Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) have with time brought a sense of anxiety in the minds of consumers and environmentalists, among others; and this has resulted in a marked divide between the proponents and opponents when it comes to the use of genetically engineered foods.
Proponents believe that the increased yields resulting from genetic engineering can bolster food security and efficiently, affordably and responsibly feed the 7.6 billion people currently living on Earth. Opponents of genetic engineering, however argue that this technology has only been around since the 1990s, therefore, the true long-term health or environmental effects of these products cannot be known.
This article is the second of a four-series feature on genetic engineering, after Genetic Engineering – Definition, History, Benefits and Risks. It aims at outlining the two sides of the debate, the reasons why each side feels the way they do, and the points that justify each opinion.
Is genetic engineering a potential cure for world hunger?
Whether GMOs’ increased yields can feed a hungry world or whether they cannot is a big debate. Proponents of GM foods argue that since GMOs are easier to produce in large quantities, and may be modified to have a longer shelf life, they have the potential to reduce world hunger and poverty, improve nutrition, health and rural livelihoods, and facilitate social and environmental sustainability; especially if they are efficiently distributed to places where food is sparse. Anti-GM activists refute this argument by wondering why GMO manufacturers have not shown any interest whatsoever in using them to alleviate world hunger; they wonder why, in the two decades that GM crops have existed, the world has experienced several famines and disasters that could have benefited from genetically engineered food; they contend that GMOs divert money and resources that would otherwise be spent on more safe, reliable, and appropriate non-GMO agricultural technologies.
Are genetically engineered foods safe for human consumption?
Thousands of studies carried out worldwide report a lack of evidence that genetically-engineered animals and crops are substantially different from their non-GM counterparts. The World Health Organization (WHO) says that “Genetically Modified foods on the international market have passed assessments and are safe for human consumption”; WHO however qualifies this statement by emphasizing on the need for continued assessments for safety so that long-term effects of GM foods can be understood.
Other studies carried out by anti-GM scientists, who are equally qualified, give contradicting reports; they have linked GMOs to social, physical, cognitive dysfunction and other problems. Each of these studies has, however, been invalidated through research carried out by other scientists around the globe.
Should foods produced through genetic engineering be labeled?
The debate for and against the mandatory labeling of foods containing genetically engineered ingredients has been very heated, mainly arising from the contention by GMO opponents that not enough testing has been done to be sure that consuming foods with GM ingredients is safe for humans. Proponents of GMOs and Biotech companies have fervently opposed labeling, saying that it may carry the stigma that such foods may not be safe, a position they contend as false.
Consensus, however, continues to build around the world, on the need for mandatory labeling of foods made with genetically engineered ingredients as such, so as to support the right of ‘consumers’ to know. So far, close to seventy countries including Kenya and the entire European Union have implemented laws that require these foods to be clearly labeled as such. In the USA, many states had created their own labeling laws long before President Obama signed one on July 29, 2016 which comes into effect this year 2018.
Are there un-ethical issues behind the development of genetically-engineered plants and animals?
Skeptics say it is unethical to tell the world that a product can feed the world population but then never use it for that purpose. They believe that companies manufacturing GMOs are in it to make profit. And to prove this, they cite the fact that these companies control the seed markets thus creating price and dependency issues. They do this by first ensuring that, unlike natural or hybrid seeds, GM seeds will not reproduce on their own because some plants produce terminator, or sterile, seeds; and second, GM seeds have been designed in a way that allows them to be patented. The end result of this primarily property rights issue is that farmers have to purchase new seeds every season and cannot continue with their tradition of collecting seeds from the hardiest plants from one year to plant the following year.
Cynics also contend that the increased use of GMOs is continuously destroying the distinctness of farmers who want to plant non-GM crops, especially when the neighboring farms grow GM crops. Such farmers cannot guarantee the fidelity of their crops or production due to wanton GMO intrusion which destroys their market. They consider this as trespass since the GMOs can fundamentally alter a farmer’s landscape without the owner’s consent.
Opponents of GM crops fear that the motivation to make huge profits is driving some GMO manufacturing companies to devise ways to sell more herbicide and pesticides, which they also own; this way, they sell the GM seeds and then make the farmer dependent on the pesticide or herbicides. The fear of the critics is based on the increasing interest of the chemical industry on GM seed production and markets; and the increased use of pesticides arising from the development of pesticide-resistant crops, the development of resistance against disease and insect pests, and the increasing use of herbicides arising from the development of herbicide-tolerant GM crops.
But why the debate when we have been genetically modifying crops for thousands of years?
GMO supporters say that this is true because we’ve been cross-breeding for thousands of years. They say that that the techniques used to insert individual genes enable changes in the organisms that are much more predictable, and therefore less likely to be harmful, than the wholesale changes that come from cross-breeding; they argue that GMO animals and crops can be produced faster and more cheaply, reliably, and robustly.
GMO opponents say that what bothers them is the research methodology, gene insertion techniques and mutagenicity. They argue that genetic engineering produces monocrops which are compromising the variety and long-term viability of our food supply; with the result that small-scale farming is endangered while industrial agriculture is entrenched.
GMO supporters counter this by saying that selective-breeding and hybridization too cause genetic uniformity, among other causes unrelated to genetic engineering. They contend that, while ensuring diversity among crops should always be a priority, to do so successfully can take decades for some organisms and is highly limited by sexual incompatibility.
With an expected nine billion people on earth within the next few decades, GMOs that hold up under careful scrutiny and rigorous examination of their nutritional, economic, and environmental effects over the short and long term should be put to good use to solve the world’s hunger and poverty problems.
But most importantly, genetic engineering should not be seen as a panacea to solving world hunger but just one technique that may be used to resolve the constraints that exist in food production and access. All technologies, along with improved infrastructure for transportation, distribution and post-harvest waste reduction, should play a complimentary role to solve world food insecurity.
Other articles in this series:
- Genetic Engineering – Definition, History, Benefits and Risks
- Genetic Engineering – Recent Advances; the Promise of Tomorrow
- The great GMO debate: Where is the truth?, Prof. Calestous Juma
- The Birth of the Great GMO Debate, Scientific American
- The Great GMO Debate: What You Need To Know
- The GMO debate: 5 things to stop arguing
- The great GMO debate – Good of bad?
- How to Win a GMO Debate: 10 Facts Why GM Food Is Bad
- The Great GMO Debate