GMOs: The Science of Food
Nov 02, 2018
As trends in health and diet come and go, one acronym has remained prevalent in conversations surrounding “clean” eating - GMO. According to the Harvard University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, a genetically modified organism (GMO) is an organism that’s been altered through gene editing. Dr. William M. Muir, a biotechnologist at Purdue University, compares the concept of gene editing to writers restructuring a sentence, “We can insert things, remove things, or add things and make it work better.” Muir clarifies the actual process of gene editing is much more complicated than proofreading an essay, but the principle is largely the same.
In the process of creating GMOs, a scientist isolates a trait of genetic interest from one organism (such as a plant, bacteria or animal) and inserts the desired trait into the genome (genetic material) of another. It’s by this process that medications such as insulin for diabetes are created. According to Purdue University, before the utilization of GMO technology, many compounds for medications had to be extracted from blood donors, animal parts or cadavers. What do GMOs have to do with food?
In agriculture, GMOs are used to control pests (harmful insects and fungi) and weeds, and some GMOs are under examination for enhanced nutrition. Scientists can genetically modify plants to repel the insects that feed off them, which lowers the need for toxic pesticides. Plants are also developed to be resistant to herbicides used to kill the weeds surrounding them.
From a farmer’s perspective, the reduced soil tillage and use of pesticides in GMO crops save them money and resources. Jay Schultz, a Canadian farmer speaking with U.S. News, states that, ‘Farmers work very closely with the environment, and I want to leave the land in better condition than when I found it. I want to create more with using less, with less impact on the environment. GMOs are an invaluable technology to help achieve this end goal.” However, there are concerns surrounding the corporate control attached to the GMO market and how it may hurt farmers. Four companies - Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta and Dow - own 80 percent of the corn and 70 percent of the soybean markets, according to FarmAid.org.
As far as health and safety of consuming GMOs, more than 90 percent of scientists are confident in their safety, according to The New York Times. The safety of GMOs is also endorsed by the World Health Organization. Furthermore, as specified by Purdue University, GMOs are regulated in the United States by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (USDA- APHIS), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Department of Health and Human Services' Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
While GMOs seem fairly new, Gabriel Rangel of Harvard University points out that humans have been genetically modifying organisms through the process of selective breeding for the last 30,000 years. “Artificial selection” - a term courtesy of Charles Darwin - was the precursor to GMO technology. Even though some of the information surrounding GMOs can read like science fiction, it appears to be a thoroughly studied and understood technology.