GMO Food: Health Hazard or Economic Boon?

David Silverman/Getty Images

David Silverman/Getty Images

Wade into the waters of the GMO debate, and you’ll find yourself in an incredibly controversial pool. The middle ground is rarely occupied, people tend to find GMOs harmful or safe, disastrous for our health and environment or a necessity. But what are the reasons behind each stance, and just what exactly does “GMO” mean?

GMO stands for genetically modified organism, and The World Health Organization (WHO) states the term can apply whenever an organism’s DNA has been altered in a manner that does not occur naturally. Certain genes can then pass from one organism to another, even between species that are not related. The controversy has ratcheted up in recent years, but the practice of modifying genes goes back several decades.

CBS News medical consultant Dr. David Agus stated in an interview with the outlet that the technology came about in the 1970s, and echoing a statement made by the WHO, Agus explains GMOs can assist farmers when it comes to protecting their crops. “It’s predominantly used so they can avoid bugs and make their own pesticide and be able to tolerate the herbicide or chemicals we use and it really had rapid adoption over the past 15 years,” Agus said. “Most of the soy, the cotton, and the corn that we use today is genetically modified. That’s 70 percent of the products on food shelves that are processed use GMO foods.”

The WHO describes how is is possible. Crop protection is achieved by inserting a gene that makes the crop resistant to certain diseases and viruses, this creates a higher crop yield, benefiting farmers who use the practice. According to MIT Technology Review, about 15 percent of the world’s crops are lost each year to diseases. Developing crops that do not fall victim to diseases–a potato that can resist blight, for example–could go a long way in helping to feed the expanding population. GMOs aid in this battle, driving down food prices as well. But many worry the economic trade-off comes at a cost to our health and the environment.

Groups such as the Non-GMO Project work to highlight this effects of this swap in our daily lives. The organization contrasts the stance in the U.S. versus Europe and other countries that have restricted or banned GMOs because the practice is not considered safe. The Non-GMO Project says that the crops are not the only aspect of agriculture changing. As our food has been modified, bugs and weeds with a superior level of resistance have emerged, an occurrence the project links to the widespread use of GMOs.

The long-term impact of GMOs is not fully understood yet, the group explains, but it can only grow unless action is taken now. This inevitable growth is due in part to the uncontrollable nature of GMOs. Whole Foods Magazines explains that once a GMO crop is planted, nearby crops can become contaminated with the altered genes. Wind and water can carry the seeds from a GMO field to a non-GMO field, resulting in contamination, a potential danger for people with allergies.

Contamination of crops is another area of concern, and region of divide in the debate. The Non-GMO side is seen as taking on big business, like Monsanto, a GMO using company which in their view uses intimidation and scare tactics to control the state of farming. In March, Reuters covered a report which found that 30 percent of 268 organic farmers from seventeen U.S. states had detected some level of unintended GMO presence on their farms. The report was compiled by the Food & Water Watch along with the Organic Farmers’ Agency for Relationship Marketing, and concluded that “the effects of GMO contamination have unfairly burdened organic and non-GMO farmers with extra work, longer hours and financial insecurity.”

In terms of health implications and safety, Lisa Cimperman, a clinical dietician at University Hospitals in Cleveland, told ABC the evidence isn’t there. “As far as having real research to show that it’s harmful, we simply don’t have it.” This view was repeated by Agus, but with a caveat.

“There’s no data that it’s not safe but I don’t think we’ve conclusively shown that it is safe,” he said. “Crops have been optimized for calories per acre — not about health. We need to think about both parameters as we go forward. This field is dominated by a few, very large companies. It needs to be dominated by science.” Science does deserve a place at the forefront of the issue, rather than passions. Although one the whole, the WHO deems the use of GMOs to be safe, specialized evaluation needs to take place.

“Different GM organisms include different genes inserted in different ways,” it explains. “This means that individual GM foods and their safety should be assessed on a case-by-case basis and that it is not possible to make general statements on the safety of all GM foods.” This style of approach could potentially allow for the best of both worlds, the healthiest foods produced safely and cheaply, but it would require constant monitoring.

“With scientists, we never say anything is 100 percent certain one way or another,” Dr. Jon Suzuki stated to The New York Times when discussing GMOs. “We weigh conclusions on accumulated knowledge or evidence — but often this is not satisfactory for some.”

More From Wall St. Cheat Sheet: