Bananas that contain vaccines; rice enriched with vitamins that could sustain third world countries; peanuts, soy, and wheat that are free of allergens: this is the world of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Sound too good to be true? The truth is there is no conclusive answer about whether or not the positives of GMOs outweigh the negatives. There is a dearth of knowledge in the GMO field that must be addressed.
Widespread use of GMOs began in the 1990s and it would be difficult to visit a grocery store or restaurant without encountering them today. While GMOs do have the potential to eliminate harmful allergies and feed malnourished populations, their impact on the environment has not been well studied. Dr. Allison Snow, a plant ecologist of Ohio State University says, “We’ve let the cat out of the bag before we have real data, and there’s no calling it back.”
Scientists are not in accord about the impact of GMOs on the environment due to a lack of comprehensive data. Often times, the genetically engineered crops are developed and introduced into millions of acres of farmland without being tested for ecological impact. In fact, only one percent of USDA biotechnology research is devoted to risk assessment.
Crops can be genetically engineered to produce pesticides; this means that application of harmful pesticides that pollute the soil and groundwater and thus harm wildlife are used less often. However, just because these dangerous pesticides are not being externally applied to genetically engineered crops, does not mean that they do not still find a way to impact the environment. A 1999 study in Nature by Dr. Maureen Carter of Cornell University suggests that genetically engineered pollen, called Bt corn pollen, harmed monarch butterfly caterpillars. This finding is particularly concerning because monarch caterpillars do not feed directly on corn pollen; they feed on milkweed plants which grow in and around cornfields. The Cornell study found that corn pollen made its way onto milkweed plants and stunted monarch caterpillar growth or even killed them.
Dissenting opinions in the field, however, led to a follow up study. Rick Hellmich, an entomologist at the Agricultural Research Service and an author on the follow-up study said that, “The chances of a caterpillar finding Bt pollen doses as high as those in the Cornell study are negligible…Butterflies are safer in a Bt cornfield than they are in a conventional cornfield, when they’re subjected to chemical pesticides that kill not just caterpillars but most insects in the field.” Clearly, the data are inconclusive and scientists have not come to a consensus about potential dangers of genetically engineered crops on the environment.
Another point of concern is that genetically engineered crops could speed up the evolution of insects and lead to the proliferation of super-bugs that can’t be controlled by pesticides. In an attempt to prevent this, the U.S. has a regulation in place requiring farmers who grow genetically engineered crops to have a cluster of conventional crops near the engineered ones. This is an attempt to prevent two of the super-bugs from mating. These regulations should prevent or delay the rise of pesticide resistant insects.
A recent study in the Journal of Law, Medicine, and Ethics by Dr. Neal Doran of the University of California, San Diego found that survey respondents consistently believed that foods labeled “GMO” are less healthy, safe, and environmentally-friendly compared to all other labels.
The scientific community is not in agreement about the potential detrimental impact of GMOs on the environment, but all are still wary. Frankly, we just don’t know what could happen. More research needs to be done before we cause harm to the environment that could have been easily prevented.
Ackerman, By Jennifer. “Altered Food, GMOs, Genetically Modified Food.” National Geographic. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Sept. 2016. http://environment.nationalgeographic.com/environment/global-warming/food-how-altered/
Losey, J. E., Rayor, L. S. and Carter, M. E. “Transgenic pollen harms monarch larvae.” Nature 399 (1999): 214. Web. http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v399/n6733/abs/399214a0.html
Sax, J., Doran, N. “Food Labeling and Consumer Associations with Health, Safety, and Environment.” Journal of Law, Medicine, and Ethics (2016). Web. http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2787163
Sears, M. K., R. Hellmich L., D. Stanley-Horn E., K. Oberhauser S., J. Pleasants M., H. Mattila R., B. Siegfried D., and G. Dively P. “Impact of Bt Corn Pollen on Monarch Butterfly Populations: A Risk Assessment.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 98.21 (2001): 11937-1942. Web. <http://www.pnas.org/content/98/21/11937.full.>.