Pros & Cons of Genetically Modified Food

Instructor: Amanda Robb
This lesson is on the pros and cons of genetically modified foods. We'll learn what genetically modified food is as well as some of the benefits and concerns regarding it.

What is Genetically Modified Food?

When you think of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, your mind might turn to a dark and twisted fantasy of Frankenstein-like monsters or pods of cloned humans. Although these are popular notions of GMOs on television, GMOs in the real world look a lot more normal than you might think. As it turns out, many of the foods we eat are actually genetically modified.

A GMO is an organism that has had its genetic material, or DNA, altered by humans. Scientists are able to cut and paste DNA between organisms, bringing many of the most desirable traits to one species. Before you start to daydream about humans being born with wings, be advised that genetic modification is still in the early stages. The DNA from different species needs to be compatible with, or be able to work together in, the new species. Plants have the easiest time expressing new traits through genetic modification, so most of the GMOs in our food sources are from plants. Some animals have been developed, but this is more complicated and controversial since animals are conscious beings.

GMOs have been in the news a lot lately, and there are people with some pretty strong feelings against them. However, most of their concerns are not backed by scientific studies. There are a few drawbacks to using GMOs, but there are also a lot of benefits. Let's look at the scientifically founded evidence for each next.

Pros

One of the first GMOs was used to solve the problem of corneal blindness in poor countries of the world. Corneal blindness is a condition that is rare in the United States, but quite common--even in young people--in poorer areas of the world, such as Africa and India. This condition is caused by vitamin A deficiency, a consequence of a diet rich in rice with little other fruits and vegetables. This preventable disease was costing young people their sight at an early age until the development of golden rice. Golden rice is a genetically modified rice that expresses beta-carotene, which the body uses to make vitamin A. The rice is golden in color, just like carrots and other natural sources of beta-carotene. This GMO paved the way for engineering foods to express needed vitamins and nutrients.

Golden rice is in the background compared to normal white rice in the foreground.
Golden rice

Beta-carotene isn't the only benefit to GMOs. Other plants have been engineered to resist viruses, drought, and nutrient deficiencies to keep crops growing and prevent food shortages. For example, some strains of corn have been engineered to express a protein that prevents the European corn borer from infecting them. This prevents large economic losses to farmers and keeps the food supply steady in those communities.

GMO corn is resistant to pests such as the European corn borer.
European corn borer

Scientists are also working to incorporate medicine and vaccines into our food as well. Heptatitis B is a viral infection of the liver that is transmitted through blood. Scientists are using GMO tobacco plants that make a small part of the virus, called an antigen. These antigens can then be injected into mice, and the mice become immune to hepatitis B--just like we would be with the regular vaccine. Potentially, this type of GMO could become incorporated into foods we eat, not just the tobacco plant.

Tobacco Plants
tobacco plants

Cons

Many people fear that GMOs will cause cancer or disease in our bodies. However, this is not true! Whenever we eat food, it goes through our digestive system, where a host of strong acids, tough enough to digest iron nails, and enzymes, small proteins that break things down, attack the food. The food is broken down into its component parts, like protein, carbohydrates and fat. So, even if the food you eat is genetically modified, your body would never know the difference! All it sees is the important nutrients it needs to survive.

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