GMO or GM No?
I recently watched Okja, a heart-warming and highly political film about concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO) and super-pigs, which were genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The movie focuses on one super-pig in particular, Okja, who was created to produce less waste, eat less food, and taste delicious. When Okja is taken from Mija, her keeper, Mija goes on a rescue mission. Along the way, viewers are exposed to the horrifying inner workings of a CAFO and to how big business drives the process.
GMOs* are organisms that have had their DNA artificially changed through genetic engineering in a laboratory, generally to give the organism a desired trait.
The extent of genetic modification
As far as animals go, geneticists have bred a variety of glow-in-the-dark animals, silk-spinning goats, and pigs with extra muscle, to name a few.
It doesn’t stop there – the biggest use of GMO technology is for agricultural crops. Potatoes have been made that don’t bruise, apples that don’t brown, and tomatoes that can withstand freezing temperatures.
The most well known GMO crops are soy, cotton, canola, corn and sugar beets. At least 90% of these GMO crops are sold in the United States and are mostly found in processed foods.
Why genetically modify in the first place?
Well, there are many reasons such as enhancing nutrition, improving environmental sustainability, or increasing resistance to disease or herbicides.
When crops are herbicide resistant, chemicals used kill weeds, but not crops. This means farmers don’t have to spend as much time ridding the soil of weeds, saving them money and reducing water evaporation. Another benefit is reduced sediment and herbicide run-off into waterways – one of the things damaging the Great Barrier Reef.
What about genetically engineering something just for the sake of it – what other purpose would a glow-in-the-dark mouse play?
But maybe the most important reason of all is money. The more you can grow, the more you can sell, right?
What about the costs?
Sure we hear about how scientists bred an animal to glow-in-the-dark, but we often don’t hear about the unsuccessful experiments where animals die or suffer.
Also, because some crops are now herbicides resistant, this may encourage the use of spraying even more herbicides, like Roundup, whose main ingredient, glyphosate, is considered a ‘probable carcinogen’.
Yet, the health consequences of GMOs are largely unknown. Short-term tests show that GM foods could cause liver, reproduction and immune system problems. The bottom line is genetic modification combines genes that don’t normally work together, which can create new toxins, allergens and anti-nutrients.
These issues have promoted some to advocate for a production freeze until more is known or for production to halt altogether.
Protest against Monsanto, the world’s largest manufacturer of GMOs (Image via Flickr)
Good news and bad news: the grey area
Perhaps creating crops that can withstand extreme temperatures and spoiling has some merit, but this should not come at the expense of health, safety or ethics.
There is clearly grey area and a lot of unknown within this field. Nonetheless, I can only imagine as the population increases, and the climate continues to change, conversations about GMOs will become more and more prominent.
For now, if you’re concerned about GMO products, just avoid cotton, canola, soy, and corn, and processed foods from unknown sources. Also, look for products that are labelled GMO free or just pick up some good ol’ fruit and veg*.
*GMOs should not be confused with cross-breeding, hybrid seeds, or cross-hybridization which is achieved through sexual reproduction.
*No fresh fruit and veg grown in Australia are GMO, but some packaged and imported foods may have GMO ingredients. See this link for more information: http://www.sbs.com.au/news/article/2012/11/15/factbox-gm-foods-australia.