There’s been a lot of back and forth about GMOs in the last few years. The safety concerns have been proven inaccurate, and beyond your individual body, they’re actually better for the world than you may realize.
So why the infamy still? Let’s start from the beginning.
Humans have been cross-breeding plants and animals for thousands of years. For example, grapefruit were created through traditional breeding between pomelos and oranges. And, corn has been cross-bred for a range of size, colors, and uses.
However, these changes can take years upon years, and it’s about as difficult to render specific results as it is to receive the correct flavor from your grocery delivery service. So when scientists developed genetic engineering in the 1970s, they were able to make similar modifications much faster and with much more precision. These foods created through genetic engineering are now commonly referred to as “genetically modified organisms” (GMOs).
GMOs may seem shrouded in mystery, especially since some people’s only interaction with agricultural experts is a weekly trip to a farmer’s market to buy fresh produce (…maybe just for the ‘gram).
I had the opportunity to talk with a farmer that uses GMO crops every year, Brady Holst. Holst farms corn, soybeans, and wheat in west central Illinois and used to be a design engineer for an agtech company. He broke down for us what exactly consumers should want to know about GMOs.
What actually is a GMO?
GMOs are organisms (typically plants) that have small parts of the genetic code modified for a desired trait. For context, microbes (aka microorganisms) are tiny living things that include bacteria, viruses, fungi, algae, and protozoa. A specific microbe has a natural ability to insert its own DNA randomly into a plant’s genetic code. So, to add desirable traits to plants, a microbe is used.
Researchers choose a DNA sequence responsible for a desired trait, then the microbe is used to insert that sequence. Since the microbe does this insertion randomly, many repetitions are required until the desired sequence is placed in the right spot to give the plant the desired trait.
On top of that, it still takes several years to bring a GMO plant to the marketplace. They all require approval from:
- FDA – US Food and Drug Administration
- USDA – United States Department of Agriculture
- EPA – Environmental Protection Agency
Other countries have their own federal agencies with different names, but they’re all working to protect consumers, the farmland, and the environment.
“Contrary to popular belief, genetically modified does not mean a food is ‘processed,’” says Holst. “Typically, it is used to add nutrient value or to grow a healthier plant.”
How do GMOs help farmers?
Pesticides may get a bad rap, but don’t worry, farmers minimize pesticide use, too! When GMO crops already provide protection from pests, then farmers can actually apply fewer pesticides, which controls pests without damaging their crops.
A GMO trait in crops, such as corn, can target pesky caterpillars’ very unique digestive systems without harming non-target insects. That trait is very selective and doesn’t harm other digestive systems like those of beetles, bees, mammals, fish, or birds.
And if you’re worried about the bees, there is no evidence that GMOs caused a decline in bees or other pollinators! Farmers need bees for pollination, so they are actively preserving large amounts of land for pollinator habitats to increase bee populations.
Agricultural technologies like GMOs can help farmers grow more food with fewer resources on less land. More efficient and sustainable.
How do GMOs help the environment?
GMOs help farmers protect and preserve water, air, and land. By being more efficient, they reduce fuel usage, reducing carbon emissions by 50.7 billion pounds. GMO crops also help soil by increasing water retention, organic matter, and beneficial insects.
Another concern GMOs can help reduce is food waste, which contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. For example, GM apples are non-browning, thereby eliminating superficial issues that may prompt people to unnecessarily throw away food. In 2010, each American threw away 17 apples on average, totalling in 1.7 billion pounds of food waste. It adds up!
In the last twenty years, GMOs have reduced pesticide use by 8 percent and have increased crop yields by 22 percent. Small local farmers can be great, but scaled efficiencies can make even more significant changes to the environment.
What does biodiversity mean for your groceries?
GMOs can benefit you and your groceries in many ways. For example, since GM apples reduce food waste, that also benefits consumers since produce will remain fresh longer. And crops like “golden rice” are genetically modified to help reduce vitamin deficiencies in areas of the world where many people are malnourished.
The United States is the world’s top producer of soybeans, and soybeans account for 50 percent of the world’s GMOs. Soybean oil is used to make vegetable oils, salad dressings, biodiesel, paints, cleaners, and thousands of other everyday products. Another product is soybean meal, and only 3 percent is used for foods like tofu and soymilk. The rest is typically used for feeding poultry and livestock.
If olive oils reign supreme in your pantry, keep in mind that soybean oils have a higher smoke point and are actually comparable in nutritional value — especially high oleic soybean oil. Most “vegetable oil” is usually just a variety of soybean oils, but as with anything else, read the label to know exactly what’s in it.
Advertising for non-GMO products is a misleading and often inaccurate marketing tactic to deem products “healthier”. Rest assured that from the food chain to your household, GMOs improve efficiency that can benefit your products, purchases, and environment.