The Pros and Cons of GMOs

Genetically Modified Organisms From a Vegan Perspective

A protester tears up a genetically modified (GM) oil seed rape plant March 9, 2002 at a demonstration against genetically modified crops at a farm in Long Marsden in Warwickshire, England.
Sion Touhig/Getty Images News/Getty Images

If you're confused about the pros and cons of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), you're not alone. This relatively new technology is riddled with bioethics questions, and the arguments for and against GMOs are difficult to weigh because it's hard to know the risks until something goes wrong.

Part of this is due largely to the wide scope that the term "genetically modified organism" includes, though its exclusion of genetic alterations that could be caused by natural mating has narrowed the definition considerably. Still, most argue that "not all GMOs" are bad. Scientific breakthroughs in manipulating plant genetics are actually largely responsible for the commercial success of crops in the United States, especially that of corn and soy. 

New legislation initiatives in the United States are seeking to force products to be labeled as genetically modified as a result of this clarification, and it could lead to a better understanding — or more confusion — of what it means for a good to be a GMO. 

What Exactly Is a GMO?

The legal definition of a genetically modified organism in the European Union is "an organism, with the exception of human beings, in which the genetic material has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination." It is illegal in the E.U. to deliberately release a GMO into the environment, and food items containing more than 1% GMOs must be labeled — which is not the case in the U.S.

This alteration of the genes usually entails inserting genetic material into an organism in a laboratory without natural mating, breeding or reproduction. Instead of breeding two plants or animals together to bring out certain traits in the offspring, the plant, animal or microbe has DNA from another organism inserted.

Creating GMOs is one type of genetic engineering, further broken down into different sub categories like transgenic organisms, which are GMOs that contain DNA from another species and cisgenic organisms, which are GMOs that contain DNA from a member of the same species and is generally regarded as the less risky type of GMO.

Arguments for GMO Use

GMO technology can develop crops with higher yield, with less fertilizer, less pesticides, and more nutrients. In some ways, GMO technology is more predictable than traditional breeding, in which thousands of genes from each parent are transferred randomly to the offspring. Genetic engineering moves discrete genes or blocks of genes at a time.

Further, it speeds up production and evolution. Traditional breeding can be very slow because it might take several generations before the desired trait is sufficiently brought out and the offspring must reach sexual maturity before they can be bred. With GMO technology, the desired genotype can be created instantly in the current generation.

If you live in the United States, you are most likely eating GMOs or livestock who were fed GMOs. Eighty-eight percent of the corn and ninety-four percent of the soy grown in the U.S. has been genetically modified to be herbicide-resistant and/or insect-resistant.

GMOs may not be natural, but not everything natural is good for us, and not everything unnatural is bad for us. Poisonous mushrooms are natural, but we shouldn't eat them. Washing our food before eating it is not natural, but is healthier for us. GMOs have been on the market since 1996, so if all GMOs were an immediate health threat, we would know it by now.

Arguments Against GMO Use

The most common arguments against GMOs are that they have not been tested thoroughly, have less predictable outcomes and can be potentially harmful to human, animal and crop health alike as a result. 

Studies have already shown that GMOs are dangerous to rats. A review of 19 studies in which genetically modified soy and corn were fed to mammals found that a GMO diet often led to liver and kidney problems. Further, genetically modified plants or animals could interbreed with wild populations, creating problems such as population explosions or crashes or offspring with dangerous traits which would go further into harming the delicate ecosystem. Also, GMOs will inevitably lead to more monoculture, which is dangerous because it threatens the biological diversity of our food supply.

GMOs are transferring genes in a much more unpredictable way compared to natural breeding. One of the built-in safeguards of natural breeding is that a member of one species will not produce fertile offspring with a member of another species. With transgenic technology, scientists are transferring genes not just across species but even across kingdoms, inserting animal genes into microbes or plants. This produces genotypes that could never exist in nature. This is far more unpredictable than crossing a Macintosh apple with a Red Delicious apple. 

Genetically modified products contain novel proteins that could trigger allergic reactions in people who are either allergic to one of the components of the GMO or in people who are allergic only to the new substance. Further, food additives that are Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) do not have to undergo rigorous toxicity testing to prove their safety. Instead, their safety is generally based on published past toxicity studies. The FDA has awarded GRAS status to 95% of the GMOs that have been submitted.

One of the biggest controversies surrounding GMOs is labeling. Unlike other controversial foods like veal, trans fats, MSG or artificial sweeteners, GMO ingredients in food are rarely, if ever, identified on the label. GMO opponents advocate a labeling requirement so that consumers can decide for themselves whether or not to consume GMO products.

GMOs and Animal Rights

Animal rights activism is the belief that animals have an intrinsic value separate from any value they have to humans and have a right to be free of human use, oppression, confinement, and exploitation. On the plus side, GMOs can make agriculture more efficient, thereby reducing our impact on wildlife and wild habitats. However, genetically modified organisms raise some specific animal rights concerns.

On the negative, GMO technology often involves experimenting on animals wherein the animal can be the source of the genetic material or the recipient of genetic material such as when jellyfish and coral were once used to create genetically modified mice, fish and rabbits as glowing pets for the novelty pet trade.

The patenting of genetically modified animals is also a concern to animal rights activists. Patenting animals treats the animals more like property instead of sentient, living beings. While animal advocates want animals treated less like property and more like sentient beings with their own interests, patenting animals is a step in the opposite direction.

Under the U.S. Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act, new food additives must be proven safe. While there are no required tests, the FDA offers Guidelines for Toxicity Studies that include rodents and non-rodents, usually dogs. Although some opponents of GMOs are demanding more long-term tests, animal advocates should refrain from doing so. More tests will mean more animals suffering in laboratories.