Author’s note: This article is adapted from a talk given at Objective Standard Institute’s Innovation Celebration 2023 conference.
Do you know what genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are? Could you explain it clearly to a twelve-year-old? If your answer to these questions is “no,” you’re not alone. In a survey of Americans, 48 percent said they know “very little” about GMOs, and 16 percent said they know “nothing at all.”1 Eighty-one percent of Polish students surveyed answered that they either “know very little about” GMOs or that it’s “unlikely” they know what GMOs are.2 In Latvia, half of survey respondents said that an ordinary tomato does not contain genes, but a genetically modified (GM) tomato does.3
Despite widespread ignorance of what GMOs are, the dominant attitude toward them in most countries is decidedly negative (in the best cases, it’s neutral). For example, a Pew Research poll in 2015 found that 57 percent of Americans (excluding scientists) regard GMOs as unsafe to eat.4 Yet by some estimates, as much as 75 percent of processed foods Americans eat contain at least one genetically modified ingredient.5 Given the prevalence of GMOs, it’s important for consumers to understand the arguments and evidence for and against them to better evaluate claims about their safety and policy proposals regarding their legalization and labeling.
What actually are GMOs? The term refers to crops whose genes have been “modified” or “edited” in one or more specific ways. Because genes essentially provide instructions for the organism to produce the proteins that make up its cells and organs, a change in the genes can cause a significant difference in the resulting organism. Of course, humans have been genetically modifying crops and animals for thousands of years via selective breeding. But in the past eighty years, scientists have discovered techniques that allow us to do so in ways that are more precise and quicker, as well as having more applications than traditional breeding techniques. The products of these technologies are typically referred to as genetically modified (GM) or gene-edited (GE).
Current gene-editing technology has its roots in the 1950s, when Marc Van Montagu and Jozef Schell discovered that agrobacterium, the cause of lumpy tumorlike protrusions on trees called crown galls, creates those lumps by “snipping” the tree’s DNA and inserting its own genetic material.6 The genes then “instruct” the tree to create additional proteins along with the proteins it normally produces. Montagu, Schell, and other scientists worked to replicate this process through a variety of techniques, eventually synthesizing the enzyme that agrobacterium uses and streamlining the whole process. The first GM food, the Flavr Savr tomato (which, as the name implies, was supposed to retain a better flavor for longer), was introduced to the U.S. market in 1994.7
The potential applications of gene-editing technology are virtually endless. . . .
Click To Tweet
You might also like
1. William K. Hallman, et al., “Americans and GM Food: Knowledge, Opinion, and Interest in 2004,” Food Policy Institute, Rutgers University, 2004, https://scholarship.libraries.rutgers.edu/esploro/outputs/report/Americans-and-GM-food-Knowledge-opinion/991031550039904646.
2. Anna Jurkiewicz, Jerzy Zagórski, Franciszek Bujak, Stanisław Lachowski, and Magdalena Florek‑Łuszczki, “Emotional Attitudes of Young People Completing Secondary Schools Towards Genetic Modification of Organisms (GMO) and Genetically Modified Foods (GMF),” Annals of Agricultural and Environmental Medicine 21, no. 1 (2014): 2015–211.
3. Inese Aleksejeva, “Latvian Consumers’ Knowledge about Genetically Modified Organisms,” Management of Organizations: Systematic Research, 71 (2014): 7–16.
4. “Public and Scientists’ Views on Science and Society,” Pew Research Center, January 29, 2015, https://www.pewresearch.org/science/2015/01/29/public-and-scientists-views-on-science-and-society.
5. “GMOs—What Eaters Need to Know,” Farm Aid Fact Sheet, accessed August 18, 2023, https://www.farmaid.org/issues/gmos/gmos-what-eaters-need-to-know/.
6. Ryan T. Weir and Johnathan J. Dalzell, “Agrobacterium: Soil Microbe, Plant Pathogen, and Natural Genetic Engineer,” Frontiers for Young Minds, May 21, 2020, https://kids.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/frym.2020.00064.
7. Matthew G. Kramer and Keith Redenbaugh, “Commercialization of a Tomato with an Antisense Polygalacturonase Gene: The FLAVR SAVR™ Tomato Story,” Euphytica, 79 (1994): 293–97.
