GMO crops and foods can be beneficial in some ways, and potentially have drawbacks, or there could be a questionable need for them in other ways.
In this guide, we outline some of the potential pros and cons of GMO crops and foods.
Summary – Pros & Cons Of GMO Crops & Food
We discuss these pros and cons in the guide below in greater detail:
Can be modified for pest and insect resistance
Can be modified for herbicide tolerance
Can be modified for disease resistance
Can be modified for drought resistance
Can be modified for flood resistance
Can be modified for enhanced nutrition, or to have a longer shelf life
Can be modified to decrease browning and bruising
Can be modified to help improve the biofuel manufacturing processes
Might require less nitrogen fertilizer
Can help address larger social and environmental issues
Can encourage beneficial insects and soil bacteria to develop
Might produce higher yields, reduce pesticide use, and increase farmer profits
Can contribute to poverty reduction and food security in developing countries
Can lead to more efficient use of agricultural land and prevent conversion of existing land into agricultural land
Can increase revenues and profits, as well as lower some costs for farmers (related to labor)
Can lead to healthier soil
Potentially safer conditions for farm workers
Potentially less time and effort needing to be expended by farmers and farm workers
Several parties profit/benefit from GMOs
Some modified rice might reduce emissions
May help increase the biodiversity and genetic base of existing staple food crops
The current scientific consensus is that GMOs carry no more risk to human health and the environment than conventional crops
GM technology might be able to speed up what similar results can be achieved from other crop modification methods
The conclusiveness of the consensus on GMOs has been questioned by some
There’s questions over the research and studies on GMOs
There’s questions over whether the GMO testing, regulation, approval and labeling process is adequate in some countries
Other issues, concerns and risks might exist with GMOs, and it’s questioned whether we actually need GMOs in the future
Other solutions exist to address food production for a growing population
Other solutions exist to address other large scale social and environmental issues
Some question the evidence that GMOs really provide specific benefits and resistance
95% of livestock feed in the US is GE, and worldwide, 70 to 90% of GE crop biomass goes to livestock. So there’s a question of whether reducing intake of animal products removes some of the need for GMOs. Additionally, there’s secondary questions over the efficiency and sustainability of livestock production
Money and resources put into GMOs could be put into other agricultural methods and technology
Outcrossing or mixing of genes can occur in the wild
Only a small handful of companies currently own the GM seed market
Developing country farmers using GM seeds may lose leverage, become dependent on GM companies, and be put in a worse situation compared to using non GM seeds
GM seeds may cause legal troubles for some farmers
There may be external political and economic reasons that cause countries to use or not use GMOs (there can be political pressure for example coming from one country, that is placed on another)
Herbicide resistant GM crops may lead to an increase in the use of herbicides, and the development of super weeds
Increase herbicide usage can cause environmental and wildlife damage
GM crops don’t guarantee against losing crops to naturally herbicide resistant weeds
Can reduce biodiversity in some ways
There’s debate that better farming results can be achieved via sustainable and organic farming not using GM seeds
New diseases may emerge
May lead to development of cancer
May cause gene transfer of antibiotic resistant bacteria
Could trigger food allergies
Could trigger allergies in a secondary source
These pros and cons of GMO crops and food are generalised.
The final list of pros and cons of GMOs can be individual to the type of crop or food being grown, the geographical location they’re grown, how they’re grown (the methods and processes used), regulations, testing and labelling in individual countries, and so on.
So, each set of crops or food might be assessed individually, and this is especially relevant as technology changes in the future.
What Are GMO Crops & Foods?
When people refer to genetically modified organisms – GMOs – they are referring to crops developed through genetic engineering, a more precise method of [both selective and advanced] plant breeding.
Genetic engineering, also referred to as biotechnology, allows plant breeders to take a desirable trait found in nature and transfer it from one plant or organism to the plant they want to improve, as well as make a change to an existing trait in a plant they are developing. i.e. they can turn off or move an existing genetic trait, or insert a new desirable trait
For example, certain crops and foods like tomatoes, soybeans, corn and so on, can have desirable genes added for drought, pest, or disease resistance.
You can read more in this guide about what GMOs are, and what they’re used for.
Potential Pros Of GMO Crops & Foods
Can Be Modified For Pest & Insect Resistance
Crops can be engineered to be more pest resistant to whatever the dominant pests are in a particular region.
