Encountering and Understanding GMOs in the US

People shop at the farmers’ market on Dupont Circle. While several items are more expensive in these markets, customers are willing to pay a premium for non-GMO, organic food. (Nimisha Jaiswal)
People shop at the farmers’ market on Dupont Circle. While several items are more expensive in these markets, customers are willing to pay a premium for non-GMO, organic food. (Nimisha Jaiswal)

Xiupei Liang
Guest Contributor at SAIS Washington

As soon as I landed in the US, I realized this country welcomed me with an ubiquity of genetically modified food (GMO) — a product met with great suspicion in my native China and in other countries.

Genetic modification (GM) technology raises numerous thorny questions about science, ethics, law and economics. In this article, I want to address a few of these issues so students like me, who are confronted with GMOs for the first time, can think about what they’re eating and better understand it.

According to the World Health Organization, “genetically modified organisms (GMOs) can be defined as organisms in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally.” According to the publication Nature, existing commercial GMOs predominantly have two traits: herbicide tolerance and insect resistance.

Concerning herbicide tolerance, GM technology enables crops to degrade the active ingredients in an herbicide, which is rendered harmless. The goal of improving the herbicide tolerance is to facilitate controlling weeds during the growing season and to offer more flexibility of spraying time.

Besides herbicide tolerance, insect resistance is the other main trait of GMOs. To achieve insect resistance, genetic engineers insert into the plant organism the gene from a bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis, which produces a protein to kill Lepidoptera larvae, in particular, European corn borer — a common predatory insect.

The biggest concern is whether these proteins are also harmful to the human body. The answer is no. According to the University of Kentucky’s College of Agriculture, Food and Environment, the protein used for insect resistance has been available as a commercial microbial insecticide since the 1960s. These products have an excellent safety record and have been used on a large number of crops.

However, even though GMOs are safe for human consumption, this does not eliminate the worries of opponents who are not only concerned about the safety of current GMOs but of future GMOs as well. In other words, even if current GMOs are harmless to humans, how can we guarantee there will not be GM technology abuse in the future?

These doubts are legitimate for two reasons. First, unlike traditional crossbreeding within the same species, GM technology transfers DNA across different species. Experimental combinations may bring up preferable traits but, as in any new experimentation, it may also cause unexpected negative effects on humans.

Second, having monopoly companies such as Monsanto, which control most of the business, could increase the chance of GM technology abuse.

Moreover, the issue of GM technology abuse is also a legislative issue. Thus, addressing the problems requires relevant political action as well as scientific clarification.

Another significant issue to address concerning GMOs is whether they harm the environment. According to the GMO Compass (sponsored by the European Union), GMOs  are unlikely to be harmful to our ecosystem in terms of biodiversity because GMO are almost the same as conventional crops except for some traits.

However, there is a looming ethical concern which neither science nor law may solve. According to Nature, there was a report from California in 2000 claiming that exogenous DNA fragments from a certain GMO was found in Mexican corn. In other words, the GMO may have crossbred with the local corns and passed the DNA to the future generations. This means that once a GMO is planted, sooner or later it may pass its DNA to other species, which could increase the spread of GMOs in the naturally occurring ecosystem.

Undoubtedly, the commercialization of GMOs is a one-way move. Even if people in one country are unwilling to support it and people in a second country do, people in the first country still must deal with the results.

Moreover, GMO business, driven by monopolies, is booming. But the GM monopolies are spending millions in lobbying US state legislatures not to label GMOs because they fear people will avoid buying GMOs if they can identify them. In other words, not to label GMOs is a marketing decision, which harms consumers’ rights of knowing what they eat, and thus intensifies the distrust between people and the new innovation.

As a recent consumer of GMOs, I am satisfied GM food is safe for the time being. But to eliminate the doubts of skeptics, measures should be approved by both and local international bodies that will guarantee long-term safety.