February 2015
Farm & Field

Are GMO Crops Safe?

Genetically modified organisms, commonly known as GMO, include both food and non-food crops. They are sometimes referred to as genetically modified crops. GM food crop concerns have increased the interest and growth of both organic and locally grown food, including farmers markets, and this has been a good thing – the more diversity in our food supply and your diet, the better. But in the zeal to promote local and organically grown foods, I’ve noticed many of the reasonable concerns are being crowded out by a lot of hysteria and misinformation.

For someone new to the debate, the first question asked is, "What exactly is a GMO crop?" The simplest answer is that GMO crops contain added or altered genetic information within the desired crop. The purpose of genetically altering the crop is to provide some resistance or tolerance to a pest or pesticide, or to give the plant some advantage or increased efficiency such as lower nutrient or water needs. This is the same sort of thing scientists and even hobbyists have been doing for a very long time by crossbreeding and hybridizing plants. The main difference is the origin of the genetic material that may come from totally unrelated organisms. Scientists are now able to introduce very specific genetic material that would be difficult if not impossible to introduce through traditional breeding methods.

The next question people have is, "Are GMO crops safe for me and my family to consume?" All scientific studies to date have shown GMO crops to be as safe as comparable traditionally bred crops. There is no shortage of misinformation on crop safety based on anecdotal information and opinion, but there is no actual research to back up these opinions.

Another question that often comes up is, "What crops are most often genetically modified?" A number of food crops have been genetically modified, but the vast majority of acreage is planted in corn, soybeans and canola. I recently had a client come to me asking for a source of non-GM wheat seed so he could grow his own since he was under the impression that all bread is made from GM wheat. He was very surprised when I informed him that, although research has been conducted for some time on GM wheat, there is currently no GM wheat being used commercially anywhere.

The majority of fresh fruits and vegetables are not currently GM crops, although there are a few. In general, for consumers concerned about direct consumption of GM crops, they can greatly decrease the odds of consuming them by avoiding highly processed food and oils from the big three crops mentioned and consuming more fresh fruits and vegetables. Even though there is no evidence of harmful effects from consuming GM crops, a diet containing less processed food and more fresh fruits and vegetables is recommended by dieticians and other health professionals. Locally grown fresh fruits and vegetables are even less likely to be GM crops (with the possible exception of some sweet corn) due to the very high cost of seed and the lack of availability of small quantities of GMO seeds. To be completely certain you are not consuming a GM crop, you should either buy a certified organic product or find out what variety the crop is and do some research on that particular crop and variety. Small farmers will generally share the names of the varieties they sell and it is very unlikely small farmers are growing GM vegetables.

Another common question relates to the potential environmental consequences that may come about from growing these crops. These are legitimate concerns the public and scientists both have. Farming in general is disruptive to the surrounding ecosystems under the best circumstance, but this environmental risk must be weighed against the need to produce food in adequate quantities to feed the world’s population. One important related question goes like this, "Is the environmental degradation greater or lesser with GM crops?" This answer could potentially vary from crop to crop, but the current research indicates an overall decrease in pesticide usage with GM crops and the potential for continued reduction of chemical pesticides and chemical fertilizers is tremendous.

I have heard many arguments against the use of GM crops that ask the question, "Why would we risk people’s health or the health of the environment if we are not 100 percent sure there is no danger?" The answer to this question can be very complicated and has profound moral implications. For instance, the world’s population is expected to increase from slightly more than 7 billion today to 9 billion or more by 2050. In order to feed this additional population, we will need to use every tool at our disposal. One way may be to cut down trees or plow up more prairies and then plant on this more environmentally vulnerable land. Almost no one wants to see this happen. Another option is to use traditional farming methods more efficiently such as applying irrigation water and nutrients based on actual crop needs and metered out using GIS, GPS and remote sensing technology. However, many scientists believe the most sustainable method is a combination of these increased efficiencies and genetic engineering of crops.

The surface has not been scratched on the potential of genetic engineering and has largely focused on making crops resistant to pests or pesticides. Naturally, companies involved need to make a return on their investment through seed cost or the sale of a product needed along with the seed such as Roundup Ready crops that allow farmers to spray their crops with glyphosate to kill weeds while not harming the crop. However, once the technology has progressed more, scientists will likely be able to make crops healthier and even safer to eat or make them tolerate higher temperatures, dryer weather or even need less fertilizer. It may come as a surprise to many, but it is not to the plants’ benefit to be eaten (except for seed dispersal) and they often produce naturally occurring chemical compounds that are not good for us. If scientists can reduce the harmful compounds and increase the beneficial ones, they could improve the healthful qualities. As mentioned earlier, traditional plant breeders have always done these things through the slow process of plant breeding and selection, but genetic engineering will make this task much more precise, less random and much faster.

We have never lived in a risk-free world and there is no such thing as being 100 percent certain something is perfectly safe to humans and the environment. We take risks all the time in the totally unnatural world of food production as well as all other aspects of our life. The systems we have now and have had in the past, including organic systems, are not totally natural and have and had risks associated with them as well. Societies must make choices based on the best research at any given time and make changes as the science becomes more definitive. We also have to balance risk with societal benefits. Having an affordable and plentiful food supply available to an ever-increasing population is worth the risk based on current research.

Tony A. Glover is a County Extension Cordinator in Cullman County.