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To GM or not to GM: Revisiting the genetically modified controversy

GMOTranslation: “It is free from danger. On GMOs, we do not have enough perspective yet.”

Source: The Epoch Times

Are you one of those curious grocery shoppers that meticulously read every single item in the ingredients list of a product? If so, then you probably know chemical compounds such as soy lecithin, monosodium glutamate and corn syrup quite well and have read a great deal of articles on their health impacts. However, many of us may not even have heard of them and are not keen on finding out what they are. This particular sensitivity could be cultural though. In fact, one of the things that baffles me the most is the opposing approaches of Europeans and Americans when it comes to paying attention to what they are eating, where ingredients come from and what they mean for human health. While in the U.S. ignoring food allergies and dietary requirements is an important faux pas European institutions as well as its citizens have an overall higher awareness of food security especially regarding genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

GMOs are organisms in which the genetic material (DNA) has been changed in ways that do not exist naturally.[1] They were commercialized first, not surprisingly, in the United States in 1994 with the case of Flavr Savr tomatoes. Today it is estimated that some 150 million hectares worldwide are planted with GM crops mainly in the U.S., Canada, Brazil, Argentina, China and India. Europe remains the most overt opponent to GM agriculture by allowing only one variety, MON810 maize of Monsanto. Nevertheless, even in Europe it is quite difficult to have a GM-free diet as 79% of global soy production consists of genetically modified crops.[2] You may not be a vegan that is on the lookout for soy-based meat substitutes or a huge fan of Asian cuisine but the use of soy and its derivatives is far more extensive. They can be found in baked goods, bouillons, cereals, chocolate, deli meats, nutrition supplements, livestock feed and even in infant formula.

Do we need to worry about GMOs after all? We are far from reaching a global consensus on this issue as its supporters and opponents continue to provide different arguments for its impact on human health, environment and socioeconomic conditions. World Health Organization (WHO) and Food and Drug Administration in the U.S. consider them generally safe as long as they are substantially equal to original varieties derived from traditional farming and do not provoke any allergenic reaction. These institutions also note that no case of health implication has been reported so far. Nevertheless, as GM farming is a relatively new phenomenon it is hard to assess long-term consequences on human health across generations. Same controversy goes on for environmental reverberations as GMOs carry the risk of reducing biodiversity with farmers voluntarily or forcibly switching to few modified varieties and pest-resistant species harming non-target insects and butterflies. Finally, socioeconomically speaking GM agriculture allows higher yields and therefore higher income for farmers as well as more food for world’s population. However it also causes dependence on a little number of biotech companies that have been exponentially increasing the prices of their seeds. For instance, a bag of modified RR2 soybeans averaged at $70 in 2010, twice the cost of conventional seeds the same year and reflected a price increase of 143% in 10 years.[3] These few biotech companies, namely Monsanto, DuPont and Syngenta, also own a huge share of GM patents, up to 85% of maize varieties and 70% of non-maize ones[4], which results in further dependence.

Ideally GMOs could become less harmful and mysterious as long as consumers have the option and are aware of their existence in products as well as their long-term implications. This would require elaborate research and GM labeling on products, which is still not legally required in the United States. Next time you consume America’s favorite Hershey’s Kisses or Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups it would not hurt to question the fact that they contain modified sugar beet and soy-based products.


[1] 20 Questions on Genetically Modifed Food, WHO,


[3] Benbrook CM (2009), “The magnitude and impacts of the biotech and organic seed price premium.” The Organic Center

[4] Howard P. (2009), Visualizing consolidation in the global seed industry: 1996–2008. Sustainability, 1: 1266-1287.


Image source: Flickr

Bilal Müftüoğlu

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