You might be familiar with the term GMO. Short for Genetically Modified Organism, the term has been the center of many controversies in the food and health industry. While many scientists and researchers have deemed GMOs safe, there have also been some studies that suggested otherwise.
So, what’s the truth?
In honesty, the truth is not as simple one would imagine it to be. If it were, the research and debate on the subject wouldn’t be as extensive or divisive. Understanding the truth requires understanding some scientific knowledge that usually leaves those who aren’t related to the food or health industry and are only trying to live a healthy lifestyle confused. Hence why we have simplified the truth behind the debate on GMO vs. non-GMO. Let’s start from the start for better understanding:
What is a GMO?
GMO, i.e., Genetically Modified Organism, refers to any organism whose genetic makeup has been changed in some way, likely but not necessarily, in a laboratory. A GMO could be an animal, a plant, a microbe, or any other organism.
There are numerous reason for turning a naturally occurring organism into a GMO. Some plants are modified to withstand harsh temperatures or produce a higher yield, while some animals are modified to become man’s best friend.
Yes, you read that right. Several dog species are a result of selective breeding and genetic modification. The dogs that we lovingly bring into our homes and cuddle with are not much different from the wild wolves roaming in the jungles.
But wait, what does this tell us?
It tells us that genetic modification does not necessarily mean that the organism is harmful and that farmers are practicing it a lot earlier than scientists. In fact, scientists have only been modifying plants and animals in their lab for only about 50 years, while farmers have been practicing modification methods on plants and animals for at least a few thousand.
How Has Genetically Modified Food Negatively Affected People’s Health?
Now that we know that GMO doesn’t necessarily mean bad, we need to look at why the GMO vs. non-GMO debate concerning food is extensively discussed.
An article by Harvard stated the reason for the debate stems from the public’s concern over their health. It is no doubt that health issues related to food have increased drastically in recent history. Since the advent of processed and packaged foods, the average health of Americans has deteriorated despite the increase in lifespan. However, the adverse health effects have less to do with how food is grown and more with its consumption.
Americans have become notorious for their eating habits worldwide. The serving sizes in the US are huge compared to the rest of the world. The serving size for single servings, which are heavier in carbs and fats, in the US is only somewhat smaller than the serving size for families in most of Europe and Asia. This means that Americans consume a significant percentage of energy-rich ingredients such as sugar, starch, and fats in everyday meals than whole nutrients found invegetables, beans, lentils, and fruits.
Moreover, the American lifestyle is relatively more luxurious than that of other countries. Most of the everyday chores that people around the world perform manually have been assigned to automatic machines in the US. The infrastructure of most US cities also promotes driving instead of walking.
With a lifestyle that makes one consume more energy and spend less, one is bound to experience health issues irrespective of how the food they’re consuming is grown. It should also be noted that these changes in everyday lifestyle in the US took place after the Second World War, meaning roughly around the same time as when scientists became interested in genetically modifying plants and animals in the lab.
The Harvard study also found that over a hundred different independent researches carried out worldwide both individually and collectively concluded Genetically Modified food to be safe to consume. So far, there have been no diseases among humans that can be directly linked to the consumption of Genetically Modified foods.
Differences between GMO and Non-GMO Food
The primary difference between GMO vs. non-GMO food lies in is how it’s grown. GMO crops differ from non-GMO crops in their ability to grow faster, yield more product, resistance to insects and diseases, and the nutrition they contain. Genetic modification in animals has also been used to mature them quicker and deliver a greater quantity of products and by-products.
Today, almost all of the food items found in grocery stores across the US are either genetically modified or contain genetically modified ingredients. The practice of GMO doesn’t mean that orange will reveal coconut water when peeled; it simply means that the orange is less likely to be attacked by pests, will stay fresh longer, and will contain more pulp and fewer seeds. Similarly, a domesticated GMO animal such as a calf will grow quickly into a cow and develop more muscle mass to provide more meat.
Besides that, Genetically Modified (GM) food can also be more nutritious. While the nutritional value of most GM food is the same as non-GMO food, the prior might have more vitamins and nutrients to increase its benefits.
It should also be noted that the Food and Drug Authority (FDA) doesn’t allow genetically modified food experiments in grocery stores. Any food item that is genetically modified or contains GMO-derived ingredients has to check all the safety boxes defined by the FDA. Another fact ignored during the GMO vs. non-GMO debate is that only 10 GMO crops are being farmed in the US.
If farmers and scientists hadn’t modified crops to contain all the above properties, the world would still suffer from a food shortage. The abundance in which food can be bought today, at cheaper rates, would not have been possible without traditional and scientific genetic modification of food.
