Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are becoming an increasing part of the American food supply, as statistics can show. These statistics can help in making more informed decisions about food a family consumes.
Genetic Modified Organisms and Their Applications
Genetically modified organisms refers to one particular technique of genetic modification where some genes are transferred from one organism into another. Genes are taken from species, like other plants, or virus and combined with the genes of the recipient plant to produce a new gene explains World Health Organization (WHO). This technique is also called "recombinant DNA" or "genetic engineering."
These genes are selected as they can confer or increase particular characteristics in recipient species. A 2014 USDA Economic Research Service (ERS) report (pg. 1) notes that some common applications have been to produce:
- Pest management traits
- Herbicide tolerance
- Agronomic properties
- Product quality
- Production of pharmaceuticals
GMO Statistics for Plant Foods
Genetically modified plant foods are making their way into the diets of people around the world. The 2016 International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications Summary (ISAAA summary) notes there are 185.1 million hectares (457.4 million acres) under GMO crops (cover page).
Disease and Pest Resistance
Many GMOs are produced with resistance against diseases caused by different agents. By 2014, there were 7,789 crop releases for testing as part of research and development efforts, according to the ERS report (pg. 6). These are crops with resistance against bacteria, nematodes, fungi, virus, and insects. This has succeeded in reducing insecticide use from 0.2 kg/hectare in 1995 to 0.02 kg/hectare in 2014 and increased corn yield according to a 2015 Harvard University release.
GMOs are produced to increase tolerance to herbicides, so that herbicides can be used to control weeds and these are called HT crops. There were 6,772 HT crops released for testing according to the ERS report (pg. 6). Most GM crops have HT according to Gene Watch.
The most common herbicide used is glyphosate the active ingredient in the weed killer, Roundup, so these plants are often called "Roundup Ready." However, an over-reliance on only glyphosate has resulted in the development of 14 super weeds resistant to this chemical. Moreover, there is no improvement in crop yield admits the ERS report (pg. iv). Farms are using 28% more herbicides on soybean crops than non-GMO farms to control weeds notes a recent scientific study from Virginia University, according to Phys.org.
Many GM crops are produced to withstand environmental stress like drought, cold, frost, salinity, or make "more efficient use of nitrogen (and give) increased yield" writes the ERS report (pg. 7 and 8) and there were 5,190 test releases by 2014. However, the Union of Concerned Scientists USA report that benefits from a drought resistant GM corn were modest and did not meet expectations and were effective only in moderate drought. A Nature report says conventional crossbred varieties perform better. Notwithstanding this, there has been a five fold increase in GM research in this area according to the ERS report (pg. 6).
GM crops are produced to give better products or desirable qualities such as:
- Delayed ripening, flavor, and texture in fruits and vegetables
- Color changes in cotton and flowers
- Changed fiber properties in cotton or gluten content in wheat
- "Naturally decaffeinated coffee"
- Crops with increased nutritional value like 'protein or carbohydrate content, fatty acid content or and micronutrient content'.
There were 4,896 crop test releases for product quality change writes the ERS report (pg. 6, 7, 8).
Crops are manipulated to produce pharmaceuticals. They may have added or enhanced nutraceuticals, including added vitamins, iron, low-calorie sugar, hypoallergenic crops, antibodies or vaccines Some of them are meant to produce machine oils for industrial uses and there were 1986 test releases in field according to the ERS report (pg. 7, 8).
Forty-seven percent of GM crops have HT and 41% have "stacked traits (combined insect resistance, herbicide tolerance, and other traits)" according to the ISAAA summary (pg. 3). Similarly in the US, herbicide tolerance and pest resistant are present in the majority of GM crops according to ERS (pg. 1).
There were 392 GM events or varieties in 29 crop species that received approvals on 3,768 counts between 1994 to 2016 around the world. Of these 1,777 approvals were "for food use (direct use or for processing)" according to the ISAAA summary (pg. 10).
There were a total of 20 crops with 195 varieties of GM crops in the U.S. by 2016 according to an IASSS report (pg. 8). Over 75% of the processed foods available in U.S. contain GMOs points out Center For Food Safety. As per the ISAAA report (pg. 9), in the U.S. these are in ingredients derived from the most common GMO crops, including:
- Corn: 92% (38.10 million hectares) of American corn is genetically modified. Corn is used in oils, flours, fillers, thickeners, flavorings, sweeteners, livestock feed, and many other applications.
- Soy: 94% (33.87 million hectares) is genetically modified. Soy is a very common ingredient in processed foods. It is used in processed food as oils, fillers, and proteins.
- Cotton: 93% (3.98 million hectares) is genetically modified, and used as feed, food and clothing (pg. 10).
- Alfalfa: 14% (8.46 million hectares) of alfalfa is GM crops. 90% of it is used as feed and 10% as sprouts for human consumption (pg. 11).
- Canola (rapeseed): 90% (0.69 million hectares) of canola (used in oil) is genetically modified. Canola oil is a common ingredient in a number of processed foods, and as feed (pg. 10).
- Sugar beets: 100% (0.47 million hectares) of the sugar beet crops are genetically modified. Sugar beets are used to make sucrose (sugar), as well as in food colorings. They are also used as livestock feed (pg. 11).
Other GM crops in US include Hawaiian papaya, squash, apples, peppers, plum, melon, tomatoes, potatoes, chicory, creeping bentgrass, rose, rice, tobacco and flax, notes ISAAA report (pg. 8).
