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Are Genetically Modified Food Crops (GMO) Really That Different From Selectively Bred Crops?

Hearing about genetically modified food crops (GMO) makes a lot of people uneasy. It doesn’t sound like a good thing to be messing around with our food supply, not to mention the surrounding environment. GMO crops have been touted as a boon for farmers, but have produced problems for them as well. Are the stated benefits worth the risks?

Selectively Bred Crops

Let’s start by taking a look at how selectively bred crops come about. This is a much slower, much less precise method of giving a crop the characteristics you want from them.

A grower grows the crop, and chooses to use seed from the plants that are closest to the characteristic he’s after. This could relate to disease resistance, flavor, production, water use and more. Each generation of the crop planted allows the grower to choose the ones that are closest to the desired end result.

This takes time, but it’s why we have such a variety of plants available. Just look at the many different sorts of carrots, tomatoes, roses and so forth available. Many of these came from selective breeding.

Genetically Modified Foods

People in favor of genetically modified crops like to point out that selective breeding is a form of genetic modification. However, when speaking of GMO crops, that’s not what is meant. Instead, genes from other sources are added into the genetic code of the plants, giving them new characteristics that either you couldn’t breed for or that would be more difficult to breed for. It also allows the company to patent the plant, giving them the absolute right to control it even when the farmer grows seeds purchased from the company that modified them.

One of the big ones you hear about are the Roundup Ready crops created by Monsanto. These crops are resistant to Roundup, so farmers can control weeds without damaging their crops.

What Are the Benefits to Genetically Modified Crops?

One of the major benefits touted for GMO crops is that they’re better for the environment because they require less use of pesticides and herbicides. They’re often made to deal with such problems better. This can also lead to better production, as less of each crop is lost to pests. This can also mean less tilling of the soil is required, which results in less loss of topsoil.

GM crops can also be grown in places that aren’t so friendly to other crops. This can be a benefit to areas where growing food is a major problem.

While not directly related to food production, genetically modified organisms also show promise in areas such as biofuel production. Creating organisms which can be used to produce biofuels more efficiently than current methods is an area of great potential.

The potential to grow medications in certain crops is also being investigated. This could bring down the costs of producing certain medications, if it can be done safely and successfully.

What Are the Problems With Genetically Modified Crops?

When people consider the problems with GM crops, they’re mostly considering the food varieties. There are some definite problems with these crops.

A major one is that farmers are not allowed to save seed as they would with non patented seeds. They have to buy new seed each and every year. This is an extra expense for farmers.

The patents have also led to farmers being sued, not just for saving seed to grow the next year’s crops, but for having their crops crossbreed with a GMO variety. Growing such crops is considered a violation of the patent, even though farmers may not know such cross pollination has happened.

Cross pollination is also a problem for organic farmers, who can’t have their crops be contaminated by GMO crops, as their crops would no longer be considered to be organic.

Another concern is that weeds and pests that can easily be treated now in fields with GMO crops will become more resistant to the herbicides and pesticides that can currently be used on such fields. This means more chemicals would need to be used to control problems that are currently easier to manage. One way this could happen is if natural gene transfer happens between GM crop and weeds that are closely related to that food crop in the field.

Some GM crops have also been shown to be damaging to other forms of life. One variety of corn was shown to cause high mortality in monarch butterfly caterpillars.

The claim that genetically modified crops increase the yield has also been disputed. Certainly the use of pesticides means you lose less crop to pests, but that’s true whether the crop is GM or not.

Health Concerns for Humans

Many people are concerned about how eating genetically modified foods will effect humans. Allergies are a potential issue, for example, although genetically modified foods are carefully tested for such things.

The biggest concern with GM foods and human health is that there hasn’t been enough testing to know the long term results from eating such modified foods. Some studies on rats indicate the potential for serious issues. There are concerns about GM foods causing cancer and other conditions.

Social Concerns

There are a lot of social concerns with genetically modified foods as well. The patents on such seeds, as discussed above, mean that farmers cannot just save seed for the next season, and must buy more. This can be a major hardship on farmers in poor countries, or when bad weather ruins a crop.

The issue is that too much acceptance of GM seed means that regular seeds will not be so readily available, giving the corporations too much control over food production.

There are also concerns about how GM foods fit in with religious and other ethical concerns. Are GM foods kosher? Are GM foods harmful to farm animals that are fed them?

Overall, I think it is very clear that genetically modified foods are very different from selectively bred crops. There are potential benefits, but there are also risks that may not be acceptable. It’s best to consider the risks carefully and look and what it takes to manage your contact with GMO foods.

Further Reading