The Gillings Sustainable Agriculture Project: A Gillings Innovative Laboratory

Genetically Modified Foods: Should We or Shouldn’t We?

By: Ha Thien Nguyen

Pros cited for Genetically Modified Foods: 

  • Improved resistance to pests and diseases, which will reduce our dependence on harmful chemical pesticides.3
  • A solution to dealing with hunger in countries with high level of poverty and in developing countries with high food demands (e.g. India).4
  • Improved yield, nutritional value, and environmental stress response in crops.4
  • Potential for improvement in fruit ripening and product storage4,5—for instance, removing the enzyme involved in fruit softening so that modified tomatoes can be left on the vine for ripening before transporting.5
  • Potential for inserting vaccines and pharmaceutical products in plants to administer orally to in-need populations instead of using costly traditional methods.6

Cons against Genetically Modified Foods:

  • Genes are being moved across species and even kingdoms (e.g. Bacillus thuringiensis insect resistance transferred to corn crops—B.t corn), which is “unnatural”—meaning, without the facilitation of scientists, that gene found in the bacteria would not, by a spontaneous process, transfer over to corn species.3
  • Unintentionally harms other animals—like how pollen of B.t corn species has killed monarch butterflies.7
  • Genes can be transferred or bred to an unmodified crop, making it modified (e.g. Monsanto crops vs. non-Monsanto)
    • This causes people who don’t want to plant GM crops complications, like in the Monsanto cases where Monsanto can claim it as their “intellectual property” and forbid farmers from using traditional practices, like saving seeds for next season.8
    • Possible effects on human health—GMO toxins have been found in the natural, enteric bacterial flora of some people , transferred from Roundup Ready soybeans.1
    • People can develop allergies when allergy-causing genes from a known allergen are inserted into plants and crops that are non-allergenic.9

Debate has been going from both proponents and opponents of genetically modified foods and the focus has largely been on policy concerning genetically modified foods

  • Controversy surrounding GMOs as well as the Mad Cow scare has caused policies to be put in place especially in Europe to tighten regulation of GM food products and to prevent GM “whole food” (produce/food sold for direct consumption) products.10
  • Consumer demand has been focused on the labeling of foods that include GM food materials so that consumers can make an informed choice to eat them or not eat them. This practice is currently not mandatory in the United States but has been made available in other countries.2,11
  • In countries such as India where food demands are high and GM foods are not yet prevalent, policy to regulate GMOs has not been introduced and will most likely not be introduced any time soon as they are supportive researching transgenic plants as a way to solve their food demand problems.12
  • In the US, regulation is taken care of by 3 different agencies: the EPA, FDA, and USDA.
    • EPA evaluates environmental concerns surrounding the food product
    • FDA evaluates whether or not it’s safe for consumers
    • USDA evaluates whether the plant is safe to grow
    • Regulatory oversight happens in the US as GM foods are deemed to be “substantially equivalent” to unmodified foods.
      • Substantially equivalent—a modified food should be considered as safe as unmodified food if it “demonstrates the same characteristics and composition as the conventional food”.13
      • For that reason, a genetically modified food like an ear of corn sold in the market is not regulated by the FDA because it is “substantially equivalent” to the unmodified version. What it does mean is that the FDA will regulate things like cornflakes or other non-“whole food” items that have been through a decent amount of processing and do not retain the same “characteristics and compositions” as unmodified corn (OR modified corn).
  • Even when regulated, because of lack of labeling, GM foods have made it into a lot of food products that people consume on a regular basis and used without the knowledge of its consumers, which is why opponents have called for the labeling of GM foods. 
    • Labeling policies have their own set of pros and cons such as: pro—consumers deserve to know what they’re eating/what they don’t want to eat, con—it is costly to both do and verify, current food systems do not allow for complete segregation into GM and unmodified products, etc…14
    • Under current FDA policies, “’Genetically modified’ is an inappropriate term” because “all crop varieties have been modified by plant breeders”.14 This points to another problem in regulating as it is hard to define “genetically modified” but the common conception of some to think of “modification” as a process akin to plant selection and selective breeding is also inadequate.


1Smith, Jeffrey M. “GMO Toxins in Women and Fetuses”. Amass 2011; 16(1):12-14

This study looks at the effects of having Bt-toxin pesticide introduced into our food supplies and the effects that might have on the flora in our digestive tracts. The Bt-toxin has been found to be harmful, even lethal in some mice studies, so it’s concerning when it has shown up in the digestive tracts of women and fetuses. This could lead to a lot of health complications such as increases in gastrointestinal diseases and childhood food allergies among others.

