Chances are you’ve heard the term “GMO” before, probably in some debate about the future of food. There’s also a good chance that wherever you heard the term, it was used as a negative – indicating some kind of Franken-food that really shouldn’t be consumed by humans. “GMO” stands for “Genetically Modified Organism,” sometimes also referred to as GE-crops (Genetically Engineered). Essentially, it means that the plant in question has had its DNA altered in a controlled way.

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There’s a lot of misinformation out there on both sides of the GMO picket line, and it’s hard to know what’s the real story with them. That’s why we’re here to set the record straight (or die trying).

What Is a GMO?

If we consider genetic modification as a general human intervention upon the genetic traits of a plant, then most organized agriculture could fall under that umbrella. Virtually every crop we eat today is a distant memory of the original plant it came from. Farmers have selectively bred and cross-bred plants for centuries to create new varieties of crops that are hardier or tastier (or both), and these techniques could be considered a rudimentary form of genetic modification.

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That said, our current understanding of GMOs (and the definition this article will focus on) has to do with direct human intervention to a plant’s DNA at the molecular level. There are several ways to do it, but the process essentially involves creating a break in the DNA, inserting the desired gene characteristics from another organism, and then repairing the cell.

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One of the most famous applications of GMO technology has been Bt corn. Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) is a bacteria which produces a crystalline protein which allows it to act as an insecticide. Advances in molecular biology eventually made it possible to insert the gene that produces that protein into food crops like corn, making them naturally pest-resistant.

GMO Safety and Advantages

While all of this might sound pretty scary, it’s actually totally harmless to us. According to Bill Nye, everyone’s favorite Science Guy, “It sounds like some toxic chemical, but actually, it’s a protein – a protein that doesn’t affect you and me, but it does corn borers, for example.”

It turns out that a lot of the opposition to GMOs is fueled by studies which have since been debunked for having serious flaws in their research/methodology. One famous study which reportedly found an increased risk of tumors in rats from GMO consumption was later retracted due to flaws in its design. Another study, which linked GMOs to gluten disorders, was publicly challenged by The Celiac Disease Foundation.

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Most scientists today agree that GMOs are generally safe. There is even a hefty report, summarizing 2 years of analysis of roughly 900 scientific journal articles, which concludes that not only are GM crops safe, they are actually improving human health by increasing nutritional value and reducing insecticide poisoning.

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Those last points are actually very important to consider when telling the tale of GMOs, along with how GM crops can increase net yields of crops in order to potentially feed millions of people who are currently hungry. GM crops can also be enriched to provide better nutrition, such as the beta-carotene enriched “Golden Rice” that’s combating vitamin A deficiency in developing nations – a problem which the World Health Organization cites as the leading cause of preventable blindness in children.

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The use of disease and pest-resistant GMOs can also help save farmers’ livelihoods, as it did for Hawaiian papaya farmers in the late 1990s when Papaya Ring Spot Virus (PRSV) threatened to wipe out the whole industry until GM papayas saved the day.

The True Dangers of GMOs

Author McKay Jenkins, who has spent several years researching the issue of GMOs and wrote a book on them, says that most opponents are missing the mark on the very real danger that GMOs do empower: an unsustainable system of industrial agriculture.

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Take, for instance, the company most famous for selling GMOs: Monsanto. They’re notorious for creating Agent Orange, a chemical weapon used by the U.S. military to clear thick jungles during the Vietnam War and also caused horrible birth defects in generations of Vietnamese people.

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Monsanto also made the news for creating single-use seeds that force farmers to have to buy new seeds every year, even winning the right to sue farmers who try to re-use the previous year’s seeds. If that wasn’t enough, Monsanto also dominates the global seed market to the point that they can set the prices, and their massive wealth has bought enough influence in Washington to ensure that most government subsidies (which make certain crops more profitable for farmers to grow) go to crops that Monsanto has cornered the market on.

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These crops, such as corn and soybean, are grown in massive, monoculture farms that often utilize really unsustainable farming techniques. This is the area where the GMO debate should be focused, says Jenkins:

I think GMOs have gotten a lot of attention because they elicit a visceral fear from people, but really we have a lot of other agricultural problems that predate GMOs. If you think about factory farming or fossil fuels or toxic chemicals or soil loss — those things all existed before GMOs, and GMOs just scaled them up.

GMOs make it so much easier to produce the kinds of crops that are essential for making nutritionally-poor, processed food. They empower the industrial food system to continue on as it has for decades – a problem that numerous documentaries have addressed by illustrating how the traditional industrial approach to food creates all sorts of horrifying problems like the ones Jenkins mentioned.

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It could also be argued that GM crops indirectly contribute to the rise of diet-related illnesses like obesity and diabetes by allowing producers to make unhealthy foods at a price and volume that’s simply too hard for average consumers to ignore.

Breaking It All Down

Ultimately, GM technology is just a tool. Just as a weapon can be used to protect or to destroy, GMOs aren’t inherently evil on their own. When used properly, they can help eliminate hunger and alleviate nutritional deficiencies for millions of people worldwide. They’ll also be an integral part of feeding the world going forward – a major challenge considering how populations are skyrocketing while arable land is declining.

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On the other hand, they can also be used irresponsibly to create environmental issues and encourage industries that are creating health epidemics with their products. They can also be utilized to give an unscrupulous advantage to large corporations, squeezing out small, independent farmers in the process. While generally recognized as safe for consumption, it’s these aspects of GMOs that make them potentially dangerous.

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The best way to combat these problems is to get informed and take action. Simply boycotting all GMOs isn’t the best solution, since a lot of smaller farms that are otherwise entirely respectable might be growing them too. Instead, find out which producers are using unsustainable/unethical growing practices, and stop buying from them.

It also helps to eat less junk/fast food. Not only does it take money away from producers who abuse GMO technology, it’s also way better for your overall health.