Top 10 Myths about Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)
What would you say if you knew that we could feed the world with no hassle, that we can easily, even in the poorest agricultural areas, grow enough to make sure that nobody starves. We would, quite rightly hail that ability as a miracle of modern times, something to celebrate and be proud of. The fact is that it is not science fiction, it is science fact. We are now able to modify our crops to withstand common pests, to be resistant to drought, flood and blight. We can engineer our crops so that they are more nutritious and help stave off vitamin deficiencies that blight the childhoods of those born into poverty.
This is a wonderful thing, it shows how robust and intelligent humanity is, that when we see a problem, we work out how to fix it. However, not everyone wants to celebrate these achievements. Activist organisations such as Greenpeace and the Earth Liberation Front have worked hard to disrupt growth and feeding trials. They have also worked hard to spread misinformation, fermenting concern and worry in the public to the extent that some of these crops are dubbed ‘frankenfoods’. Their propaganda has proved so successful that in the early years of the 21st century, when the US sent food aid to relieve a famine in sub-saharan Africa, some countries refused to receive it because it contained GMO’s. They were worried that their future crops would be affected and their export business would die so instead they opted to let people starve.
This shows how despicable the spread of such misinformation is so, in order to redress the balance here is our top 10 list of myths about GMO’s.
10. GMOs are not new – they have been with us for as long as man has been farming!
Ever since humans first gave up their nomadic lifestyle and settled in one place to farm crops in about 12,000 BC they have practiced genetic engineering. Through a process called selective engineering farmers identified traits in their crops and livestock that they wanted to perpetuate and modified their breeding schedules to ensure that these traits were passed on to the next generation. This process allowed farmers to develop many different types of wheat that produce more usable food per plant than the emmer wheat that was originally cultivated. Similarly farmers bred different breeds of cow, some maximising meat yield and others for dairy.
The application of genetic modification of DNA in laboratories is no more than a natural evolution of the same process that has been applied by farmers for thousands of years. The only difference (other than the speed of the process) is that now instead of being restricted to manipulation of the genetic material within one species (now called cisgenic engineering), we are able to add beneficial material from other species (transgenic engineering).
9. GM Crops are not sterile.
Those who oppose the development of GMOs for food or agriculture have spread a myth that all GMO crops have a ‘terminator’ gene installed that causes them to be sterile and therefore unable to propagate naturally. This, they claim, will result in the companies who develop the seeds being able to charge farmers for a new batch each and every year because their crops will not propagate naturally. They also claim that these terminator genes could spread to organic or natural crops and cause them to become sterile leading to an agricultural disaster.
These claims are simply not true! The technology was developed and patented by Monsanto but due to the concerns of their customers they have promised, back in 1999 not to use it. As the companies who develop seeds rely on the farmers who purchase their products to make a profit it is not in their corporate interests to include technology that would lead their customers to find another source of seed. In any event most commercial farmers buy new seed stock every year. This is because modern seeds (whether GMOs or not) tend to be hybrids of different varieties. At least some of the product grown from hybrid seeds typically reverts back to the hybrid parent stock and not the variety the farmer wants. The practice of buying new means that the farmer can sell (or use) all of his harvest and at the same time can buy seeds of guaranteed quality new every year. Of course if a farmer wishes to save and replant he can choose to use varieties that allow this.
8. GMOS are not an attempt by big business to ruin the little man.
While a lot of research into GMOS is funded by big agricultural companies such as Monsanto and Syngenta a lot of research is also done in independent laboratories.
It is true that the agricultural companies that produce GMO seeds do ask those who grow them to pay a licence fee. This is because a significant amount of time and money has gone into the development of these organisms and the companies have to recoup their costs. This is as true for normal seed products as it is for GMOs. For this reason, farmers who buy certain crops are required to promise that they will not save seeds but purchase them fresh every year. The seed companies consider it a fair return for the investment they have made in research and farmers are free to use other crops if they do not agree. If development companies were not paid for the work that they do then there would be stagnation in crop technology as there would be no benefit to innovation.
Some companies will reduce or remove royalty payments for humanitarian reasons, take the example of the owners of the patents on golden rice (a form of rice that has been enhanced to combat vitamin A deficiency in children in the developing world). Any farmer using golden rice who earns less than $10,000 a year is not required to any (this covers 99% of all farmers growing golden rice) and are permitted to save seeds should they wish to.
7. GMOs do not use new or exciting technology.
While wonderful in its effects the technology used to create GMOs is no longer untried cutting edge research. With traditional selective breeding there will always be unintended consequences (Dexter cows for example, selectively bred to be small cows with short legs abort a significant percentage of their calves because their legs are too short). Modification of the genetic material of an organism allows scientists to predict with a much higher degree of accuracy, what the effect of the manipulation will be; it is therefore much more precise than selective breeding.
