GMOs: Guide for the Perplexed

Surprisingly, the first and hardest problem of talking about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is defining them. Advanced biotechnology since the 1990s makes possible direct modification of cellular genetic material through genetic engineering, but the results are distinguishable only by their precision from traditional breeding techniques used for millennia with plants and animals. Fears of “frankenfood” (by analogy to Frankenstein’s monster) have proved unfounded, but consumer discomfort and distrust remain significant.

Advocates of GMO crops cite evidence that higher yields can be grown with hardier varieties and less need for pesticides and herbicides, thereby benefiting the environment especially in the Third World. Widespread use in the United States has led to virtually all corn, soybeans and sugar beets containing GMOs. A main way that health effects, if any, of eating GMO food are measured is by comparing population epidemiology in the United States and Europe where GMO use is rare. Opposition to GMOs motivated by legitimate concern about food safety and the environment can backfire paradoxically by encouraging conventional breeding techniques that, because they are inherently less precise than genetic engineering, have potential for greater undesirable consequences.

Regulatory attempts to focus on either process or result to define GMOs have been subjected to withering criticism, and the term has been called a “cultural construct” as opposed to a scientific one, with one scholar writing in Nature about the “nonsensical GMO pseudo-category and a precautionary rabbit hole” that is a “useless and imprecise category used to pigeonhole products (mostly crops)” without any rational basis. By some common definitions, for example, organic food can contain GMOs, and there have been numerous lawsuits whether it is deceptive to label food containing GMOs as “natural.”

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