Wednesday, April 15, 2009

GM: the food, not the bailout

Today I was asked to fill out an online survey for a friend for her class. I got to a question that asked what I thought about GM foods. I thought “oh General Mills, I love Honey Nut Cheerios!” Apparently, I am out of the loop and didn’t know that GM food stands for genetically modified food. I knew that there was genetically modified food, but I didn’t know about the acronym or the pros and cons. I decided to investigate. A genetically modified organism (GMO) is produced when genes are combined from different organisms through recombinant DNA technology. GMOs are not only food but also medicines, vaccines, feeds, and fibers [1].

Last year, the UK’s Soil Association published a report citing numerous studies that show that, unlike the proponents claims, GM crops actually have no higher yields than their conventional counterparts. And often their enhancements, like insect-resistance or weed control, actually lower crop yields. I realize that an organization that prides itself in being “the UK’s leading environmental charity promoting sustainable, organic farming and championing human health” may not be the most unbiased source on GM foods.

I sought out more information and found that the Human Genome Project Information online discusses GMOs. In 2006, the US grew 53% of the world’s genetically modified crops, about 133 million acres. Most of these crops were soybeans, corn, cotton, canola, and alfalfa that were modified to be herbicide- and insect-resistant. The country with the next highest GM crop growth was Argentina with 17% of the world total, so the US is winning by quite a large margin [2].

According to the information on the site, the pros of GM foods are that they have increased nutrients, yields, stress tolerance, and disease/pest/herbicide resistance. They claim GM foods increase food security for growing populations, which is definitely needed in places like India and China. The cons are that there are unknown human health and environmental impacts. People aren’t sure how health will be affected in the long run and how other organisms are impacted by the GMOs. The topic raises many ethical issues including whether GM foods should be labeled (which they are not in the US) [2].

It’s not clear to me yet whether GM foods are a good or bad thing, however, I’d like to know if the food I’m eating is GM, not because I won’t eat it, but because I want to be informed. Labeling would allow consumers to see what foods are GM foods and what their alternatives are.

[1] Human Genome Project Information

[2] Soil Association!OpenDocument


rmk said...

I'd recommend that you check out the documentary "The Future of Food" (

The film is definitely presenting the case against GMOs, but it is very well made, informative, and makes a compelling argument.

One profound statement in the film was made by a microbilogist at Berkley who says that he believes GMOs are the largest single experiment ever conducted on humankind. Wow--what a thought!

BTW you can watch the trailer at that website, and it has been available to watch instantly on netflix.

justme said...

In my opinion GM food have succeeded in increasing the food supply. These has lowered food price or at least has kept price constant for some food that otherwise would have increased due the demand increase ( mainly from India and China).

The issue here is that GM crops affect the natural equilibrium: some plant species are now stronger and are invading other crops. This can possible represent a thread to biodiversity in the long term.

GM food is very recent so we will have to wait some more years to start witnessing the possible adverse effects on the biodiversity.

Liane Miller said...

Thanks for the info on "The Future of Food." I'll check that out.

Zoe said...

I'm skeptical about GMOs in general - I'm not sure that I understand either the need for them or the benefits resulting from them. But another argument to consider is the ownership of the GMO seeds. Unlike traditional seeds that a farmer can harvest and reuse from harvest to harvest, farmers do not own GMO seeds and must rebuy them every year. For instance, Monsanto has sued farmers for patent infringement for saving seeds.