November 21, 2011
Genetically modified organisms raise a number of questions surrounding their place in technology, government, environment, society, and the economy. To clarify, a genetically modified organism is any organism in which the genes have been added to, subtracted from, or mixed around in a laboratory setting. It is different from natural gene mutation or breeding in that it does not happen randomly through reproductive recombination (BMJ, 1999). This genetic modification is not done without reason—there are a number of benefits that include: increased pest resistance, drought tolerance, greater food supply, and increased nutritional content. However, there are also a lot of risks. These risks include indirect harm to organisms, reduced pesticide effectiveness, gene transfer to non-target species, unknown impacts on human health, and economic concerns because farmers have to buy the seeds year-after-year (the GMOs often cannot reproduce) from the company or corporation that owns a particular gene sequence (WebMD). For these reasons, they are not worth the risk—the costs severely outweigh the benefits.
Genetically modified crops, though intended to reduce environmental damage, are not the most sustainable and safe way to increase food production. According to the Sierra Club, since the introduction of GMO’s in the 1990s research has shown that genes introduced into the environment through GMOs can make it easier for weeds to grow on the cropland. This problem is heightened further when bees or other biotic pollinators spread genetically modified pollen to native plants or weeds. The advantageous characteristics in the GMO, like resistance to herbicides, are then incorporated into the weed. It is the next to impossible to eradicate the weed. Humans have created weeds that we cannot easily get rid of (Sierra Club). By working to solve the problem of weeds on cropland, the problem has only been magnified in severity and scope.
Another issue with genetically modified crops is the reduction in biodiversity that comes along with them. Like most crops, genetically modified or not, they are grown monoculturally, meaning there is only one species of plant on a particular plot of land. Growing monoculturally increases impacts to the soil, for the plants all require the same nutrients and those nutrients are then quickly depleted. Soil is a nonrenewable resource, so farmers should be working to maintain the nutrient content and integrity of the soil. Growing on species also means that if a pest mutates to the point where it can get past genetic modifications to prevent this, the whole crop can be lost to the pest. If all food is switched to genetic modification, this could mean entire types of food could be lost to pests and no longer be available for human consumption (Sierra Club). The smartest alternative is growing polycultural, non-GMO crops. The food would then be less susceptible to a single pest, and none of the other problems associated with GMOs would be ensued.
The economic and political concerns surrounding GMOs are also very important to consider. According to Michael Graham Richard, “GMOs are usually patented bio-technology.” This patenting makes them very expensive and hard to obtain for small farmers. Big agriculture business is favored and some fear corporation will, if it hasn’t already, take over America’s food supply. That is a scary thought for many.
The scariest aspect of GMOs, and the one that is most often debated, is their possible threat to human health. The New York Times article “Study Raises Doubt About Allergy to Genetic Corn” reported Starlink corn, a GM version of corn, was incorporated into a number of foods during the early 2000s, and people reported a number of severe allergic reactions to the products. Similar reactions could be seen with other, new GMO products. Is it worth it to risk overall human health for questionable increased food production?
Genetic modification is a radical new technology that has yet to be investigated fully. It is not the best alternative to feed the growing population. Instead, farmers should look to use other, less-risky technologies and strategies to increase food production and reduce the amount of land that they are using. Great alternatives do exist and genetic modification is not one of them.
About the authors: Katherine Moreno and Madi Swayne are working towards their bachelor degrees in the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.