GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, are the topic of plenty of debate. But what are the facts? Are GMO foods really safe to eat?
The team at AustralianFarmers has called in the experts to bust the three biggest myths and misconceptions surrounding genetic modification in Australian agriculture.
Firstly, what is a GMO?
A genetically modified organism is a living thing, a plant or an animal, that’s had its genetic make-up modified, usually in a controlled laboratory environment using genetic engineering and biotechnology.
Mankind has been selectively breeding plants and animals for centuries, as we identify and select favourable traits. For instance, did you know carrots were once only white or purple?
The orange carrots we know today stem from a Dutch horticulturalist who selected this mutation to honour the Dutch Royal Household of Orange-Nassau!
As science advanced, we were able to harness physical and chemical techniques to increase the frequency of mutations. This technique was used to find the colour we know see in red grapefruit.
Today, we have more sophisticated tools available which allow us to map DNA, identify markers for various traits, and insert, edit or delete genes to produce various outcomes.
The only GM crops grown in Australia are canola, cotton, safflower and carnation flowers. GM products can be imported into Australia from other countries and be used in packaged products.
Why do we need genetic modification?
Global population growth is going to pose some serious challenges in the years ahead. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation predicts we’ll need a 70 percent increase in food production to feed the Earth’s 9 billion inhabitants in 2050.
This is a difficult challenge, particularly when we factor in challenges like water and land availability and climate change.
Technologist and philanthropist Bill Gates has been one of many advocates who say we have a moral responsibility to pursue all available scientific avenues to address this challenge.
The Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that developing countries will have to boost their yields by half to meet the challenge of global hunger. We simply won’t be able to meet that goal without using all the scientific tools at our disposal.
In addition to addressing hunger, genetic modification also promises to deliver improvements to our health and quality of life.
Scientists are now using CRISPR technology to silence the gene which causes severe allergies to peanuts, and genetic modification is also used in the production of medicines like insulin and Gardacil.
And in developing countries, GM crops are tackling malnutrition by increasing the dietary intake of micronutrients.
As an example, Vitamin A deficiency causes up to 500,000 children to go blind, and kills around 668,000 children under five each year. A new tool in this fight is called Golden Rice – a genetically modified variety which can provide people in rice-dependent communities with their full complement of provitamin A.
These are just some of the practical uses being found each day for GMOs.
Myth 1: Genetically modified foods are bad for your health
There is no credible scientific evidence available to support this myth.
To date, there have been zero substantiated claims of negative health impacts as a result of genetically modification of food crops.
The reason we can be confident about this is because unlike naturally occurring mutations, new GMO varieties are subject to intense scientific and regulatory scrutiny before entering our food chain.
GM foods are one of the most heavily controlled and rigorously tested products on the market. It takes on average 13 years and $130 million of research and development before GM products can reach the market.
No other foodstuff has been so thoroughly investigated as GM. No scientist will ever say something is 100 per cent safe but I am 99.99 per cent certain from the scientific evidence that there are no health issues with food produced from GM crops. Just about every scientist I know supports this view.
Professor Anne Glover, former Chief Scientific Adviser to the EU Commission President
There are also claims that GM foods can be less nutritious or contain chemicals. Again, this is incorrect.
How GM works is that scientists precisely select known genes for transfer. This doesn’t necessarily involve the introduction of new genes from another organism at all. It actually maximises the beneficial genes or reduces negative genetic traits to create better crop outcome.
Most crops are genetically modified to become resistant to pests and diseases, herbicide tolerant, be more water efficient or improve yields and nutritional value.
According to Crop Life Australia, we have one of the most stringent and sophisticated systems of gene technology regulation in the world.
The Office of the Gene Technology Regulator, within the Australian Government Department of Health, has specific responsibility to protect the health and safety of people and the environment.
Myth 2: GMOs are bad for the environment
The adoption of GM crops in Australia has delivered multiple environmental benefits.
GMOs decrease the use of pesticides and promote reduced or no-tillage practices, preserving the viability of the soil and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Genetically modified insect-resistant crops produce their own, extremely specific pesticide called Bt proteins which guard against specific groups of pests. Previously, beneficial insects such as pollinators would have also died when broad-spectrum pesticides had to be used.
Crops can also be modified to resist herbicides such as glyphosate, meaning farmers can use this safe herbicide rather than a more dangerous one or resort to tillage.
In fact, the adoption of GM crops has reduced the emissions of greenhouse gasses from agricultural practices by removing 28 billion kilos of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which is equal to removing 12.4 million cars from the road for one year.
This is because farmers use less fuel and there’s more soil carbon stored as a result of reduced-tillage or zero-tillage practices.
Another environmental misconception about GMOs is that it’s killing bees.
This could not be further from the truth. There is no actual evidence that links the decline in the bee population and GMO foods.
Yes, the global bee population has been in decline for some time now. This was in part due to a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids.
The pesticide has a similar structure to nicotine and are absorbed by plants through their vascular system and later consumed by insects, like bees.
Australia now carefully regulates the use of neonicotinoids.
Myth 3: Genetic modification is unnatural
Genetic modification of plants has been going on since humans evolved from hunters and gatherers towards agricultural farming.
Naturally we want crops that are bigger, tastier, easier to grow, better for the environment and our health. So as humans we have been making breeding selections based on societies ever changing needs and wants.
Before scientific intervention “outcrossing”, genetic modification in the wild or “traditional” breeding techniques, involved the transfer of many genes from one plant to another. This process can even occur when the wind blows pollen from one plant to another.
This involves a lot of trial and error to get an effective gene formation. The gene transfer can not be accurately predicted and potentially create harmful or inconvenient organisms.
Essentially genetic modification has always been a natural process but today it has been helped along by science and has been updated with more specific processes and precise results.