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GMO, or genetically modified organism, derived food gets a bad rap. But is this fair?
Since the dawn of farming within human civilization, mankind has been playing with the genetics of plants and animals for millennia.
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Whilst genetic modification and engineering is more sophisticated that cross- and selective breeding, should we really be concerned about eating GMO foods?
Many have claimed that GMO is either toxic or carcinogenic and is therefore dangerous to eat. Yet others believe GMO will devastate the Earth's natural habitat.
But which, if any, of the claims around GMO actually true? Let's take a look at seven common myths and misconceptions about it.
1. GMO is killing bees
This is one of the biggest myths that surrounds the apparent controversy over GMO foods. Bee populations, especially Honey Bees, have been in dramatic decline for some time now.
Research has found that between 2008 and 2013, a 30% decline in the bee population was observed in the United States. The state of bees is worse in other places around the world too.
In Spain, for example, around 80% of beehives were lost in the same period. This is worrying for not only honey-lovers but also environmentalists the world over.
Could the cause be GMO? Apparently, this seems to be a case of guilt by association.
Bee population decline actually appears to have been caused by a pesticide called neonicotinoids. These are similar in structure to nicotine and are absorbed by plants through their vascular system and later consumed by insects, like bees.
Pesticides are clearly very different from GMO plants, and so there is currently no substantial evidence of any direct link between bee decline and GMO food.
2. GMO is not healthy
Another big fallacy about GMO food is that it is inherently harmful to human health. The claim is that, by its very nature, eating GMO food is bound to lead to some serious health issues later down the line.
In fact, GMO is one of the most heavily controlled and tested food products on the market. On average it takes around 13 years and $136 million in testing prior to each and every new GMO seed getting approval.
For this reason, there are currently very few approved GMO crops around the world.
Extensive studies, like those conducted by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, have also conclusively shown that consuming GMO food is perfectly safe.
There are other concerns that GMO food potentially contains poisonous or toxic substances. One example is a GMO crop called BT corn.
The crop does actually contain a pest-killing toxin that has been engineered to specifically kill particular plant-eating insects. A recent Scientific American article summarised the current research around Bt corn and found it to be "are some of the safest and most selective insecticides ever used. Claims that Bt crops poison people are simply not true."
3. Genetic engineering is something new
This is probably one of the most prevalent myths about GMO. To some, the very mention for genetic modification sparks images of mad-scientist tinkering and playing god with DNA to create super animals and plants.
In truth, humans have been playing around with the DNA of animals and plants for millennia. Many modern crops and livestock we eat on a daily basis should not actually exist in nature.
Corn cobs, for example, as we know them today, didn't actually exist on the planet around 10,000 years ago. Ancient farmers selective bred a wild grass called teosinte and cross-bred it to give us the modern crop we all love to make popcorn out of.
Current DNA research actually shows this process appears to have been relatively easy for our ancient ancestors. They would have needed to change but 5 regions of teosinte's genes to produce the modern crop maize.
In genetics, this sort of human intervention in evolution is called artificial selection. Artificial selection over the centuries has increased crop yields and created foods that are bigger, more resistant to pests and disease, and tastier.
4. GMO is less nutritious
Some claim that GMO foods inherently contain fewer nutrients than 'natural' foods.' Quite where this myth has come from is anyone's guess, but rest assured it could not be further from the truth.
Genetic engineering of crops tends to focus on making the plant more resistant to disease and pests whilst simultaneously boosting their crop yields. This process reduces or eliminates, the need to use pesticides and herbicides on them.
By its very nature, this process of genetic modification does not affect the plant's nutritional value. In fact, studies show that genetically modified foods are nutritionally identical to their conventional counterparts.
There are a few crops, for example, high-oleic soybeans, that have been designed to be nutritionally different and are labeled accordingly.
When you think about it rationally, this is pretty obvious really.
Other studies also seem to show the complete opposite. These studies have shown that the nutrient content of conventional food appears to be declining.
The decline in the quality of fruits and vegetables was first reported more than 15 years ago by English researcher Anne-Marie Mayer, who looked at the dwindling mineral concentrations of 20 UK-based crops from the 1930s to the 1980s.
5. GMO is bad for the environment
This myth tends to tie into several other myths we have already mentioned above. From killing bees en masse to visions of world domination through an unstoppable invasion, GMO gets a bad rap about its impact on the environment.
Some have also claimed that GMO plants are causing antibiotic resistance in pathogenic bacteria. This, if true, would obviously be quite a serious issue.
Whilst various studies in 2005 and 2008 have shown that very small amounts of DNA can transfer between plants and bacteria, its risks are effectively negligible on the whole. Despite this, the World Health Organisation has taken steps to urge members not to pick and develop GMO crops that have any antibiotic resistance.
Other concerns include something called outcrossing. This is where GM plant genes spread to conventional crops and other wild species.
Whilst some traces of this have been shown in the past, many nations have since adopted very strict regulations to reduce mixing. This tends to include GM and conventional crop field separation and calls to make GM plant pollen sterile.
There is also some evidence that GMO is actually relatively better for the environment. Their in-built resistance to pests reduces the need for farmers to use often highly-toxic pesticides.
They are also more resistant to environmental problems like drought, disease, and mold. This means their production requires less tiling and deforestation.
6. GMO can cause cancer
This myth is actually based on a famous 2012 French study that fed rats a GMO-only diet. They used a type of GMO corn that was created to be resistant to the herbicide Roundup.
They found that the rats seemed to show a large propensity for the development of tumors and other organ damage. 50% of male rats and 70% of female rats died prematurely.
This was in direct contrast to 30% of males and 20% of female rats in their control group. Since the only difference was the diet, this must be proof that GMO can cause cancer, right?
Luckily science is, if nothing else, a place for healthy and vital criticism from peers. Other scientific academies "smelled a rat".
Their rebuttals to the research found fault with the design of the experiment. Not to mention their statistical analysis of their results.
Following this, the European Food Safety Authority declared that the study was "of insufficient scientific quality to be considered as valid for risk assessment."
Critics also noted that the choice of rat species in question tend to show a higher chance of developing things like tumor very easily. Especially when overfed or eating corn contaminated by a common fungus that causes hormonal imbalance.
The 2012 study did not control for these factors and cast significant doubts on the validity of their results and conclusions.
7. GMOs are everywhere
Some claim that GMO foods are everywhere and are impossible to avoid. In fact, to date, there are only ten crops that have been approved for full production.
These currently include Alfalfa, Canola, Rainbow Papayas, Soybeans, Sugar beets, Corn (field and sweet), Cotton, Squash
Potatoes, and Apples.
In the U.S. there is also no current need to label food that is directly or indirectly made from GMO. Since 2013, the U.S. Government Department of Agriculture did officially approve a label to show that companies are non-GMO.
This process just requires independent verification of any claims made.
In Europe since the late 1990s, the EU has required labeling of GMO foods. This has resulted in many food retailers avoiding selling these products altogether.
This has meant that, as Scientific American has also found, it is nye on impossible to find GMO products in European supermarkets.