GMO stands for genetically modified organism. Breeders of plants and animals have long attempted to modify the genes of living things by selectively breeding the most successful organisms. This is a form of genetic modification. In most cases, however, GMO refers to changing the genes of an organism in a laboratory setting.
Manufacturers of GMO products, including foods, genetically modify organisms to improve the product or gain a commercial advantage. For example, GMO plants may be easier to grow in large quantities, or they may produce more fruit. GMO meat from genetically modified animals may taste better or different.
GMO products remain controversial, especially among some environmental and natural living groups. Opponents of genetic modification worry that genetic changes may affect human health in unanticipated ways. For instance, there is concern that the nutrients from these products may damage tissue or not metabolize as effectively. Furthermore, it is not possible to know the long-term effects of consuming GMO products.
Most research on GMO products shows no evidence of harm. However, the scientific community acknowledges that the existing research is neither unanimous nor conclusive. Many scientists continue to raise concerns regarding the use of GMO products, for which most studies have not assessed the long-term risks or benefits.
Keep reading to learn more about GMOs, including their effects on the environment and the potential health risks and benefits.
GMO means genetically modified organism. It includes a wide range of organisms, from insects and plants to large animals that farmers raise for food production.
Manufacturers might use GMO products for
- more crops within the same period or area
- crops that are insect- or disease-resistant
- better tasting or more nutrient-dense crops
- crops that mature faster, as this speeds the overall production process
Most research shows that producing GMO crops provides significant benefits to producers. For example, a
Opponents of GMO products have raised several potential concerns,
- Toxins in plants: Many plants contain trace amounts of toxins that are harmful in higher doses. GMO plants might have a different balance of toxins, increasing the risk of harm to humans. Specific health concerns include an increased risk of cancer and infertility, although research on the particular risks of GMO plant toxins is very limited.
- Environmental harm: Damage to the environment can affect human health by expediting climate change, leading to food shortage or harming native plant and animal populations. Genetically modifying an organism could change the way other organisms in the wild behave.
- Lack of long-term human studies: Most studies of GMO products have looked at nonhuman animals and explored short- or medium-term effects rather than long-term outcomes. There is little evidence to confirm that GMO organisms, as a group, are safe in the long term.
However, it is important to note that a number of concerns about the human health effects of GMOs stem from speculation about potential harms and anecdotal evidence, as opposed to in-depth scientific studies.
GMO products do offer some potential benefits. These include:
- More access to healthy food: GMO crops may produce higher yields, year-round food, or faster yields. As a result, they can reduce the cost of food and make it more accessible, especially during the winter months when crop yields are usually lower. Consequently, more people — especially those living in poverty or with lower access to quality food — may be able to eat healthier food year-round.
- A reduction in potentially harmful chemical usage: Breeding insect and weed-resistant organisms
may reducefarmers’ reliance on potentially harmful chemicals as pesticides.
- Healthier foods: Certain genetic modifications
may makefood healthier or more nutrient-dense. For example, some GMO soybean oils are healthier than traditional oils.
- Environmental benefits: Some genetic modifications
may reducethe damage that factory farming does to the environment. Crops that tolerate certain herbicides require little or no soil tilling, producing healthier soil and reducing the labor necessary to grow these crops.
Genetically modifying plants and animals may have unintended consequences for the environment — both positive and negative.
Some potential concerns include:
- a reduction in insect biodiversity when crops are resistant to insects
- unanticipated effects on other crops or animals
- creating more weeds or harder-to-kill invasive species
- transmission of GMO genes to wild plants and animals
The impact of each GMO varies. For this reason, it is important for companies introducing GMO products to test each one thoroughly and take steps to mitigate its environmental impact.
For example, early research found that Bacillus thuringiensis corn, which modification has made more insect-resistant, might negatively affect monarch butterfly larvae. However, subsequent research suggested that this effect is minimal.
Animal welfare and rights advocates argue that the effects of GMOs on animals are potentially negative and harmful. In addition to treating animals as means to a human end rather than creatures in their own right, genetic modification of animals may change their experience of the world.
Some forms of animal genetic modification may produce animals that carry genes associated with illness specifically to make it easier to research these illnesses. In other cases, companies might genetically modify an animal to make it a more suitable food source. The accompanying changes in the animal’s body might cause pain and discomfort to the animal.
There are also
People may wonder whether they should take steps to avoid some or all GMO products. However, this would be difficult to do, and a lack of conclusive research means that it is hard to know whether the risks outweigh the benefits overall.
How to avoid GMOs
Avoiding GMO products can be difficult. A 2016 law requires food manufacturers in the U.S. to label some, but not all, GMO products. Certain GMO sugars and oils are exempt. Manufacturers do not have to comply fully with the law until 2022.
Even once the law takes full effect, avoiding GMO products may mean excluding many different foods from the diet, since soybeans and corn are usually genetically engineered.
Consumers must decide how much risk they are willing to accept. They also need to consider whether the convenience and cost savings of GMOs outweigh any purported risks and whether they have the time and inclination to work proactively to avoid GMO products.
Rather than making sweeping claims about GMO products or trying to avoid all such products, it may be helpful to investigate the specific genetic modifications that manufacturers use. As there are many different ways to modify a product genetically, it is possible for one GMO product to be well-tested and completely safe despite another perhaps having less evidence to support its safety.
Another challenge is that there is no widespread scientific consensus about GMO foods. Although most research shows that GMO products are generally safe, few studies have looked at the long-term effects of these products. For example, a 2020 systematic review found no evidence that GMO products affect fertility, but the researchers also conclude that scientists must conduct more long-term studies.
Various regulatory bodies, such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the U.S. and the European Food Safety Authority in Europe, oversee food safety and argue that the GMO products currently available are safe.
However, a 2020 paper argues that European safety assessments are inadequate because they are based on excessively optimistic assumptions and draw on data that may not fully or accurately predict risk. Anti-GMO advocates often criticize safety organizations for failing to take into account all data.
Advice about GMO foods often comes from people and sources that carry a strong bias. Many publications emphasizing GMO safety come from companies that sell GMO products or from the scientists who work for them. Meanwhile, the research suggesting that GMOs are dangerous often comes from organizations that aggressively oppose GMOs. There is little objective, unbiased information about the positives and negatives of GMO foods at this point.
People trying to make a decision should know that while nothing is guaranteed to be risk-free, there is no compelling scientific research pointing toward any specific risk of using GMO products.
The politicized nature of the GMO debate makes it difficult to draw clear conclusions about what is and is not safe.
All GMO foods currently for sale have met certain minimum safety standards. For some consumers, these safety standards may not provide enough reassurance or may fail to acknowledge all possible issues associated with GMOs.
On the other hand, GMOs may offer some benefits, such as greater access to affordable and healthy food, higher crop yields, and improved profits for farmers.
At this stage, there is no conclusive answer for consumers concerned about GMO food products. Although there is no evidence that GMOs pose an immediate threat to human health, researchers have not yet investigated every conceivable issue with every single GMO product, especially regarding the potential long-term effects.