banner by Dheeraj Jalluri

The Mythos of GMOs

by Nithya Narayan

You are standing in the produce aisle of the grocery store, inspecting the choices of broccoli for tonight’s dinner. The two options available are seemingly identical products; you can choose between organic or regular broccoli. After some contemplation you decide to purchase the organic broccoli. You’ve heard it’s better for you and is grown naturally, even though it’s more expensive. You haven’t heard the same about GMOs.

Genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, are food products that have been genetically altered to produce more desirable qualities. GMOs are modified using genetic engineering methods, which means that once a preferable trait is identified, it is isolated and inserted into the target organism. The organism is then grown and farmed as normal. This process is similar to that of crossbreeding, which has been utilized by farmers to create products like the modern banana. However, society and the common consumer have often vilified the products of genetic engineering ever since they were introduced to the market, because many consider GMOs abnormal or “artificially-altered.” Is there any validity to this concern?

Utilizing epidemiological data from the past twenty years, a study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine found that GMOs posed no discernable risks to human health. Furthermore, they found no conclusive evidence tying environmental problems to GMOs, in terms of biodiversity or wear and tear on the land. The overwhelming conclusion by the scientific community, despite public hostility, is that genetically modified organisms are beneficial and do not negatively impact our health or the environment. The report’s writers did acknowledge, however, that there was a growing trend in insecticide and pesticide resistance for genetically modified organisms. Thus, they are not producing the increase in crop yield as predicted.

These results might seem surprising to some, but they make logical sense considering that GMOs have been closely regulated and tested since their conception. In the United States and Europe, genetically engineered crops are repeatedly tested for consumer and environmental safety. Furthermore, federal regulations in place today require that all genetically modified foods be labeled appropriately.  

Why then, do people continue to choose “organic” products over GMOs? In “Intuition Can Encourage Opinions That Are Contrary To The Facts,” Steffan Blancke suggests that most people hold onto the perception because they believe an organism’s DNA or genome represents its core, unaltered “self.” Blancke brings up the case of survey respondents who were asked if they expected a tomato modified with fish DNA to taste like fish. Over half of the respondents incorrectly believed that it would. This demonstrates a fundamental bias in human perception and misunderstanding of the basic principles of genetics.

Another reason why people might avoid GMOs is because they are wary of altering nature to suit our needs, believing that scientists are playing “God.” Some of these beliefs might be rooted in religion—or, on the extreme end, in a fear that scientists meddling with forces beyond human control may usher unforeseeable consequences. People might also be disgusted that scientists blend the DNA of different organisms to create GMOs—especially when recombinant DNA may come from rats or cockroaches. Blancke suggests that people tend to form their opinions based on justification of these types of immediate emotional responses. For example, if people feel intuitively wary of eating GMOs, they may actively search for reasons not to eat GMOs, ignoring any facts contrary to their predisposed beliefs.

Perhaps the only true way to overcome these misconceptions is to educate people on the nature of DNA and genetic engineering. GMOs have many benefits: they increase crop yield and increase food products’ resistance to hostile conditions, therefore reducing food waste. They also provide food for famine-stricken or resource-low areas. According to Abbie Golbas in GMOs: what are they?, GMOs can be “pest-proofed, food production can be increased, and the food can be nutritionally improved.” Genetically modified crops have also contributed to an increase of foods with added nutritional benefits—including tomatoes, soybeans and rice. These added nutrients help improve general health in low-resource areas where families cannot afford to buy organic products.

According to Blancke, educating people on these benefits means improving science education from a young age. Just as important, companies who create GMOs should keep their regulation and production as transparent as possible, encouraging an open discussion about their benefits. So the next time you are in the supermarket deciding whether to pay an extra dollar for organic spinach, be confident that there are no negative repercussions for your health or the environment if you buy GMO.