Where GMOs Are Grown
According to ISAAA summary (pg. 2), there has been a 110 fold increase in GMOs between 1996 to 2016. There are 26 different countries that grow GM crops. The top 10 countries (pg. 4) in 2016 were the following.
- The United States grows 72.9 million hectares of corn, soybeans, cotton, canola, sugar beets, alfalfa, potato, papaya and squash.
- Brazil grows 49.1 million hectares of soybeans, corn and cotton.
- Argentina grows 23.9 million hectares of soybeans, corn and cotton.
- Canada grows 11.6 million hectares of canola, corn, soybeans, alfalfa and sugar beets.
- India grows 10.8 million hectares of cotton.
- Paraguay grows 3.6 million hectares of soybeans, corn and cotton.
- Pakistan grows 2.8 million hectares of cotton.
- China grows 2.8 million hectares of cotton, papaya and poplar.
- South Africa grows 2.7 million hectares of soybeans, corn and cotton.
- Uruguay grows 1.3 million hectares of soybeans and corn.
Other countries that grow GMOs commercially are Bolivia, Philippines, Australia, Myanmar, Spain, Mexico, Colombia, Vietnam, Honduras, Chile, Portugal, Bangladesh, Costa Rica, Slovakia and Czech Republic. The top five countries grow 91% of the global GMO crops according to IASSS Summary (pg. 3).
Fish are the only animal species that are genetically modified themselves; however, livestock are fed with GM crops that are grown specifically for this purpose.
Genetically Modified Livestock Feed
The ISAAA summary (pg. 10) notes that there were 1238 GM crops approvals globally for feed by 2016. These were for 340 GM crop lines used for livestock such as chickens, pigs, sheep, beef cattle and dairy cows states ISAAA Resources. Of the total global production of GM crops, the portion utilized as feed in 2016 was:
- Over 90% of oilseed meals
- 75% of oats
- 70% of corn
- 52% of sorghum
- 18% of wheat
Other crops used as livestock feed are cotton, Argentine canola, Polish canola, alfalfa, sugar beets, apple, plum, bean, chicory, cotton, creeping bentgrass, eucalyptus, papaya, potato, rice, soyabean, squash and tomato.
Dairy products are not genetically modified, but may include ingredients that come from GM livestock feed. Dairy products may also contain genetically modified additives. Additionally, some dairy products come from cattle injected with genetically modified recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), given to increase milk yield. Some facts about this hormone are:
- A 2008 report from Food and Water Watch, says there was only a 10% increase in yield in some cases, but came with increased costs.
- Ten to 15% of dairy cattle are injected with rBGH according to The Organic & Non-GMO Report.
- The injections can result in an increase in 50% of lameness and 25% of mastitis in cows, according to a recent Center for Food Safety report.
- People consuming this milk can end up with higher levels of insulin growth factor-1 (IGF-1) that is linked to development of cancer.
Genetically Modified Fish
The Center for Food Safety reports that around the world as many as 35 different species of fish are being genetically engineered. USDA approved AquaAdvantage Salmon in 2015. The fish have been engineered to grow at two times the rate of non-modified salmon. To avoid cross contaminating non-modified salmon with GM stock, the company states they will render these fish sterile. However, about 30 percent fail to demonstrate complete sterilization at this time.
GMO labeling laws vary around the world.
- Sixty-four countries have GM labeling laws, including countries in the European Union, Australia, Brazil, China, India, Ecuador, Japan, New Zealand, Taiwan, and El Salvador.
- The United States passed a law in 2016 to label food with GM ingredients. The Western Producer notes the law, which will be implemented in 2018, does not have to in the form of written information but only QR codes, so consumers are none the wiser. The Huffington Post found 92% of Americans wanted labelling.
According to GMO Awareness, genetically modified foods have been in grocery stores since 1994. There is little data about the effects of consumption in humans. Multiple animal studies have been conducted. Significant findings so far are:
- American Nutrition Association reports that when rBGH milk is consumed, the increased "IGF-1 is not destroyed by human digestion." It can be absorbed by the intestinal wall and enter the blood stream. Increased levels of IGH-1 were previously linked to a higher risk of developing certain cancers, like colon and prostrate and doubling the risk of developing breast cancer.
- A 2013 Australian and American study showed pigs fed GM foods exhibited stomach inflammation.
- GMO consumption has been linked to development of tumors in rats by a 2013 French study and to premature death of the animals by a 2012 Canadian Study.
Due to safety and environmental concerns, GMOs were banned in 38 countries by 2015, according to Sustainable Pulse.
One of the civisms of GM seeds is their cost to farmers, according to the ERS report (pg. 21). Net gains were not always ensured through cultivation of GM crops and depended on many other factors they further note (pg. 20)
- In 2016, the seed market of biotech crops was alone worth US$15.8 billion according to ISAAA summary (pg. 11).
In 2015 alone, global total benefits from GM crops were US$15.4 billion. Developing countries gained US$7.5 billion and industrial countries US$7.9 billion as per ISAAA report (pg. 7).
The US earned US$6.9 billion in 2015 from GM crops, according to ISAAA report (pg. 7).
A Lingering Debate
The use of GMOs remains hotly debated around the world. When considering the statistics, it's important to consider the source. There are organizations that are strong proponents of GMOs and those that strongly oppose the practice. This has led to controversy.
Many people, including Americans do not want to purchase modified. Average Americans are prepared to pay 5-14% more for non-GM food, and students even up to 60% premium, according to the ERS report (pg. 35 and 36). The only way to ensure buying non-GM food in the United States is to buy organic. GMOs, and products with an ingredient derived from a GMO, cannot have the USDA organic seal on their labels.