2Eisberg, Neil. “GMOs or not.” Chemistry and Industry 24 Oct. 2011: 4. Academic OneFile. Web. 1 Apr. 2012.

This is just a precise summary of the current debate on GMOs. It details some myths about GMOs, like how they supposedly show better crop performance and yield than non-modified crops, even though that’s not true. In addition, surveys show that most people don’t want GM foods.

3Dale, Phillip J. “Public Concerns Over Transgenic Crops”. Genome Res. 1999; 9: 1159-1162

It summarizes the advances made in science to isolate genes to introduce to crops and seems optimistic about the direction of the research. However, public concerns are increasing over these food items. It assess the impact of such crops and looks at those concerns.

4U.S. Department of Energy Genome Programs. “Genetically Modified Foods and Organisms”.  5 Nov, 2008. Web. 1 Apr 2012.

This is just a government website summarizing the general benefits and controversies surrounding GM foods. It takes into account the impact on not only humans, but animals and the environment.

5GMO Compass. “Fruits and Vegetables: No GMOs in the EU”. 27 Nov, 2006. Web. 5 Apr 2012

This just talks about facts and myths concerning genetically modified tomatoes. For instance, it talks about what exactly modified tomatoes is different from unmodified tomatoes. It also clears up the fact that as of now, at least, GM tomatoes are not in the markets.

6Daniel, Henry; Streatfield, Stephen J; Wycoff, Keith. “Medical molecular farming: production of antibodies, biopharmaceuticals and edible vaccines in plants”. Trends in Plant Science 1 May 2001; 6(5): 219-226.

It talks about the possible use of GM plants and crops to deliver medicine. Nowadays, some medicines are too expensive to give to those who need it, especially in poorer, developing countries. However, instead of pills or vaccines, we can put the medicine into foods that are easier to transport, store and administer to people.

7Losey, John E; Sayor, Linda S; Carter, Maureen E. “Transgenic Pollen Harms Monarch Larvae”. Nature May 1999; 399(6733): 214

This discusses the harmful side effects on other animals that also use GM crops. The unintended harm on monarch butterflies from ingesting pollen of crops with the Bt-toxin, a pesticide, is something that is often not thought about. This wants us to reconsider the side effects, not only on humans but on other organisms as well.

8Delano, Maggie. “Round-Up Ready Crops: Cash Crop or Third World Savior?”. 2009. Web. Mar 28, 2012.

This article gives information on the Monsanto debate over crops. It speaks of some specific cases of farmers affected and explains some of the roles of government agencies on monitoring GM crops such as those made by Monsanto.

9Nordlee, Julie A; Taylor, Steve L; Townsend, Jeffrey A; Thomas, Laurie A; Bush, Robert, K. “Identification of a Brazil-Nut Allergen in Transgenic Soybeans”. New England Journal of Medicine 1996; 334: 688-692

10GMO Compass. “The European Regulatory System”. 2 June 2006. Web. 5 Apr 2012.

This article discusses regulations put in place in Europe to regulate GM foods. It also makes comparisons to the system put in place in America, where regulations are fewer and looser. Specifically talks about the conditions under which a GM can be granted permission to be sold in stores.

11Miller, Henry I. “A Rational Approach to  Labeling Biotech-Derived Foods”. Science 1999; 284(5419): 1471-1472

This talks about the specifics of labeling GM foods and how it can possibly be improved. It discusses some of the policies that govern the labeling of GM foods now.

12Jayaraman, K S. “India Intends to Reap the Full Commercial Benefits”. Nature 25 Nov 1999; 402: 342-343

This is an article showcasing India’s current willingness to embrace research on GM foods because of the food problems in India. However, the government has not been persuaded and this discusses the struggle between government and scientists.

13“GMOs, Substantial Equivalence and Lies that Affect Public Safety”. Web. 23 Mar 2012.

This gives the definition of what “substantially equivalent” means. It defines the term as “novel food should be considered the same as and as safe as a conventional food if it demonstrates the same characteristics and composition as the conventional food.” This definition is discussed as a way for policy to circumvent labeling methods and tighter regulation and testing of GM foods.

14Byrne, P. “Labeling of Genetically Engineered Foods”. 29 Aug 2011. Web. 27 Mar 2012.

This is another website clearing up the issue of “labeling” GM foods. Specifically, it clarifies that labeling methods have been proposed but not taken up by the government, not even at the local level. It also speaks of what difficulties we would face should we try to implement a labeling policy right now.

15Fernandez-Cornejo, Jorge. “Adoption of Genetically Engineered Crops in the US”. 1 Jul 2011. Web. 28 Mar 2012.


16“What is Genetically Modified Food?”. 13 Oct 2011. Web. 28 Mar 2012.


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