Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Food for Thought: The Current State of Genetically Modified Foods

Though some may consider genetic engineering a recent development, humanity has  been altering the DNA of our crops for millennia. As farmers historically chose plants with the highest yields and the largest fruits, those phenotypes were propagated during the next planting season. Over time, this has led to the drastically domesticated crops we rely on today.

However, the recent introduction of new technologies has allowed scientists to replicate this selection much more quickly than before, creating favorable hybrids and crops with specific traits. We call these offshoots Genetically Modified Crops, or GMCs, and they have distinct advantages and drawbacks.

Because they can be genetically configured to include many positive traits, GMCs are a potential boon for small farmers, infrastructure in developing nations, and major agricultural groups.1 Scientific analysis of yields and growth rates has indicated that genetically modified plants can substantially increase not only harvest size, but also farmer profits.2 Further implementation of these crops could help alleviate the massive global demand for food in an overpopulated planet, as well as free up resources for countries to invest in other fields. Other studies have further explored the benefits of GMCs. Not only can harvest size be increased, but crops can actually be stimulated to undergo changes they otherwise wouldn't.3 For example, tomatoes can be genetically altered to delay the ripening process, resulting in fresh fruit that can be stored for longer without the need for artificial preservatives. There are potential industrial uses, too; the cultivation of potatoes with abnormally high starch content could be used as a significant source of industrial starch.4 The prospective gains from introducing GMCs could mean big changes in the United States and elsewhere, but also have profound potential for developing countries. In areas lacking the established agricultural infrastructure of a first-world country, producing enough food to ensure a healthy population can be difficult. By capitalizing on the larger harvests and other advantages of GMCs, entire nations could stand to benefit.

However, genetically modified crops might not be the miraculous solution they initially appear to be. Many farmers and governments are wary of the environmental dangers of employing such tools. While the specific characteristics of GMCs can be controlled in a lab, what might happen if the crops spread into surrounding ecosystems? Their impacts on natural plant populations and the potential for hybridization remain relatively unknown, and the difficulty involved in preventing the spread of GMCs only exacerbates the problem. To respond to these challenges, scientists have worked to develop a system of nutrition controls for GMCs. Essentially, this means that the crops will rely on one or more rare nutrients, and would therefore be limited to growing only where the farmer fertilizes.5 Many critics of genetically modified foods have also voiced concerns regarding unintentional side effects of genetic engineering. A major worry is that GMCs will introduce new allergenic reactions to our food and endanger our health, though no evidence of this has been found to date.3 The most convincing and popular criticism of genetically modified foods is that inadequate research has been conducted into possible health detriments and drawbacks. If GMCs are to be successfully implemented, scientists will need to gain the public's trust by proving that engineered crops carry less risk than preexisting foods. This will take time and resources, but could pay off in the end.

Genetically modified crops have been contentious since 1980, but a plethora of recent developments have provided more evidence than ever before of their potential. Ghana recently led a national conference to examine the risks and rewards of implementing GMCs into their economy. Though several pros and cons were identified, more work needs to be done to shed light on how GMCs should be used in the future.6 Below is a helpful graph illustrating relatively recent use of genetically modified crops in different countries throughout the world. Now that you're up to speed on some of the older arguments as well as recent developments, carefully consider whether you'd want to rely on genetically modified food in the future.

1Hossein Azadi, Atry Samiee, et al. "Genetically modified crops and small-scale farmers: main opportunities and challenges," Informa Healthcare (2015). Accessed March 11, 2015. doi:10.3109/07388551.2014.990413
2Wilhelm Klümper, Matin Qaim. "A meta-analysis of the impacts of genetically modified crops," PLoS One 9 (2014). Accessed March 11, 2015. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0111629
3Geoffery Barrows, Steven Sexton, David Zilberman. "Agricultral biotechnology: the promise and prospects of genetically modified crops," The Journal of Economic Perspectives 28 (2014): 99-119. Accessed March 11, 2015. doi:
4Nigel Halford, Elizabeth Hudson, et al. "Safety assessment of genetically modified plants with deliberately altered composition," Wiley Online Library 12 (2014): 651-654. Accessed March 11, 2015. doi:10.1111/pbi.12194.
5Daniel J. Mandell, Marc J. Lajoie, et al. "Biocontainment of genetically modified organisms by synthetic protein design," Nature 518 (2015): 55-60. Accessed March 11, 2015. doi:10.1038/nature14121.
6Ghana Public Health Association. "Recommendations from a meeting on health implications of genetically modified organisms," Ghana Medical Journal 48 (2014): 117-119. Accessed March 11, 2015. doi:/


  1. It seems haphazard that we have already implemented GMCs without examining the potentially for negative side effects. Since GMCs have already been in use for some time, it is surprising and upsetting that this hotly contested innovation does not have ample research to discount the detriments. While you mentions that these detriments have never been scientifically proven, where did the basis for this supposition come from in the first place?

  2. Although no detrimental effects have been proven for GMC's themselves, the WHO recently linked roundup to cancer. Roundup is a herbicide that is applied to roundup ready crops that have been genetically modified to be resistant. There really seems to be a need for empirically proving scientific endeavors to be more beneficial then detrimental. A system along the lines of guilty until proven innocent could prevent a lot of problems, with generational fallout, from occurring.

  3. This was an interesting, thought-provoking post. My initial reaction is to wonder how much harm GMCs can actually create. I am interested in the comparison between GMCs and breeding of animals such as dogs or horses. Breeding these animals for things like shows or races is a way of us, as humans, playing a significant role in the genetics of the next generation of these animals. I guess that it depends on the way that crops are being modified, but selective fertilization has been a part of our culture in multiple ways for many years now. Have any negatives came out of this so far?

    1. I don't know that much about GMCs and the modification of crops, but I do know a little about the negative effects of breeding animals for shows or races. When breeders breed purebred dogs, they are much more likely to have genetic diseases and health problems than mixed breed dogs. One issue is inbreeding, which I don't know if that is a potential issue with plants. The other issue, however, I think may also be an issue with plants. In breeding purebreds, you are much more likely to have issues caused by recessive genes, and I feel like this issue could also be occurring in selective fertilization of crops.

  4. I am aware that Europe has taken a stand against genetically modified crops, limiting/banning them across the continent. Although GMC's can do things such as delay the ripening process in tomatoes, is this really worth it if our risk of chemical spread or allergens is at stake? In addition, there are social implications to GMCs such as smaller farmers being kicked out of business because they cannot afford GMCs and thus cannot keep up with the large producers. If many countries around the world are surviving fine without the use of GMCs, perhaps the United States needs to reevaluate their increasing dependence on chemicals for seemingly "fresh" vegetables.

  5. I am wary of any research coming out of the US about GMC's due to the monopoly Monsanto has over the GMC development and production. I understand and support the need to find alternatives to increase the production of crops, namely to reduce malnutrition and starvation for countries in need. However, I also understand that health is directly connected to food consumption and I believe scientists and governments should be investing in producing higher yields of organic crops. Organic crops will provide the nutrition needed for individuals without facing potential side-effects of GMCs.

  6. With all the pros and cons for GMCs, I am surprised that there has not been much research about the harms that GMCs can pose on our health. Since GMCs can produce more crops at a faster rate, they are more beneficial for larger food industries; it would make sense for these large companies to fund research toward seeing only the positive benefits of GMCs. Even if the shift to organic crops was possible, there is still a socioeconomic barrier, as organic foods tend to be more costly and would prevent many low-income families from purchasing the one that's more beneficial for their health.

  7. What i find most surprising is the last graph showing how many more genetically modified crops we have compared to every other country in the world. I think that is something that we need to change in the future