Cutting through the confusion on GMOs

By Jessica D. Linnell, PhD, Assistant Professor of Practice, Family & Community Health, OSU Extension Service, Tillamook County
There’s a lot of information out there about GMOs — some good, some bad, and some ugly. To be honest, some of it sounds really scary. One of the goals of OSU Extension is to provide research-based information you can rely on to help make sense of issues that affect our community. Being an agricultural community, one of those issues is GMOs. GMOs are a controversial topic and there is a lot to talk about. This article will focus on what they are and whether they are safe to eat.
What are GMOs?
GMO stands for “genetically modified organism”. Genetically modified organisms are plants, animals, or microbes that have been modified by methods like selective breeding (breeding only those who have the desired traits), hybridization (cross-breeding to other organisms with desired traits), and purposely causing mutations in order to achieve a desired result. Humans have engaged in genetic modifications of foods for thousands of years to alter foods to make them taste better, appear more attractive, and increase the nutritional quality.
Peaches are one example of a genetically modified organism. Through selective breeding practices over thousands of years, the natural peach was transformed into the peach we know today.

Another great example of a genetically modified food is watermelon. Humans have transformed watermelons from a tiny, bitter, hard-to-eat fruit to the essential juicy summer fruit that we love today.

Another term that is often used interchangeably with GMO is genetic engineering. Genetic engineering refers to the intentional change of an organism’s genetics through biotechnology. Introduced to U.S. agriculture in the 1990s, genetic engineering has been used to modify crops like cotton, corn, and soybeans so they are resistant to insects and herbicides.

 

Are GMOs safe to eat?
A comprehensive review of more than 1,000 scientific studies by the National Academy of Sciences found there is no evidence to support the idea that eating GMOs poses a risk to our health. The bottom line is that it is just as safe to eat GMO crops as it is to eat non-GMO crops:
• No increased risk for obesity
• No increased risk for type II diabetes
• No increased risk for food allergies
• No increased risk for autism
• No increased risk for changes to our DNA
Are there potential health benefits of GMOs?
Yes, there are a few potential benefits, including:
• Crops engineered to be insect resistant results in fewer people who are poisoned by insecticides
• We could engineer crops to have more nutritional value
One example of a food crop that scientists modified to have a higher nutritional value is golden rice. Scientists wanted to find ways to help reduce Vitamin A deficiency, which is common in developing countries. Severe vitamin A deficiency causes children to go blind and to a have weakened immune system that prevents their bodies from fighting infections. To solve this problem scientists genetically engineered rice, a common food staple, to have more vitamin A so people could reduce their risk of vitamin A deficiency.
What about other concerns are there about GMOs?
The topic of GMOs is very complex. There are some other issues to consider, including impacts on agricultural practices, risks to other organisms in the environment, economic impacts, and more. Please let us know what questions you have about GMOs that we can write about to help cut through the confusion on GMOs.
Sources
Wieczorek, Ania, PhD, Associate Professor, Department of Tropical Plant and Soil Sciences. Biotech In Focus.
National Academies of Sciences. Genetically Engineered Crops: Experiences and prospects. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
Scitable by Nature Education. Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs): Transgenic Crops and Recombinant DNA.
Infographics by James Kennedy.

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