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Genetically Modified Foods: Benefits and Risks

Genetically modified foods are produced by recombining DNA of two different organisms with the aim of developing a new organism (GMO) with more desirable qualities. Synonyms for genetically modified foods include genetically engineered foods, bioengineered foods and biotech foods. The genetic engineering process involves removing a desired gene or genes from one organism (plant, bacteria or virus) and placing them into the DNA of another in order to introduce new traits to the second organism (plant). This helps to make genetically modified crops more resistant to certain herbicides, pests, diseases, extreme weather conditions or taste better, last longer on the shelf or to improve their nutritional content.

The United States is the world’s biggest producer of genetically modified foods. In 2015, 94% of soybeans (and cotton) and 92% of corn grown in the United States were genetically modified (i.e., herbicide tolerant). Genetically modified soybeans, corn and other crops are used to make the ingredients (e.g., flour, cornmeal, oils) for a variety of processed foods such as breads, cereals, dairy products, hot dogs, snacks and soda. Genetically modified plants may also be used as animal feed or for non-food purposes (e.g., starch potatoes or cotton).

Types of Genetically Modified Foods

Initially, genetic engineering focused on increasing crop yields and making plants easier and cheaper to produce. Desirable qualities for these purposes include:

  • Herbicide tolerance. The aim of making plants more resistant to herbicides is to allow farmers to safely kill weeds without harming the crop. Some of the crops that have been altered to be more herbicide tolerant include corn, cotton, soybeans, canola rapeseed, sugar beets, rice, wheat, lettuce and alfalfa.
  • Pest resistance. Some crop plants have been genetically engineered to produce a chemical that is toxic to certain pests such as fungi or insects but harmless to humans or animals. Examples of the plants that have been modified to be pest resistant include soybeans, corn, cotton, canola, wheat and apples.
  • Disease resistance. Genetic modification has also made plants with improved resistance to certain diseases. Some of the crops altered in this way include bananas, corn and papayas.
  • Increased production. Many crops have been genetically modified to produce higher yields under specific environmental conditions.

More recently, genetically altered crops with potential benefits to the consumer have been developed, having the following desired traits:

  • Improved taste or appearance. Genetic engineering is used to make new crops that taste better, look better, ripen slower and stay fresh longer. Examples include citrus fruits with less bitterness, apples that do not brown when sliced, potatoes that do not get bruises during transportation, tomatoes with more flavor that also stay fresh longer after ripening, and other fruits and vegetables with improved shelf-life.
  • Enhanced nutritional value and health. A number of different plants have been genetically improved (or are being developed) to include extra nutrients or fewer harmful substances. Some of the examples include rice with added beta-carotene, vitamin E, iron and lysine; potatoes that produce fewer cancer-causing chemicals when fried; allergen-free nuts; reduced-allergen soybean; beans that cause less flatulence; cooking oils (canola, soybean, corn) with reduced amounts of saturated fats and increased essential amino acids.
  • Improved adaptability to environmental conditions. Genetic engineering has allowed farmers to grow crops such as rice, corn, wheat and other cereals in harsh conditions (e.g., salty soil, drought, cold temperatures) that were previously unsuitable for these crops.
  • Pharmaceutical benefits. Several fruits and vegetables (e.g., banana, carrots, corn, lettuce, potatos) are being explored as potential sources of proteins that could function as edible vaccines for diseases such as hepatitis B, measles, cholera and diarrhea.
  • Other benefits. Genetic modification is also being used to develop crops with other benefits to consumers (e.g., potatoes with higher starch content) as well as benefits to the environment (e.g., plants which absorb certain toxic substances in the soil or water).

GMF: Harmful or Helpful?

Genetically modified foods are designed to provide a number of benefits to producers and consumers. These include reduced production costs, making foods cheaper; improved availability as fruits maintain freshness in seasons when they would not be normally available; fewer chemicals in plants because of their improved pest resistance and thus also less stress on the environment due to lower need for toxic pesticides; reduced allergens in certain foods like soy, peanuts or wheat that often cause food allergies; and pharmaceutical use of plants for the production of edible vaccines and medications.

However, several concerns have been raised regarding genetically modified foods, including:

  • Introducing new allergenic proteins in genetically modified foods
  • Contributing to the development of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria
  • Uncontrollable cross-breeding with traditional or wild plants that could allow weeds to develop resistance to pesticides
  • Spreading of genetically modified plants beyond controlled areas to become “super weeds”
  • Pests developing resistance to the toxins produced by genetically modified plants
  • Toxins produced by genetically modified plants affecting or killing non-target organisms
  • Potentially mingling genetically modified crops not approved for human consumption with their conventional counterparts and using them in food production

Where to Find More Information: Green Facts