This may reduce the need for pesticide application, and time spent spraying pesticides
Can Be Modified For Herbicide Resistance
Crops can be engineered to tolerate specific herbicides to allow farmers to fight weeds by applying targeted herbicides only when needed (gmoanswers.com).
There’s also the added benefit that soil doesn’t need to be tilled as often for weed control, so, farmers can use conservation tillage production methods that preserve topsoil, prevent erosion, and reduce carbon emissions
Can Be Modified For Disease Resistance
Crops and foods can be engineered to be more resistant diseases that are specific to a crop or food.
For example, the papaya ring spot virus (PRSV).
The GM Rainbow Papaya, developed to be resistant to PRSV, allowed Hawaiian papaya farmers to recover from an outbreak of this devastating disease that crippled their industry (gmoanswers.com)
Can Be Modified For Drought Resistance
GM crops that express drought tolerance have better moisture retention and can better endure drought conditions without the need for additional irrigation (gmoanswers.com)
Can Be Modified For Flood Resistance
Scientists have already worked on rice varieties to extend the amount of days that rice can survive under flooding conditions.
Scientists are now working on other crop types such as tomato to try to incorporate flood resisting traits
Can Be Modified For An Enhanced Nutritional Profile, Or Have A Longer Shelf Life
Foods can be engineered to have a better shelf life, or better nutrients, or more of a specific nutrient (vittana.org).
Genetically modified soybeans with an enhanced oil profile, much like olive oil, have been developed and are longer lasting and trans-fat free (gmoanswers.com)
Can Be Modified To Decrease Browning & Bruising
Genetic engineering has been used to modify potatoes and apples in order to eliminate superficial browning and bruising (potato only) when the produce is cut or handled.
These traits can help reduce the amount of produce thrown away by producers, processors, retailers and consumers (gmoanswers.com).
There’s the benefit of helping to address food waste in this instance
Can Be Modified To Help Improve Biofuel Manufacturing Processes (& Save Resource Inputs)
Certain biotech corn varieties enable more efficient biofuels production by improving the process through which cellulose and/or starch is broken down and converted to fuel.
This helps reduce the environmental impact of the manufacturing process by decreasing the amount of water, electricity, and natural gas needed to produce biofuel (gmoanswers.com)
Might Require Less Nitrogen Fertilizer
We have GM crop plants with … the ability to produce more food with lower fertiliser inputs (theconversation.com).
Less nitrogen fertilizer also means less emissions and fertilizer run off, and fertilizer related pollution
Can Address Larger Social & Environmental Issues
Genetic engineering of crops and foods for traits like drought resistance, and bruising resistance for example, can help address bigger issues like water scarcity, food waste, and so on.
All of these issues are either issues right now, or issues heading into the future.
Crops genetically engineered to cope with drought and hot/dry conditions, crops that need less water, and reducing food waste through having foods that last longer can all help address these problems.
Food can be engineered to last longer, so it can be transported longer distances into rural or remote areas to those with a lack of food
Genetic engineering has been used to modify potatoes and apples in order to eliminate superficial browning and bruising (potato only) when the produce is cut or handled.
These traits can help reduce the amount of produce thrown away by producers, processors, retailers and consumers
Through better food production with GE, we may also be able to address other world issues going forward like climate change/global warming, freshwater supply issues, water security, overpopulation, malnutrition and so on
Can Reduce Environmental Pollution Overall
If less synthetic pesticides, herbicides and nitrogen fertilizers are used in crop production, there is then less synthetic chemicals that are running off into the soil, water and air, and less emissions, and so on.
Can Encourage Beneficial Insects & Soil Bacteria To Develop
When there is less pesticide being applied to crops (due to pest resistant crops), beneficial insects and bacteria have a better chance to develop and sustain populations.
Might Produce Higher Yields
Some GMO farms report higher yields for the same area of land as conventional farming.
In the most comprehensive meta-analysis (of 147 publications) to date, researchers from Goettingen University have concluded that the adoption of GM technology has:
Reduced pesticide use by 37%
Increased crop yield by 22%
Increased farmer profits by 68%.
