GMOs: Where We Stand Nutritionally
MPH Candidate, Nutritional Sciences
Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) can be a frightening concept at first glance. Different groups constantly bombard us with contrasting evaluations, claiming GMOS are either our salvation, or the end of days. How do GMOs fit - really - into the ever-evolving worlds of science, nutrition, and sustainability? The answer is complicated.
Defining "GMOs" is fairly intuitive, but officially they're "living organisms whose genetic material has been artificially manipulated in a laboratory through genetic engineering."1 GMOs have been around for thousands of years. Gregor Mendel's experiments of hybridization with pea plants are an early and notable example. The types of GMOs that we think of today have their origins in 1970, when the agricultural company Monsanto created Roundup. The science behind this herbicide led to a boom in DNA modification research that eventually resulted in the first GM soybeans in 1988 (with the help of a controversial 1982 Supreme Court decision).2
Since that landmark moment, a struggle has ensued within the political and scientific communities about the future of GMOs. Members of congress have worked to enact protections for GMOs and their manufacturers, culminating in the passage of the Deny Americans the Right to Know (DARK) act in 2016.3 Meanwhile, activists have pushed and won state-initiatives for GMO labeling in Vermont, Maine, and Connecticut.4 Arguments from both parties often focus on corporate profits, climate change, and capitalism, however, very little discussion is placed on nutrition – an important area as we seek to feed a rapidly growing world. Let's explore.
From a nutritional, positive standpoint, GMOs have been useful in combating nutritional deficiencies. Golden Rice, for example, developed in 2004, satisfies 50% of your daily Vitamin A needs per cup. Furthermore, the crop is durable and can grow in relatively infertile regions of the world, where Vitamin A deficiency is diffuse (i.e. sub-Saharan Africa). SmartStax crops are fortified with multivitamins to enhance the product's nutritional value. These crops are also fortified with insecticidal traits, making them hardier and increasing their annual yields – an important and life saving point for food-starved regions. Recently, even cereal crops have been biofortified with heart-healthy fats for low-fish intake and elderly populations (vulnerable populations for cardiovascular disease).5
While there are many promising avenues for GMOs nutritionally, they do not come without pitfalls. Important questions regarding sustainability and conservation must be considered. For instance, GMO resistant pests have become more abundant, creating new strains that are harder to kill than ever. Rainforests and natural habitats have been cleared in favor of GMO crops, placing natural ecosystems at risk. Lastly, questions linger over the intentions of GMO manufacturers – potentially placing profits over health and safety concerns.6
Now the scientific community needs to find a balance between GMO's positives and negatives. These products demonstrate potential to help introduce nutritious foods to previously inaccessible and infertile areas. Pest-resistant crops are necessary to ensure the survival of certain fruit species (i.e. citrus in America).7 But, we must simultaneously work to ensure that issues regarding natural habitats, biochemical safety, and public concern are addressed. Health care professionals need to be prepared to discuss this topic with their patients and colleagues, knowing and understanding the pros and cons – as the debate around GMOs does not appear to be going away anytime soon.
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- What is a GMO?. 2017. Bellingham: Non GMO Project [accessed December 1, 2017].
- Bushak, L. 2015. A Brief History of Genetically Modified Organisms: From Prehistoric Breeding to Modern Biotechnology [website article]. Medical Daily. [accessed December 1, 2017]. http://www.scientificstyleandformat.org/Tools/SSF-Citation-Quick-Guide.html.
- GMO Labeling in Congress. 2017. Washington DC: Just Label It [accessed December 1, 2017].
- Chow L. 2016. 8 Battleground States in the GMO Labeling Fight [blog post]. EcoWatch. [accessed December 2, 2017]. https://www.ecowatch.com/8-battleground-states-in-the-gmo-food-labeling-fight-1882162099.html.
- Waas, M. (2015). GMOs: Where the Science Stands on Nutrition and Agricultural Advancement. Chicago Policy Review (Online).
- Christou, P., Buiatti, M., & Pastore, G. (2013). The application of GMOs in agriculture and in food production for a better nutrition: two different scientific points of view. Genes and Nutrition, 2013, vol. 8, núm. 3, p. 255–270.
- Hokanson, K. E., Dawson, W. O., Handler, A. M., Schetelig, M. F., & Leger, R. S. (2014). Not all GMOs are crop plants: non-plant GMO applications in agriculture. Transgenic research,23(6), 1057-1068.
About the Author
Sam Chey is Master's of Public Health Candidate at the University of Michigan studying nutritional sciences. He has a particular interest in the facilitation of lifestyle change over standard medicinal therapies to treat chronic disease, and secondary interests in nutrition policy, sustainability, and community service. Sam plans on attending medical school after attaining his MPH.