GMOs: What are the issues?

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) in food is a topical issue and one that, we know, concerns many of Woolworths customers. The issue is making news nearly every day, and issues surrounding GMOs are a source of ongoing debate in the community.

What does the term GMO stand for and why is it such a controversial issue?

GMO stands for "genetically modified organisms", and foods that contain ingredients with GMOs are considered GMO foods. GMOs are used in many crops including soybeans, maize and cotton.
GMOs are created in the laboratory when scientists isolate genes that are responsible for certain traits in one plant and insert the gene into another plant or add genes from non-plant organisms to a plant. Organisms that have been genetically modified include micro-organisms such as bacteria and yeast, plants and fish.

The key areas of controversy are:
1. whether or how GM food should be labelled;
2. the role of government regulators;
3. the effect of GM crops on health and the environment;
4. the effect on pests and pesticide resistance;
5. the impact of GM crops for farmers;
6. the role of GM crops in feeding the world population; and
7. Ownership of the food supply chain (seed patents).


The arguments against GMOs focus on:

1. Safety
The issue of safety of GMOs has been a concern since researchers first introduced them commercially in 1996 in the USA and in 1998 in South Africa. Government support for GM implies that there are no safety issues.

2. Effects on small farmers
Some of the arguments against the use of GMOs include industrialisation of agriculture, pushing out the small farmers in favour of mass production of crops due to legalities surrounding intellectual property and ownership of seeds. It should be noted that it’s not only GMOs that contribute to these issues.

3. Potential “superbugs” and “superweeds”
Among the critics' most serious charges are GMOs' potential to stimulate the rise of antibiotic-resistant "superbugs" and pesticide-resistant "superweeds" that require the use of increasingly powerful drugs and hazardous chemicals.

4. Possible “contamination” of other plants
One major concern is keeping genetically modified crops from entering the environment, where their DNA could mingle with the DNA of other plants. The effect that genetically modified DNA could have on other plants is currently unknown.  

5. Potential long-term risks
Opponents of genetically modified food claim risks have not been adequately identified and managed. Some health groups say there are unanswered questions regarding the potential long-term impact on human health from food derived from GMOs, and propose mandatory labeling or a moratorium on such products.


The arguments in favour of GMO focus on:

1. Faster growth and maturity of plants
Supporters of GMO argue that genetically modified plants and animals that grow and mature faster with greater disease resistance and bigger yields are a strong argument in favor of GMO cultivation.

2. No risks to people and environment
There is significant scientific consensus that food derived from GM crops poses no greater risk than conventional food. No reports of ill effects have been proven in the human population from ingesting GM food.

3. Environmental benefits
There are environmental benefits to GM crops. Some GMO plants, for example, can be "designed" with a built-in resistance to insect pests. These plants need fewer pesticides, making them a greener choice for farmers than non-GMO crops that require pesticides. Plants and animals can also be genetically improved to grow in poorer soils, colder temperatures, drier climates and other less-than-favourable conditions. These GMO crops could have more nutrients and could also need less-intensive industrial processing. Proponents argue these are important benefits in a world where more than 7 billion people now need to be fed.

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