Going OMG over GMO – have we figured out if genetically modified crops are safe to eat?
Genetically modified rice growing in a greenhouse. Credit: BASF – We create chemistry via Flickr
You probably have never heard a whole lot about what genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are, but you definitely hear about people debating them all the time. 9/10 times, these debates sound like: “OMG you can’t eat anything GM it’s gonna give you cancer!” or “Yeah, right, GMOs are totally safe, check your facts, yo” *inserts memes here*.
So what’s all the fuss about?
Well, people are right to worry about the safety of GM food products, no one is (yet) 100% sure if they are safe to eat. This is exactly why GM technology is a blooming field (pardon the pun) of research where scientists are ploughing their knowledge (I know I’m sorry) to learn more about safety of GM crops. So if you want to learn more about that bag of GM flour you hesitated to buy, here are the latest scientific findings for you to harvest (that’s it I can’t help it)!
Remind me again what are GM crops and why are we eating them?
The name ‘genetic modification’ (GM) is intimidating but self-explanatory. GM crops have genes from other species artificially inserted into them, so that they benefit from desirable traits these genes carry. Such traits include resilience to herbicide, toxicity to pests and better nutrient uptake. Why do we want these traits in our crops? They help not only increase yield and make agricultural production more efficient in our agricultural industry, but also alleviate food shortage in the developing world. For some people, GM technology is a tangible and plausible way to put food on the table, and the potential health risk of GM crop is far outweighed by the immediate problem of starvation.
Are you eating GM product or are you eating GM product.
Have you eaten anything made from GM crops?
You more than likely have.
The regulations for GMOs are different all over the world. Here in Victoria, GM crops have to go through rigorous safety assessments to be on the market; that being said, labelling regulation for GM product is somewhat less rigorous. The most common GM product in Australia (which is also exempt from obligatory GM labelling) is canola oil. If you have consumed canola oil made from Australian-grown canola, you almost certainly have eaten GMOs.
So if we’ve all eaten GM crops, are we gonna die?
No we are not, at least not in short terms; GM crops sadly don’t grant immortality, thus we, unfortunately, will not escape our eventual mortality (Nihilism intensifies).
Numerous studies have found that GM crops have no observed negative impact on health. All kinds of GM crops, rice, beans, wheat and so on were fed to test animals such as mice and pigs, and none of the studies found negative effect of GM food on these animals (except I imagine they would be complaining about the repetitiveness of their diet). HOORAY! We are all saved!
But it’s not quite the time yet for celebration, all of studies on GM up to date only observed short-term effects, we have meagre (get it?) knowledge about the chronic health effects of GM. The reason for this is simple: GM hasn’t been around long enough for us to observe anything long-term. Guess we’ll have to wait and see what GM turns out to do (a zombie apocalypse maybe?)
Is GM good for nature?
All forms of agriculture depend on the environment, so what does the environment get if we grow GM crops? Intuitively, we might think GM is the ‘greener’ option: if our crops are more resilient to pests, we can use less pesticide, if our crops are better at absorbing nutrients, we can use less fertiliser, if our crops have better yield, we can use less land altogether! WIN! WIN!
Indeed, the prospect of more sustainable farming is one of the main drivers of GM development. But in reality, we are seeing a different, more malignant effect of GM crops on the environment. Our case began right here in Victoria, where GM canola farming is extensive and well established. The most commonly grown variety, Roundup Ready® GM canola, has built-in tolerance to commonly used herbicides. While this sounds like a good thing, the GM canola’s special trait actually encourages farmers to use herbicides more freely and intensively, since they no longer have to worry about killing their crops. This increase in herbicide use is potentially very dangerous to the environment, particularly to amphibians who can be killed by the toxin.
A golden canola field – vibrant, serene…and hopefully herbicide free? Author’s own image
So what’s next for GM? To this day there are still many uncertainties surrounding GM crops and many risks associated with having them. But science, as always, sows seeds of inquisitiveness and reaps knowledge (You thought you’d seen the last of me haven’t you). Avenues for future studies are fertile, perhaps with their results irrigating the field of genetic modification, our understanding of GM crops will finally grow ripe and come to fruition.
Find out what GM products are being sold in Australia:
Current GM labelling regulations in Australia (I have linked to this page in the post above as well):