Differences between GMO and Non-GMO Farming Practices
When it comes to genetically modified foods, there seems to be misplaced blame. While there isn’t a stark difference between the nutritional benefits of GMO and non-GMO foods, there aren’t many differences between GMO and non-GMO farming practices either.
Both genetically modified and conventional farms are focused on producing more food in a short amount of time. However, some of the practices used to produce greater quantities of food also create many consequences at GM farms. While the practices and methods of genetically modifying food don’t have any harmful effects on the food itself, they are questionable for their impact on the environment. Instead of Genetically Modified food, GM farming practices should be the center of the GMO vs. non-GMO controversy.
However, Genetically Modified farms didn’t always have the effects and impact on the environment they’re having now. GM farming practices were initially introduced to conserve natural habitats while simultaneously yielding a greater quantity of food to satisfy growing demand. It was why these practices were readily picked up by conventional farmers too.
For example, the salmon and shrimps you see in the seafood section of grocery stores come from fish farms and not the oceans or rivers. Just like most produce in the vegetable section, these animals are farmed to be consumed as food. They grow to their full size and are ready to be consumed much earlier than their fellow specimen swimming across the oceans. If salmon and shrimps were harvested by following conventional methods, they would have been gone extinct by this time.
Genetically Modifed farming practices help with the conservation of wild animals by leaving them alone. However, these practices have been contributing to global warming at a much greater scale in the recent past. These effects were not clear when these practices were put in place. This shows that the impact of mass food production are slow but adds up after a couple of years pass by.
The practice of farming GMO crops requires less water than farming non-GMO crops. Also, they also required lesser time to grow. It was seen as a breakthrough when genetically modified crops were first farmed and harvested. However, continuously growing GM crops using less water left the soil dried and empty of nutrients.
Genetically Modified foods are usually more resistant to pests and insects. Interestingly, they are also more resistant to pesticides and insecticides. It leads to farmers spraying GMO crops with a greater quantity of pesticides and insecticides to keep them safe from pests and insects they couldn’t genetically resist. On the other hand, pests and insects affecting those crops also evolved to be more robust to attack, further leading farmers to spray an even greater quantity of pesticides and insecticides.
The increased quantity of chemicals to keep pests and insects away, along with decreased water, caused erosion in the soil. As the farmers mixed the dried and eroded soil with specialized synthetic fertilizers, it solved the soil problem but released an increased amount of greenhouse gases. With one issue arising from the solution to another, the practice of GMO farming became a vicious cycle that is continually affecting farmers and agriculture scientists in the industry right now.
Although conventional farms also use synthetic fertilizers to make the soil richer and chemicals to keep the crops safe, they don’t yield as quickly as GM farms. The harvest produced is also more prone to get spoilt earlier than crops from GMO farms. However, conventional farms emit a lesser quantity of greenhouse gases and are environmentally friendlier than Genetically Modified crops.
Truth be told, there isn’t much of a difference between GMO and non-GMO crops. If one wishes to stand against GMO farming, one should also favor organic farming.
Organic farming doesn’t just have a reduced impact on global warming but reverses its effects. It is the only farming method that is environmentally sustainable, but it comes with a hefty price tag.
Should You Avoid Genetically Modified (GM) Foods for a Healthier Life?
One doesn’t have to avoid all Genetically Modified foods to live a healthier life. Consuming healthy, more nutritious foods in moderate quantities and physically moving the body are easier ways than changing everything in one’s pantry and refrigerator.
The studies that show the adverse health effects of Genetically Modified food all compare it with health effects experienced from organically grown food. Organic food is better for one’s health and the environment. People stick to an organic lifestyle for they see the value in the many health benefits it brings them. Despite the high cost it comes with, the number of people choosing organic products in the US has been constantly on the rise.
However, there are various ways to define a healthy life. While the benefits of using organic products are unmatched, it all comes down to one’s definition of the term ‘healthy’ and their financial and environmental priorities as an individual. In today’s uncertain economic times, not everyone is fortunate enough to switch to an organic lifestyle.
The responsibility of promoting organic farming and making it accessible for most of the population rests with the authorities. By subsidizing organic agriculture, the authorities can push a healthier lifestyle for its citizens. But widespread organic farming will also come with the consequences of reduced availability of food and a change in economic practices.
The popularity of GMO farming that became a necessity has a lot to do with how humans tend to incline towards increasing their gains and reducing their efforts. If everyone starts living for long-term effects on their and the planet’s health, GMO farming can be ended.
The ultimate truth, however, is that the debate shouldn’t be about GMO vs. non-GMO. Instead, it should be organic vs. genetically modified foods.