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What are GMO foods and are they safe?


The term ‘GMO’ means Genetically Modified Organisms in other words if a food is GMO it has been altered in one way or another, so sceptics in the world have named them ‘Frankenfoods’, presumably because they feel they are a monstrous creation and completely unnatural.

Both plants and animal products can be GMO, even human beings can be – it’s purely a case of the alteration of DNA in any living person or substance, including bacteria. The change is made in order to ‘improve’ the foodstuff, possibly in taste, texture, colour or size. Genetic alterations have to be carried out technically, and cannot be produced naturally. It is by no means a new process, plants and animals have long been pollinated or bred to create ‘the perfect product’ in one way or another. Obviously these days, technical advancements have made this a more widely used process, but there are certain legal requirements in the UK to ensure product safety to the consumer.

Many scientists are still against genetic modification, and it is believed that at least a third of the UK population also feel the same way. Supporters of this process believe that it is totally safe and in many cases desirable to both the consumer and the environment. It is also a must speedier process than centuries ago when breeding was the only way to potentially create a much more superior product.


How are GMO foods created?

In short, depending on what is required of the genetically modified product (be it size, texture or even colour), a gene is selected or isolated from an organism and then pushed into the plant or animal selected. This can be done as a manual process, or by attaching to a virus that is completely harmless to both the product and the consumer at the end of the line. Readers of this may throw up their hands in horror, but viruses are frequently used in medical practice such as immunisation. In depth scientific research has categorically shown that this should have no effect on the human body, and that applies to both adults and children.

Looking at GMO foods from a positive angle, there are plus points. With nutrition, the highly motivational aspect in todays world, the density of vitamins can be increased via this method. The resultant effect of this is to increase nutrition factors in the poorer parts of the world where foodstuffs that are essential to health are not readily available or nutrient dense. Vitamin A is a classic example of an essential nutrient to prevent early child mortality and also blindness. Images of small children weak and dying are frequently seen in third world countries and consequently plastered all over the media. The only question anyone could really ask is an ethical one.


What are other reasons for creating GMO foods?

On a global basis, creating crops that are GMO modified will without doubt increase crop yield, vital in areas that are seriously deficient due to lack of water or availability of advanced irrigation systems. The poorer areas where famine is rife will certainly benefit from this. It is also possible to modify certain products to create a ‘bug repellent’ plant, thereby decreasing the use of chemicals and pesticides.


What are the drawbacks?

If you can get over the fact that food products have been ‘tampered with’, there is an ethical issue in that the larger food conglomerates may not be sharing their discoveries and processes with other parts of the world, and consequently retain the intellectual properties of the GM foods they have produced. This can result in farmers not being allowed to retain seeds from their crops and thus prevent them from any growth that they need for themselves. They must buy any new seeds direct from the patent holder, potentially at inflated prices, which makes the poorer farmers prone to exploitation. Farmers who have not purchased from the corporations can be faced with extreme fines, putting them under considerable stress.

This is a moral issue.

Some scientists are still not convinced on the production of GM foodstuffs and believe that there has not been enough time to fully evaluate the consequences, and potentially there is a toxin issue which may not yet have manifested itself as being a problem. Harmful toxins can take many generations to come to light.


Do GMO products have safety standards in the UK?

Yes, both in the UK and the rest of the EU. They are judged rigorously by the EFSA (European Food Standards Authority) on the following:

  • Potential toxins
  • Nutrient content and value
  • Any dangers of allergic/toxic reactions

Furthermore, they must be fully labelled and show that they contain GMO’s, or contain ingredients produced from GMO’s. They have to have equal nutritional value or higher value than their comparable non-GMO product.

These are the basic principles of GMO foodstuffs and their content/labelling laws. At the end of the day the choice is up to you and it may not be worth being ‘afraid’ of eating such foodstuffs – there is no scientific proof that they will harm you in any way. In fact, they could be far more nutritious and have better flavour than their non-GMO counterparts.

If you remain unconvinced, try looking up non-biased or independent organisations to provide you with more information. The Genetic Literacy Project would be a good way to start via the web, or on Facebook. They are totally independent and dedicated to providing the public with awareness on the topic of genetics and other related issues.