8. Xiuchun (Cindy) Tian, “Pharmaceutical Use of GMOs,” University of Connecticut, accessed August 5, 2023, https://gmo.uconn.edu/topics/pharmaceutical-use-of-gmos/.
9. J. Gervais, M. Cocks, A. Cross, and J. Jenkins, “Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) Fact Sheet,” National Pesticide Information Center, Oregon State University Extension Services, accessed August 5, 2023, http://npic.orst.edu/factsheets/btgen.html.
10. Anthony M. Shelton, et al., “Impact of Bt Brinjal Cultivation in the Market Value Chain in Five Districts of Bangladesh,” Frontiers in Bioengineering and Biotechnology, 8 (2020).
11. “Biotechnology and Disease Resistant Crops,” GMO Answers, accessed August 5, 2023, https://gmoanswers.com/biotechnology-and-disease-resistant-crops.
12. “Aflatoxin-Resistant Corn Could Save Lives in Developing Countries,” Neogen, accessed August 5, 2023, https://www.neogen.com/en-gb/neocenter/blog/aflatoxin-resistant-corn-could-save-lives-in-developing-countries.
13. “Countries That Ban GMOs 2023,” World Population Review, accessed August 5, 2023, https://worldpopulationreview.com/country-rankings/countries-that-ban-gmos.
14. Ross Pomeroy, “Massive Review Reveals Consensus on GMO Safety,” Real Clear Science, October 1, 2013, https://www.realclearscience.com/blog/2013/10/massive-review-reveals-consensus-on-gmo-safety.html; National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, Genetically Engineered Crops: Experiences and Prospects, (Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2016), 172.
15. RoundUp is a common herbicide, often used with GM crops that are resistant to it, marketed as “RoundUp Ready” crops.
16. “What Are We to Make of the ‘Séralini Studies’ Claiming GMOs and Glyphosate Are Dangerous?” Genetic Literacy Project, accessed August 5, 2023, https://geneticliteracyproject.org/gmo-faq/what-are-we-to-make-of-the-seralini-studies-claiming-gmos-and-glyphosate-are-dangerous/; John Vidal, “Study Linking GM Maize to Cancer Must Be Taken Seriously by Regulators,” The Guardian, September 28, 2012, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2012/sep/28/study-gm-maize-cancer.
17. “GMO Crops and Food for Animals,” U.S. Food and Drug Administration, February 7, 2022, https://www.fda.gov/food/agricultural-biotechnology/gmo-crops-and-food-animals.
18. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, Genetically Engineered Crops, 197.
19. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, Genetically Engineered Crops, 198.
20. Shahzad Kouser and Matin Qaim, “Impact of Bt Cotton on Pesticide Poisoning in Smallholder Agriculture: A Panel Data Analysis,” Ecological Economics 70, no. 11 (September 2011): 2105–13.
21. Adrian Dubock, “Golden Rice: To Combat Vitamin A Deficiency for Public Health,” InTech Open, March 11, 2019, https://www.intechopen.com/chapters/66098.
22. J. H. Humphrey, K. P. West Jr., and A. Sommer, “Vitamin A Deficiency and Attributable Mortality among Under-5-Year-Olds,” World Health Organization Bulletin 70, no. 2 (1992): 225–32.
23. The weights described are of uncooked (dry) rice; see Adrian Dubock, “Golden Rice: To Combat Vitamin A Deficiency for Public Health,” InTech Open, March 11, 2019, https://www.intechopen.com/chapters/66098.
24. “About Banana21,” Banana21, accessed August 5, 2023, https://www.banana21.org/about.
25. Paul Keese, “Risks from GMOs Due to Horizontal Gene Transfer,” Environmental Biosafety Research, 7, no. 3 (July–September 2008): 123–49.
26. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, Genetically Engineered Crops, 135.
27. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, Genetically Engineered Crops, 146.
28. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, Genetically Engineered Crops, 146.
29. Kate Hall, “Why Soil Health Matters & How GMOs Play a Key Role,” Forbes, December 7, 2016, https://www.forbes.com/sites/gmoanswers/2016/12/07/soil-health-matters/.
30. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, Impact of Genetically Engineered Crops on Farm Sustainability in the United States (Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2010), 3, 5, 214.
31. Anti-GMO activist Vandana Shiva compares GMOs to rape and calls biotech companies that produce GMOs, such as Monsanto, “genocidal”; see Michael Specter, “Seeds of Doubt,” New Yorker, August 18, 2014, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/08/25/seeds-of-doubt.
32. Graham Brookes, “Farm Income and Production Impacts from the Use of Genetically Modified (GM) Crop Technology 1996–2020,” GM Crops & Food, 13 (2022): 171–95.
33. Brookes, “Farm Income and Production Impacts,” 171–95.
34. Mark Lynas, Seeds of Science: Why We Got It So Wrong on GMOs (London, UK: Bloomsbury Sigma, 2018), 208.
35. Angelica and Thomas Walker-Werth, “Johan Norberg on Openness, Innovation, and Flourishing,” The Objective Standard, August 19, 2022, https://theobjectivestandard.com/2022/08/johan-norberg-on-openness-innovation-and-flourishing/.
36. Brookes, “Farm Income and Production Impacts,” 171–95.
37. Brian Wallheimer, “Study: Eliminating GMOs Would Take Toll on Environment, Economies,” Purdue University: Agriculture News, February 29, 2016, https://www.purdue.edu/newsroom/releases/2016/Q1/study-eliminating-gmos-would-take-toll-on-environment,-economies.htm.
38. Brookes, “Farm Income and Production Impacts,” 171–95.
39. David Burrows, “The Impact of Plant Diseases,” Safefood, September 11, 2019, https://www.safefood.net/food-safety/news/impact-plant-diseases.
40. Liam Kennedy, Paul S. Ell, E. M. Crawford, and L. A. Clarkson, Mapping the Great Irish Famine: A Survey of the Famine Decades (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1999), 69.
41. “The Irish Potato Famine,” History.com, accessed August 5, 2023, https://www.history.com/topics/immigration/irish-potato-famine.
42. J. Muthie, “News: Why Hardy Cassava Should Be Crop of the Moment,” African Agricultural Technology Foundation, October 13, 2022, https://www.aatf-africa.org/news-why-hardy-cassava-should-be-crop-of-the-moment/.
43. H. Peter van Esse, T. Lynne Reuber, and Dieuwertje van der Does, “Genetic Modification to Improve Disease Resistance in Crops,” New Phytologist 225, no. 1 (January 2020): 70–86; Joseph Maina, “Scientists Develop Disease-Resistant GM Cassava in Kenya,” Science Africa, August 17, 2022, https://news.scienceafrica.co.ke/scientists-develop-disease-resistant-gm-cassava-in-kenya/; Ebuka Onyeji, “Why We Support Field Trials of Genetically Modified Cassava in Nigeria—Scientist,” Premium Times Nigeria, January 15, 2018, https://www.premiumtimesng.com/news/top-news/255546-support-field-trials-genetically-modified-cassava-nigeria-scientist.html?tztc=1.
44. The average global temperature has increased by about 1 degree Celsius since 1880; see “World of Change: Global Temperatures,” NASA, accessed August 8, 2023, https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/world-of-change/global-temperatures.
45. Homa Shalchi, “New Gene to Make Plants Heat-Tolerant in Rising Temperatures,” Baylor College of Medicine, August 10, 2021, https://blogs.bcm.edu/2021/08/10/from-the-labs-new-gene-to-make-plants-heat-tolerant-in-rising-temperatures/.
46. Yaxin Wang, Naeem Zafar, Qurban Ali, Hakim Manghwar, Guanying Wang, Lu Yu, Xiao Ding, Fang Ding, Ni Hong, Guoping Wang, and Shuangxia Jin, “CRISPR/Cas Genome Editing Technologies for Plant Improvement against Biotic and Abiotic Stresses: Advances, Limitations, and Future Perspectives,” Cells 11, no. 23 (December 5, 2022): 3928.
47. Wang et al., “CRISPR/Cas Genome Editing Technologies for Plant Improvement against Biotic and Abiotic Stresses,” 3928.