Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) – What They Are and Their Environmental Impact

In North America, it is estimated that at least 70% of processed foods consumed contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs). They are everywhere and rarely spoken about in the consumer marketplace, but they are a driving force behind a large debate between two similar communities (academics, scientists and even consumers, alike). But what even are GMOs and what impact does it have on you and the environment? We aim to educate you on the two sided-debate that GMOs bring to the food table, so you can make an informed decision regarding the foods you eat.


What are GMOs?

Let’s start at the basics – what are GMOs? GMOs are crops that have been derived from seeds that have undergone genetic manipulation. Generally, these seeds are ‘designed’ in a laboratory to make farming practices easier for farmers, such as allowing them to produce more crops with less maintenance. This generally includes less watering required, pesticide resistance (so pesticides can just be sprayed all over the crop without harming it, but still killing the weeds or bugs around it), and even more hearty varieties of crops to get a higher and more consistent product every year.

The process of this comes with its own debates and issues, but generally speaking, we have been ‘manipulating’ crop seed for decades through natural selection. If tomatoes from one yield looked better than those from another, naturally farmers will get seeds for their crops from the better yield. This cycle has continued for years. With ever developing technology, science has intervened in this process to create what we now know as GMOs.


The Debate

Some evidence-based knowledge, grouped with general public outrage, have generated conflicting perspectives on the debate. The concern from one side is regarding the lack of information available and the non-existent long-term data on the potential effects of GMO crops. This side of the debate generally argues from the stance that GMOs could cause unpredictable risks to human health and the environment. However, on the other side of the debate, a similar community argues that there is an added benefit and advantage to using GMOs in the agricultural market, in regards to food security, sustainable agriculture and farmer profitability.

GMO’s and genetically modified (GM) technology were initially developed to promote sustainable agricultural food production globally. GMOs were marketed and released to the farming community as an alternative way to cultivating crops, in a world faced by other environmental problems such as climate change and drought. With drought resistant crops emerging in the global marketplace, less water and fewer natural resources are needed to yield crops, which could be looked upon as a sustainability victory. With the genetic manipulation of crops to withstand drought or climate change, food-producing nations can continue to cultivate their land to ensure not only food stability, but also economic stability. GMOs provided a way for farmers to guarantee yields, while providing some of the most hearty and luscious crops that had ever been delivered to market. Sounds like an environmental win on the surface, but these added benefits, there are also associated risks to the environment within the agricultural food system.


Environmentally, critics argue that GM crops that are resistant to herbicides and pesticides, will unintentionally develop ‘super-weeds’ that become resilient to these chemicals because of long-term exposure. There is also a concern regarding minor pests and weeds becoming a major problem, as the herbicides sprayed on these plants are usually manufactured to target one specific pest, giving way to the growth of other pests and weeds. Herbicide resistant crop varieties could reduce the biodiversity of weeds in neighbouring areas, potentially reducing ecosystem complexity. This could cause a shift in the weed population to pests that were originally unthreatening. Another argument from this side of the debate is the creation of superbugs. Superbugs are a concern addressed by Environment Canada, as insect resistant GM crops enter the global marketplace. These plants that have been genetically altered to develop a tolerance to particular insects continuously release toxins to ensure insects do not harm the crops at large. However, as a result, some research indicates that continual exposure of this toxin to insects can lead to toxin resistance. The industry tends to develop stronger pesticides and encourages increased application on crops, which in turn, is not good for humans or the environment and therefore, ineffective at achieving food sustainability. According to Environment Canada, environmental scientists have yet to know and understand what the potential long-term effects that GM crops will have on biodiversity and ecosystem function.


Debate Discussion

So, what do you do with all this information now? The debate is complex and multilevel. It is  hard to pick a side, when there is so much unknown to really disregard the significance of the production of GMOs, especially when farmers are thriving and crops have never looked so good. On the other hand, do I want to be the ‘guinea pig’ (so to speak), that finds out if there are long term health or environmental risks to GMOs? Not really. This is where it becomes a personal choice and neither side is right or wrong as there are perks and benefits to both.

If you do choose to avoid GMOs, there are lots of ways to do that, even though GMOs are in many things. Through a newer organization (last 10 years or so) called ‘the Non-GMO Project’ companies are able to verify their products as GMO free. In the last couple of years, some really large national brands have gotten on board such as Triscut, Wonder Bread, and Catelli Pasta. Given this national brand buy in, there does seem to be a market push for being recognized as non-GMO, which also does add a layer to this conversation. Additionally, any and all organic products or produce are also non-GMO, by default, as organic crops cannot be derived from GMO seed.

Ultimately, it is a personal choice and it is a really complex debate with far reaching significance, on either side. For me personally, not that this should influence your thought pattern or decision, I choose to avoid them (where I can). Do I indulge in the odd chocolate bar or oversized GMO strawberry from time to time? Of course. They are extremely difficult to avoid but I try to do the best I can because that is where my values lie. I try not to be extreme either way, but to tend to side on the environmental side of the debate. What are your thoughts?

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