By Jubilee Cheung
Ever since their introduction, the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in agriculture has always met with mixed feelings from the American populace at best. The term GMO, in the more specific context of produce, most commonly refers to crop items that have had their genes modified in a laboratory setting. Traditionally, farmers have practiced selective breeding but to a lesser extent, hence the subtle distinction. There has been a decidedly less ambiguous response to genetically modified organisms in Europe, where their implementation has been consistently condemned and met with open skepticism.
In Europe, there is currently only one GM crop, MON 810 – a type of corn – that is commercially grown. MON 810’s appeal is in its capacity to repel insects, most notably the European Corn Borer (Ostrinia nubilalis). Even given that, MON 810 is only grown in five countries: Spain, Portugal, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Romania. It is fair to say that the stigma associated, perhaps unfairly, with GM crops is very evident in European countries. A new law relevant to the matter is expected to be passed in the European Union, which allows member nations more power to impose restrictions on the growth of genetically modified crops.
Under the proposed law, nations would be able to more readily hinder the production of GMO crops through an increased ability to oppose their introduction. Nations’ governments, for example, would have the right to ban the growth of GMO crops on the basis of the preservation of an ecosystem. Causes that could be cited in a justified ban include “environmental reasons, socioeconomic reasons, land use and town planning, agricultural policy objectives and public policy issues.” Under the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), Europe has always endorsed strict regulations in regards to GM crops; under the proposed law, regulations would be no less rigorous and would also serve to give countries more choice in their terms of what they decide to grow. By giving countries broader grounds on which to challenge the proliferation of GMOs, the proposed law effectively endows them with the ability to decide for themselves if they want to raise GM crops at all; in this manner, the processes of both cultivating and banning GM crops have been greatly facilitated in Europe.
Similar trends can be observed in the United States, where food items that have been labeled as GMO free have seen incredible profits in recent years: products in this category reportedly raked in sales totaling $10 billion in 2014. Globally, sales of non-GMO food items are expected to increase twofold by 2017, indicating a strong upward trend. In this regard, it appears that the term GMO now has a decidedly more negative connotation now than in the past – at least in the sense that products lacking what the public considers genetic modification have evidently been deemed more desirable.
However, it may well be that GMOs do not deserve their bad reputation or, at least not to such an extreme degree. Genetically modified food items have yet to produce any conclusively ill effects in the populace that consumes them, and have shown in evaluations that they “are not likely to present risks for human health.” The World Health Organization further states that “no effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved.” Bearing in mind that GM food items do not appear to adversely affect their consumers, it is a worthwhile endeavor to take account of the advantages associated with cultivating them. GM seeds were originally developed with the purpose of maximizing efficiency; they are engineered to have high yield and heightened resistance to pests and disease. GM seeds’ apparent biological superiority enables farmers to reduce the resources required to maintain their crops, thereby increasing their profits. The economic benefits of employing GM seeds are bolstered by the fact that there have been no confirmed consequences of using them where consumer health is concerned.
The various new approaches to discourage the growth of genetically modified crops serve to reinforce the somewhat exaggerated, if not altogether misconstrued, idea that they are in any way harmful. Labeling food items as GMO-free suggests that there is something fundamentally wrong with products that are comprised of GMO content – the irony of the matter being that such labels are often both unclear and less than trustworthy. While the new law to be passed in Europe also seems to be mostly a nod in favor of more traditional agricultural practices, some European countries – namely the United Kingdom and Netherlands – have governments that endorse GM crops. With the law in place, the United Kingdom is expected to increase its production of GM crops, now having the power to choose whether or not it wants to grow GMOs.
While GM crops have yet to produce any visible ill effects, they represent a relatively new agriculture practice whose effects are not yet fully understood. The skepticism with which they are met is understandable; not only is the idea of ingesting food items that have been tampered with somewhat unsettling, there are some that have argued that GM crops threaten natural biodiversity. It is difficult to make definitive conclusions regarding how GMOs should be viewed as a whole by society, but it is worth taking note of both their political and economic influence as a commodity of sorts.
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