With so many food producers condemning the use of GMO crops, it can be a confusing time for those trying to eat healthier and more responsibly. But while consumers are inundated with claims that GMOs are under-researched (or even outright dangerous), we hear very little about the actual benefits of GMOs.
No matter which side of the argument you stand on, if any, you can’t participate in the debate without looking at all angles. When it comes to a controversial subject like the benefits of GMOs, however, this is absolutely easier said than done.
With that, let’s explore the potential pros of investing in, researching, and even consuming GMOs. At the end of the day, you can decide for yourself whether these crops fit your lifestyle or are best left on the grocery store shelf. While we do encourage everyone to buy organic whenever possible, we decided to take a fair look at GMOs, here’s what we found.
The ABCs of GMOs
Before diving into the benefits of GMOs, it’s important to ensure we’re all on the same page. So, what exactly counts as a GMO?
First, GMO stands for “genetically modified organism.” Yes, those words sound like something straight out of a sci-fi novel. But GMOs definitely aren’t Soylent Green.
On the one hand, you could argue that all crops are, in a sense, genetically modified by humankind. After all, millennia of crossbreeding have created the corn, apples, potatoes, and more we know today.
However, you won’t find your average farmer creating GMOs in the technical sense. Instead, creating a GMO starts in a scientific lab.
To put it simply, GMOs are created in a few steps:
- Identify the desired trait (for example, drought resistance)
- Isolate a gene for the desired trait in another organism
- Remove gene for the desired trait
- Place this gene in the nucleus of a plant cell (for example, a tomato plant)
- Stimulate growth from the treated cell
If this process is successful, a line of genetically modified organisms emerges (in this example, a drought-resistant tomato plant).
With GMOs, agricultural scientists can target specific traits much more easily than with traditional crossbreeding. In some cases, plants can be created with traits that may have never been possible with traditional breeding.
The 5 Most Important Benefits of GMOs
True, GMOs are a relatively new technology in the world of agriculture. However, they wouldn’t be so popular if not for the associated benefits. While many of us choose not to eat them, or use them, it would be one-sided to ignore this information.
So, just how do the benefits of GMOs play into our current agriculture and food landscapes? And could these benefits potentially outweigh the reported drawbacks of such plants?
1. Leave no trace: Limiting environment impacts
One of the biggest arguments for the use of GMOs is their potential to limit crops’ environmental impact.
Since our agricultural crops are still plants, even if grown outside of their natural environment, it can be easy to forget just how damaging they can be to certain ecosystems. And when you add in the growing requirements for water, fertilizer, and pesticides, a seemingly harmless crop can turn into an environmental nightmare.
But how, exactly, would opting for a GMO-version of a crop help limit this damage?
Well, take the drought-resistant tomato example from above. With the addition of this drought-resistant gene, tomato plants can suddenly thrive with less water.
If you think the repercussions of that lower water usage are insignificant, consider this:
Agriculture accounts for between 80 and 90 percent of water consumption within the United States!
In many cases, GMO crops can also be grown on fewer acres than their non-GMO counterparts.
In a time when we are becoming increasingly aware of how devastating farming can be to natural ecosystems, it’s clear that this is one of the most important benefits of GMOs.
Because of the increasing popularity of GMOs, one estimate puts the amount of land “saved” from agricultural use in 2015 at 48 million acres.
2. Protect pollinators
It recent years, we’ve all become increasingly aware of how important our native and imported pollinators are to a healthy world. Without bees and other pollinators, the agriculture industry as we know it would cease to exist.
At the same time, however, we’ve also become very aware of how the use of pesticides impacts our most valued pollinators (as well as other natural life across the world).
Where do the benefits of GMOs come into the picture here?
Just like we can modify crops to resist drought, we can also modify some to thwart common pests. If a farmer’s crops don’t attract harmful pests in the first place, then the need for chemical pesticide use is significantly cut.
3. More accessible food
Sadly, even in the Western world, not everyone can afford nutrient-dense fruit and vegetables. While it seems like common sense that the food we source straight from the ground should be the most accessible, this simply isn’t the case.
With that said, one of the most significant benefits of GMOs is their ability to lower prices of fruit and vegetables for consumers.
Similar trends can be seen in GMO crops such as beets and soybeans.
4. Better nutrition
Some of the most famous examples of the benefits of GMOs gained notoriety by solving malnutrition in various parts of the world.
The poster child of this biotech movement? Golden Rice.
In regions where rice makes up a significant part of people’s day-to-day nutrition, vitamin A-deficiency is overwhelmingly commonplace. This is largely attributed to rice’s low concentration of vitamins and minerals, particularly vitamin A.
In 1999, GMO scientists made progress on a variety of rice fortified with vitamin A. This fortification occurred by adding the gene for beta carotene (commonly found in carrots) to the rice plant.
In reality, rice plants do produce beta carotene naturally. However, before the invention of Golden Rice, the plants only synthesized significant amounts of vitamin A in the leaves.
Obviously, as a grain crop, this did little good for the edible rice itself.
While the Golden Rice Project is certainly not perfect, it ultimately paved the way for accepting the benefits of GMOs, especially in the context of global nutritional health.
5. Economic security
Numerous (valid) criticisms of GMO crops exist regarding developing regions and how their patent-holders treat farmers. However, we can’t overlook the potential benefits.
In the U.S., most of our agriculture operates on an industrial scale. In other areas of the world, however, this is far from the case.
While genetically modified drought- or pest-resistant might largely be a numbers game to commercial farmers, these traits can be life-altering for small farmers around the world.
For individual community farmers, the slight change in water, land, and pesticide needs of a given crop can greatly improve their yearly yield. In communities where the success of a particular crop could mean the difference between thriving and starvation, we can’t overstate these benefits.
It’s Not All Good News
As alluded to several times above, the benefits of GMOs often go ignored in favor of focusing on their downfalls. However, that doesn’t mean we should also ignore the cons of GMOs in turn.
For instance, GMO crops might help limit land, water, and pesticide use. Meanwhile, though, many farmers and environmentalists have noted a growing need for strong herbicides in response to GMO use.
Herbicide-resistant GMO crops emerged right alongside their pest-, disease-, and drought-resistant counterparts. These crops allowed farmers to use herbicides without the worry of killing off their crops in the process.
But plants, including weeds, adapt just like any other living thing. Unfortunately, this means that many weeds have developed resistances to these popular herbicides, making them largely ineffective.
While these environmental issues play out, GMO crops also pose a threat on the economic front. One of the biggest controversies surrounding GMO use has to do with the ownership of growing rights and how farmers must adhere to specific terms.
Large corporations own many of the most popular GMO crops. And since scientists “design” these crops in a lab, companies can hold patents for them and control who grows them.
Sadly, this poses a range of issues for farmers of all kinds. As a result, many (including farmers in developing nations who rely on these crops for much more than just a profit) can’t afford to buy and grow GMO seeds.
In other words, many of those who would most benefit from GMO developments are unable to take advantage of them because of prohibitive costs.
The Fair Truth About GMOs
At the end of the day, nothing is truly perfect. Unfortunately, this also applies to GMOs.
But while we shouldn’t ignore the potential drawbacks of GMOs, we shouldn’t dismiss the list of important benefits either.
So, whether you think the benefits of GMOs outweigh the bad or not, it’s impossible to deny just how innovative these developments have been in recent years — and how important they may continue to be in the future.
Do you actively avoid purchasing GMO food products at the grocery store? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!