Genetically Modified (GM) foods are a relatively new invention. It was only with the advent of molecular technology in the late 1980s and ‘90s, that the possibility of creating these products became a reality. So much is not known about these foods and yet we end up eating them on a daily basis! What are the downsides? What don’t we know?
GM foods get their traits, such as herbicide tolerance or the ability to produce their own insecticide, from the transgenes they possess. These genes are found on DNA, which is universal and can be passed on.
What happens if some of these genes are passed on to another plant through pollen in the air?
The affected plants may produce offspring that have the transgene and suddenly, the herbicide won’t kill these new plants. These hybrids, become “superweeds” that compete with the crop and lower yields. This means less food production and less money in the pockets of farmers.
What do we do now?
Well, genetic engineers must roll out a new crop that is resistant to a new herbicide that is more toxic than the previous one. The “superweeds” die, but all those new chemicals wash into streams and rivers when it rains. Much like the old genes, these new genes are capable of being passed along through pollen, and the cycle will start all over again, with engineers creating stronger, more resistant crops each time.
What about pests?
When pests eat herbicide producing crops like Bt corn, most of them die, but a few survive because they have genes that are resistant to the insecticide. Those survivors produce the next generation of pests with a tolerance thus making Bt corn ineffective. Farmers return to spraying harmful insecticides on their fields, and more chemicals end up in our waterways, clogging up ecosystems.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) requires that farmers plant 20 percent of their fields with regular corn whenever they plant Bt corn. The unmodified corn acts as a refuge for some of the insects that would otherwise die from eating Bt corn. By keeping some of these pests alive, the gene pool is effectively “watered down” so that Bt corn isn’t rendered ineffective.
The problem is that there is no real way to enforce this regulation and there is no incentive to comply either. Why would a farmer plant a crop that he is basically giving away to the bugs when he can just plant all Bt corn instead?
However, the biggest problem with GM foods is that we just really don’t know enough about them, and, for the most part, they are highly unregulated.
The Environmental Protection Agency only takes action if a GMO is acting like a pesticide. The USDA only assesses if a plant will be a pest to other plants. The Food and Drug Administration can only ask companies to share information on GM foods or animals. It is up to the company to decide whether or not they want to divulge any information!
Though we know very little about the effects that GMOs have, they end up on our dinner plates on a daily basis. They may be safe to eat — for now, at least–but are the numerous unknowns they present really worth the risk?
All information pertaining to the effects of Bt and HT crops was found in this book:
Withgott, J., & Laposata, M. (2012). Essential environment: The science behind the stories. (4th ed.). New Jersey: Pearson Education Inc.
Written by: Allyson Ernst
Photo License: Creative Commons