DNA was discovered in 1953 and research in genetics and the potential positive applications of genetic research developed extremely fast from there. The first successful attempt at genetic engineering took place in 1973 and the technology became established on a commercial basis by 1976. The early research concentrated on the genetic manipulation of bacteria before moving on to the manipulation of the genetic sequences of animals and plants. By 1983 a new strain of tobacco had been created through the process of genetic engineering. By 1992, following field trials some GMOs were being grown commercially.
As can be seen from this timeline GMOs were not created in the lab and then immediately grown for human consumption. The technology is not new, it is both established and well tested and all new products are required to undergo significant peer review and government testing before being licensed for commercial use.
6. GMOs do not cause health problems.
There are a lot of organizations and people who like to perpetuate the myth that GMO foods are dangerous. They rely on the precautionary principal – just because something has not been shown to be dangerous does not mean that it is not. They insist that there is insufficient long term research that proves that GMOs are safe to eat. However the current scientific consensus is that GMO products currently available for consumption are not inherently more risky than conventional food, with no overt risks to health having been identified over the past 15-20 years. Of course this scientific consensus can and should change if a study whose results can be repeated shows a demonstrable harm to human health. Such a study does not yet, and may never exist.
Different governments have different protocols for the review and licencing of GMOs but it is generally done on a case by case basis. Human tests are not typically required but the companies looking for a licence have to show that the product is substantially equivalent to a non GM version of the crop. This test does not measure risks in absolute terms but rather identifies key differences in the new products that should then be subject to a safety assessment. Of course one of the problems with this approach is that all plants produce toxins to some extent and the foods that form a traditional part of our diets have never been proved safe through scientific testing but rather through long use (some people, for example, are allergic to and cannot eat nuts, this does not mean nuts are inherently unsafe for the population at large).
One study in 2012 claimed to show that corn modified to be resistant to weed killer caused cancer in laboratory rats. However, the methodology of the research was shown to be deeply flawed and the study was retracted one year later. In fact, GMOs which have been bred to be resistant to insect attack may even confer a health benefit on people. Some corn attacked by insects can carry high levels of fumonisins, which has been shown to be carcinogenic in animals and may be so in humans. Genetically engineered corn is not attacked and therefore does not contain fumonisins.
It stands to reason, therefore, that GMOs may be safer, as they will have been subject to more rigorous tests
5. GMOs do not require Farmers to use more chemicals which harm the environment.
The two major traits which are commonly engineered into GMOs are the ability for the plant to resist the use of a common herbicide called Roundup and for the GMO to manufacture its own pesticide called Bt.
Many of those who make claims against GMOs say that the development companies make the plants resistant to Roundup so that they can sell more of it. However, Roundup is a very effective but mild herbicide which does not persist for very long in the environment. This means that although more Roundup is being used by farmers the herbicide load in the environment is much lower than it was when other herbicides were commonly in use and therefore there is proportionately lower water contamination.
Plants that secrete Bt call for significantly reduced applications of insecticides. Indeed the impact of GM crops has been shown to reduce the amount of pesticide used globally by 286,000 tons in the 10 years to 2006 and had a significant impact on the reduction of the release of greenhouse gasses – equivalent to taking 6.56 million cars from the road. Farmers are now able to get higher yields from the same acreage of crops planted and with much less pesticide used.
4. GMOs are not responsible for an increase in pesticide resistance.
In the years since GMOs have been in commercial use there has been an increase in resistance to Bt and Roundup. This is not the fault of or caused by the GMOs in and of themselves. It is, rather, just the normal action of evolution at play – as something is used more often organisms will evolve to become resistant to it. The same thing has happened with antibiotics and will continue to happen as long as humans try to fight pests. Luckily there are a number of strategies available to combat this resistance and they should be combined to ensure that resistance spreads as slowly as possible.
One of the strategies is to plant non GMO crops as a refuge in the same field as GMO crops, this ensures that the pests do not need to evolve in order to thrive but, in thriving, they will not have any negative impact on the main crop. Some pests will develop resistance but with a smaller breeding pool on the GMO crops the resistance is unlikely to propagate to any great extent. Crops should be planted in rotation as resistance builds more quickly in monocultures and the residue from the crop should be cleared from the fields properly and effectively after each harvest. Research companies are also able to identify what causes the resistance and further modify their crops to combat the problem.
3. GMOs do not harm other species.
In China, between 1990-2010 GMO crops were responsible for the halving of the amount of pesticides used and a doubling of key species such as ladybirds and spiders which had a concomitant benefit on neighbouring crops.
There have been concerns raised that GMOs might have a potential negative impact on other species that share their ecosystem. Of particular concern were crops that had been modified to secrete insecticides to combat Bt. Traditionally, once crops have been harvested the residue is mulched back into the soil where it degrades and supplements the carbon and other components of the soil. The concern as that the crop residue would release the pesticide as they decayed and therefore have a negative impact on the fauna of the soil in which the crops had been grown. A study of the potential negative effects has shown few or no negative impacts on wildlife such as woodlice, earthworms, protozoa etc.
Studies in the UK and Denmark have shown that the use of GMOs could lead to a reduction in weed populations on farms which in turn could have a negative impact on species diversity. Farms that grow Roundup resistant crops in Mexico have reported a reduction in butterfly populations, probably due to the fact that their food source is susceptible to roundup. However these problems arise not as a result of the crop as such but because of the farming practices which are applied to the crop. Changing farming practices to include, for example, buffer zones around fields or biological pest controls will address the majority of these problems.
In reality the greatest threat to biodiversity comes from farming in general as this removes land from its natural, wild state, and puts it to a different purpose. The more efficient crops are (i.e. able to deliver higher yields for lower areas) the more beneficial to ecosystems in the long run.
2. Big Agriculture Doesn’t sue little farmers whose crops are polluted with GMOs/ GMOs do not pollute organic crops.
It is not in the interests of the large agricultural companies who sell GMOs to have their products escape into the wild. This is because they make their profits from the sale of seeds and they therefore need to protect their patents. Anti GMO protestors like to propagate the myth that ‘Big Ag’ sue farmers who find GMOs growing in their fields. The last time a big company was accused of (and sued for) taking action against farmers who found GMOs growing in their fields the judge threw out the case and found in favour of Monsanto noting that the company had a commitment not to exercise patent rights against those who grew GMOs in their fields inadvertently. Most large companies will, however, take action to protect their patents where the unauthorised growth of GMO crops is intentional as opposed to accidental.
While GMO crops do not contain the terminator gene some GMOs are made sterile on purpose. GM Salmon has been produced which can be farmed to maturity in half the time of the natural species. In order to prevent the fast maturing gene from escaping into the wild the GM Salmon will only be sold as fertilised sterile female eggs. This is to protect the wild population.
There have been some instances of GMO escape from fields, this can easily happen when GMO pollen is blown onto conventional fields. Whether or not the trait for which the crop has been modified survives in offspring, this will only happen if the trait itself is beneficial to the wild or conventional crop, any trait that does not give a plant a competitive edge (such as the Vitamin A pre-cursors in Golden Rice) are likely to disappear. Instances of GMO escape are relatively rare and do not impact on the quality of the other crop. Organic crops, for example, will still be certified as organic if they contain small, inadvertent, traces of GMOs.
The main reason farmers are concerned about the potential escape of GMOs is that it might impact on crop sales. In the USA in 2013 some GMO wheat was found in a conventional wheat field. Some of the countries to which US farmers typically export wheat including Japan and South Korea refused to purchase American wheat until the source of the contamination was found. A full investigation ensured to try to locate the source of the GMOs in the wheat but nothing was found, all the countries involved decided to continue with their food orders and the economic impact was minimal.
1. GMOs do not change human DNA.
Junk scientists like to claim that micro RNA from GMOs can enter into the human body and cause alterations to our DNA, causing cancer and who knows what other problems. This makes for one very scary claim – who wants to get cancer or have their DNA mutated just because they ate a taco or some rice?
The fact is, however, that these claims are so much rubbish. The study that is quoted by the anti GMO lobby actually showed that genes from food (any food) can be detected in human plasma. They have not been found to enter into human cells, just to be floating free in our bloodstreams. This is likely to have been happening for as long as human beings have been eating food and nobody to date has mutated into a loaf of bread.
GMOs have huge potential. Potential to feed more people than conventional crops, potential to help combat the ravages of disadvantaged childhoods, potential to reduce the amount of land we need to set aside for agriculture while allowing for increased yields. They are not a magic bullet and an increase in pesticide and herbicide resistance has shown that farmers still need to follow good practice in the farming methods they employ.
There needs to be reasoned debate and peer reviewed research of all studies (positive and negative) relating to GMOs. They should be looked at as neither good nor evil, simply an evolving tool in our arsenal that we employ to fight famine and feed the world. The problems that are identified should be acknowledged and then dealt with but we hope that this list has shown you that there is no reason to refuse to eat, grow or be scared of GMOs.