Do the Benefits of Genetically Modified Products Outweigh the Risks?

 

Foods either already genetically altered  or being developed (Agriculture Research Service, USDA, photo by Stephen Ausmus

Since Genetically Modified Products were introduced in Europe 21 years ago, both authorities and the popular press have debated the safety and benefits of these products. Much later the debate spread to the U.S. when labeling issues first arose in California and Washington State between 2012 and 2013. In the literature, Genetically Modified Products also may be referred to as Genetically Engineered Organisms or Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). For simplicity, the most common term, GMOs, is used in this post.

The debates, both scientific and popular, about GMO benefits and risks relate to the attempts to introduce through genetic engineering certain genes (or suppress certain genes) in a way that some improvement can be made. For example, by introducing a specific gene to soy beans, the hope was to make them more resistant to deleterious effects of herbicides. Although the same engineering experiments are taking place in hopes of improving drugs for health, most of the disagreements focus on genetically engineered crops. In earlier days, these tended to be commodity crops such as soybeans, maize, canola and sugar beets. Now, as Consumer Reports points out, GMOs “were present in many packaged foods, such as breakfast cereals ,  chips , baking mixes, and protein bars.” In the same article, Dr. Robert Gold, president of the board of Physicians for Social Responsibility is quoted as saying, “The contention that GMOs pose no risks to human health can’t be supported by studies that have measured a time frame that is too short to determine the effects of exposure over a lifetime.”

All of the crops subject to GMO manipulation as well as practically everything we eat were genetically modified either by humans by selective breeding in the interests of improving them are just through natural selection well before the knowledge of genes arrived. Directly manipulating genomes and DNA through biotechnology introduced the reality of changes that began to worry people and led to the still ongoing discussions of risk/benefit.

It is difficult to argue against the benefits of GMOs. GMO producers and agencies such as the Office of Science at the U.S. Department of Energy and the Food and Drug Administration point out that GMOs can create crops that taste better, have more bioavailable nutrients, decrease pesticide use and bring crops to maturity faster and allow production of more food on less acreage. With so much hunger in the world, just the increased production and supposed health benefits of GMOs would seem to make the process does give some weight to the arguments of the supporters of GMOs.

However, while insecticide use has declined, the use of herbicides like glyphosate, a weed killer (Roundup) dramatically increased. Then, genetic modification was used to create seeds that would enable crops to survive the herbicide. This was followed by “an epidemic of super-weeds, which have quickly evolved to become immune to glyphosate (Consumer Reports, above). The biotech firms came to the rescue again, creating new crops that would still be immune to glyphosate but also kill the super weeds with the herbicide 2,4-D (Enlist). In turn, as the growth of 2,4-D increases, expected to increase seven times over the next five years (from 2015), it seems very likely new forms of super-weeds will be created immune to both herbicides. In that same Consumer Reports article, Charles Benbrook, Ph. D., a research professor at Washington State University, says, “. . . this ‘solution’ to the super-weed problem makes about as much sense as pouring gasoline on a fire to put it out.” On the other hand, it does enrich the coffers of some herbicide manufacturers.

Still, with all these benefits, what are the risks? According to producers like Monsanto, involved in both genetic engineering of plants manufacturing the Roundup weed killer, as well as multiple scientific studies, the risks are minimal or non-existent. One scientist, Daniel A. Goldstein (who happens to have been employed by Monsanto) published a 2014 article in the Journal of Medical Toxicology titled “Tempest in a Teapot : How did the Public Conversation on Genetically Modified Crops Drift So Far from the Facts?” Those on the other side of the argument raise concerns like these:

The agri-food industry claims GE foods are rigorously tested and represent no risks to human health. However, since GE foods are tested for safety only by the agri-food companies themselves and effectively fall outside of FDA regulation, such claims are highly dubious. In fact, the FDA never examines the original studies conducted by companies, but rather only the company’s summary assessment of its own research (Phil Damery).

Two of the big worries with GMO foods are allergies and antibiotic markers. Allergies can arise from injecting genes from one food into another. While the food to be modified may not have caused allergies in susceptible persons, an allergy in the gene source could be transferred to the destination. There are some possible indications that antibiotic markers in GMO foods may be contributing to the decreasing effects of antibiotics.

Therefore, an answer to the title question means balancing the known benefits of GMOs against what we know of risks at this time. Given the number of times FDA-approved medicines have turned out to be harmful years after being approved, there exists the possibility of future unrecognized risks with GMOs. It seems that caution (as in the maxim First Do No Harm) might raise enough concerns to outweigh the benefits at this point.

 

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