What’s the Deal With GMOs?

— Written By Michelle Shooter and last updated by

“Don’t believe everything you read on the Internet,” Abraham Lincoln. I saw this quote on facebook last week and it made me laugh out loud. While facebook and other social media sites do an excellent job of spreading information, we have to remember that sometimes the information is far from the truth. I have seen a lot of negative publicity lately on GMOs and know that it is an issue in many people’s minds. GMOs stand for genetically modified organisms, and to many people the name conjures up questions and fears. To many researchers and scientists GMOs represent many years of studies and analyses that point to improved crop performance and the increased availability of food. While there are arguments on both sides of the GMO debate, what is often removed from these arguments is researched based information. As with anything, the Extension office recommends you using reputable sites and resources when doing your research. The Extension office is glad to assist with researched based information for any questions or concerns you may have.

GMOs bring up four basic questions. Why modify plants? Are they safe? What about resistance? And why aren’t they labeled? Some of the material in this article has been borrowed from, “The ABC’s of GMOs”, an article written by Leia Kedem, Extension Educator, Nutrition and Wellness, in Illinois.

Why modify plants: GMOs are usually crop plants that have had genetic sequences altered in the laboratory to increase production traits or health of the plant. A commonly used GMO is Bt corn. Bt corn has had a gene added so that it makes Bt protein; this substance is toxic to European and Southwestern corn borers. By making this protein the pests avoid consuming the corn and less pesticides are used on the corn to keep the corn borers at bay. Bt is just one example of a GMO crop. Genetic modification is extremely specific and the question of unintended toxicity to other organisms, including humans, is always part of development methods. In fact, the development and approval process is lengthy and quite rigorous. GMOs typically take 7-10 years to get FDA approval, and besides unintended effects, several other issues must be addressed for a GMO to come on the market. For example, if you were to incorporate a gene from a nut into a soybean crop, could this cause a reaction in people with nut allergies? This is a valid question that is rigorously tested during development.

Nutritional composition is also another reason to modify plants. One aspect of FDA approval states that the nutritional makeup of the product should not be significantly different from its conventionally grown counterpart—unless this is an intended positive change. Golden rice, for example, has higher levels of vitamin A than regular rice and was produced to improve the health of third world populations with severe or fatal vitamin A deficiencies.

Are they safe:  With the Bt corn, a common question is, if the protein is toxic to the bugs, why isn’t it harmful to humans and other organisms? Research has shown that the Bt protein gene is generally not harmful to other insects. The Bt protein is also nontoxic to humans; it has been used since the 1960s as a commercial insecticide and has a strong safety record. Whether it is produced by the plant itself or it is applied in farming does not make a difference.

Resistance Issues: Resistance issues may be a problem with GMOs. Resistance occurs when a pest, weed or insect develops immunity to a chemical. This can occur with GMOs or the incorrect use of herbicides or pesticides. Research by Iowa State University entomologist Aaron Gassmann suggests that this may already be occurring with Bt corn, perhaps due to problematic farming strategies. This is clearly of major concern to farmers, businesses, and government alike; according to Bruce Tabashnick, an entomologist with the University of Arizona, this could be “the most economically damaging example of insect resistance to a genetically modified crop in the U.S.” Crop science experts say that there are many techniques to help prevent resistance, including crop rotation and alternating varieties; following proper practice is critical.

Why aren’t they labeled: GMOs are found in many foods, mostly in very small quantities. The FDA does not require GMOs to be labeled unless it contains a common food allergen, such as soy or wheat. According to the FDA, “labeling is generally not necessary because the genetic modification does not materially change the food.” Some farmers, scientists, and companies don’t agree with the labeling because they are afraid the consumer will be less inclined to purchase the products without understanding the benefits of GMOs in foods. Other farmers, scientists, and companies fear that the consumer will think GMOs are unsafe because labeling is not required.

The intent of this article is not to promote or discourage GMOs but to share the often-neglected purpose of them and some research information behind them. There is an extensive development and approval process for GMOs. Some positive aspects of GMOs include better food products, higher yields, and improved food security. One possible negatives aspect includes promoting resistance in pest species when used incorrectly. As with anything, please do your research and ask people informed questions before jumping on any bandwagon.

For more information about this subject, please contact me, Michelle Shooter, Extension Area Livestock Agent with North Carolina Cooperative Extension, Hoke County Center, at 875-3461 or E-mail at Michelle_Shooter@ncsu.edu.