewel or a Publix, or at a Whole Foods. If you did go shopping, though, you probably encountered labels such as “USDA Organic” or “Non GMO Product Verified”.
Sure, it’s easy to just pick something off the shelf when you’re in a hurry. After seeing a certain label so many times, though, it’s hard not to question why it exists. Are GMO crops safe? Are they healthy? Recognized groups such as Physicians for Social Responsibility, Food and Water Watch, and Consumer Reports would tell you that GMOs are not to be trusted, whereas the American Medical Association, the World Health Organization, and the National Academy of Sciences note that there is no evidence that GMOs are unsafe. So what’s the big deal about GMOs? Let’s take this back to the beginning.
Modifying crops’ genetic material to create more desirable produce has occurred since before recorded history, though of course not in the modern sense of genetic modification! Farmers have been creating “hybrids,” plants produced via breeding between related varieties of plants, for around 9,000-13,000 years.
However, genetic recombination, or what we know as modern genetic engineering, only began a matter of decades ago – its first successful try on an organism was in 1973, when Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen inserted a gene with resistance to a certain antibiotic into E. Coli genetic material, giving the E. Coli this resistance and showing that genetic recombination was possible in organisms. Fast forward to 1994, and our first genetically modified crop is approved in France. And what is this crop? Tobacco. How French of them!
Now, around 75-80% of products on your typical grocery store shelves contain genetically modified ingredients. The 15 genetically modified crops that have been approved by the FDA are alfalfa, apples, canola, corn, cotton, eggplant, papaya, potatoes (not released to market yet), rice (not released yet), soybeans, squash, sugar beet, sugarcane, sweet peppers, and tomatoes (not sold anymore). According to a 2015 Pew Research Center survey, 57% of Americans believe that GMOs are unsafe, whereas 88% of scientists (AAAS scientists) indicate to the contrary.
From what I have seen personally, the case for genetic modification is much more backed by reason and scientific thinking, whereas the case against genetic modification is much more backed by fear and misinformation. However, I am definitely not an authority, and I would definitely encourage more studying of various articles and statements on the topic – it’s always a good idea to have a healthy amount of skepticism! Of course, I recommend the readings below. If you have any questions, I will do my best to answer!
A couple opinion articles: