Farming has evolved and progressed into an efficient and somewhat ruthless business over the years. Machines have replaced most human labor to increase food production and reduce prices - but could we be meddling too much?
This article looks at the modern farming process of genetic modification: how it impacts the industry, environment and health.
The term ‘genetically modified organism’ (GMO) refers to altering an organism’s genetic make-up -either a plant, animal or microorganism- by removing or transferring DNA segments. DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) is the building block of life: a genetic code that determines the function and attributes of all living things.
The farming industry utilizes genetic modification (GM) to improve certain attributes of crops and livestock: improving nutrient content, viral or pesticide resistance, and making crops produce pesticides themselves.
GMOs play a vital role in modern farming; therefore, consumers must understand the impact of this new technology on livestock, the environment and the ecosystem.
70% of all GM harvests feed animals within the meat industry  -primarily soy, corn and alfalfa. This diet choice could be attributed to its low-cost, easy acquisition and ability to induce weight gain in livestock. The growing demand for meat makes GMO crops a favorable source of animal food in farming; however, how does this diet affect livestock?
According to the FDA (the Food and Drug Administration in America), feeding GMO foods to livestock has no detrimental impact on the animal’s health, nor the quality, nutrients or safety of the meat/dairy products produced . Contrary to the FDA’s statement of certain safety of GMOs, some evidence suggests it’s not as innocent as they say.
Many animals struggle to digest the genetically modified food we provide them since it is not their natural diet. For instance, the digestive system of a cow is meant to process grass; when we feed the alternative diet of soy and corn to this animal, it can cause health problems such as bloating, gas, discomfort and liver abscesses .
This brings ethics to the forefront -what right do we have to intentionally feed livestock a diet that benefits us, not them? For those who have a soft spot for animals, the option of ‘grass-fed’ and ‘pasture-raised’ meats ensures animals are high-welfare and eat a beneficial diet.
Since the introduction of GMOs in the 1990s, they have contributed to a reduction in the amount of greenhouse gasses produced from agricultural farming practices. This is attributed to less fuel being used and an increase in carbon storage within the soil -both a result of reduced tillage (mechanical agitation of soil) used to tackle pests and weeds. Carbon storage within soil is essential for water-retention capacity, fertility, and structure: key elements of making nutrient-rich foods.
The GMO benefits can be seen on a large and small scale; however, this popular farming method also has many repercussions to consider.
The foreign’ genes added to GM crops that determine viral and pesticide resistance -or making plants produce pesticides- can contaminate nearby greenery and wildlife. Maintaining farmland biodiversity has become a growing international concern: our ecosystem relies on the relationship between plants, animals, fungi and microorganisms. Unfortunately, GMOs pose a huge threat to this balance.
Herbicide-resistant genes cross breed with close plant relatives, forming ‘superweeds’ that are extremely difficult -sometimes impossible- to eradicate. These new weeds infest fields, draining the essential nutrients of surrounding crops. Originally intended to contribute towards crop yield, ironically, it causes devastation in the farming industry. Rather than learning from this teaching of nature’s resilience to tackle this growing problem, the modern farming industry increases GM crops, adapting the genetic make-up again for additional herbicide resistance.
Insect populations such as bees, caterpillars and beetles play an essential role in agriculture: they assist in pollination, break down soil residues, and eat pests; unfortunately, chronic pesticide use is one of the main causes for insect decline. The very insects that assist our crops rely on non-GMO habitats for food and to live. The cross-breeding of GM crops with surrounding plants means an increasing amount of land that does not support the insect population. Additionally, herbicide-resistant GM crops are still blanketed with herbicides to eradicate weeds, consequently harming insect populations.
Before a GM product is put on the market, it has to be tested and approved for human consumption. Every country has different regulators, making the process result somewhat subjective to the authorities; therefore, it is difficult for individuals to form their conclusion about GMOs when countries differ in their regulations.
The FDA in America deem GMO foods to be equally as safe as non-GMO counterparts; however, many countries believe otherwise, banning GMOs entirely.
The Journal of Organic Systems published a study in 2014 that found a notable correlation between the increased use of GMOs, glyphosate use (a pesticide) and 22 health conditions such as autism, autoimmune diseases and infertility . This evidence is worrying; however, many other factors could influence this correlation, such as environment and lifestyle.
Labeling of GMO food differs from country to country and can change over time -recent changes include USA law. From Jan 2022, the USDA (The U.S. Department of Agriculture) require all food manufacturers to inform consumers on the packaging whether there are any GMO ingredients in the product -labeled as ‘bioengineered’ rather than GMO. This new requirement will enable customers to make informed choices of what they wish to put in their bodies.
In conclusion, while GM foods increase crop yield, profit and reduce greenhouse gases, there are repercussions to this technology: posing a threat to the essential insect population, weed management and animal health. There is contradictory information regarding whether GMOs negatively impact health in general, with different regulatory bodies having the potential to be subjective.
It is a very personal choice as to whether people decide to eat GM foods or not; increased transparency in GM food labeling will empower consumers to make informed choices. For those who are not keen on consuming GMO products, alternative food sources are available -time to buy local, choose organic, and select pasture-raised or grass-fed meats.
 https://www.fda.gov/food/agricultural-biotechnology/gmo-crops-and-food-animals#:~:text=Research%20shows%20that%20eggs%2C%20dairy,GMO%20or%20non%2DGMO%20 foods.