… The yield and profit gains are considerably higher in developing countries than in developed countries, and 53% of GM crops are grown in developing countries (theconverstion.com)
… from 1996 to 2015, GMO crops are estimated to have contributed to an additional global production of 357.7 million tons of maize, 180.3 million tons of soybeans, 25.2 million tons of cotton and 10.6 million tons of canola.
GM crops have contributed to higher yields, e.g., 30 percent more in some farming areas …
Can Contribute To Poverty Reduction & Food Security In Developing Countries
Can contribute to poverty reduction and food security in developing countries (gmoanswers.com).
The yield and profit gains are considerably higher in developing countries than in developed countries, and 53% of GM crops are grown in developing countries (theconverstion.com)
More Efficient Use Of Agricultural Land
Higher yields for the same area of land means crop land is used more efficiently
GM crops increase productivity on existing agricultural land and protect biodiversity by sparing lands not intensively cultivated.
Through enhanced adoption of conservation tillage practices, the reduction of insecticide use, and the use of more environmentally benign herbicides that increase yields, GM agriculture has alleviated pressure to convert additional land into agricultural use (gmoanswers.com)
Better Revenues & Profits, & Lower Costs For Farmers
Higher yields, and less input costs, time and effort spent on growing and processing foods and crops – means more revenues and profits for farmers
Can Lead To Healthier Soil
Less tillage and less pesticide application can preserve the soil and increase soil health as it’s not getting disturbed and eroded as often, and it also allows mulch and beneficial biomass to build up on the soil more frequently
Potentially Safer Conditions For Farm Workers, & Less Risks To Their Health
If less chemicals such as pesticides are sprayed on crops, particularly in developing countries where workers are exposed most to harmful chemicals, the conditions for farmers and their workers might be safer
Potentially Less Time & Effort Needing To Be Expended By Farmers & Farm Workers
Less pesticide spraying, and less tillage with pest resistant or herbicide resistant crops for example mean less time and effort expended for farmers and workers on GE crops and food
Several Parties Profit/Benefit From GMOs
The global market for genetically modified crops was estimated at $14.8 billion in 2012.
Studies differ on how this money is divvied up.
One 2010 review estimated very roughly that somewhere around one-third of the total economic benefit of GM crop technology goes to seed and chemical companies.
Another third accrues to US farmers.
The remaining third is split between US consumers and the rest of the world:
But, in general, it’s said that Seed & Chemical companies, US farmers, US consumers, and developed countries all benefit
Newly Engineered Rice Might Be Able To Reduce Emissions
There can be other benefits in GM crops, beyond yield and resistance.
Rice produces 10% of the world’s methane emissions so imagine if somebody could reduce emissions by 90%, and make plants with larger seeds containing more energy.
Chuangxin Sun’s group at Swedish Agricultural University has done precisely that by transferring a single gene from barley to rice.
If all the world’s rice used this technology, it would be the equivalent of closing down 150 coal-fired power stations or removing 120 million cars from the road annually
Can Help Preserve Or Increase Biodiversity, Or Increase The Size Of Genetic Bases
Since we are dealing with narrow genetic and germplasm bases for most of our staple food crops, we may have to reach out to genetic engineering technologies and genes from other sources to improve them further
We currently rely on very few plant species for the majority of the world’s food production.
More than half of our plant-derived energy intake comes from just three grasses (wheat, rice and corn).
Gene editing could provide a way to expand this
The Current Scientific Consensus Is That GMOs Carry No More Risk To Human Health & The Environment Than Conventional Food & Crops
Various sources say GMO foods provide the same nutrients and the same health risks as organic foods (vittana.org)
GMO Technology Might Be Able To Speed Up What Similar Results We Can Get From Cross Breeding
[A Mexico City-based organization has created drought resistant maize varieties that yield up to 30% higher than commercial seeds under drought conditions … but this has taken years and decades to achieve … and they are 10 years or more from economic commercialization] (forbes.com)
Potential Cons Of GMO Crops & Foods
The Conclusiveness Of The Consensus On GMOs Has Been Questioned By Some
There’s Questions Over The Research & Studies On GMOs
A few claims made are that user agreements with half of today’s leading GMO seed producers prohibit the use of independent research on the final product.
This helps to protect the royalties that the companies earn when farmers are able to harvest a yield through the use of their seeds.
Since the seeds are considered company property, even the unintended growing of a GMO crop can result in the need to pay a royalty
Research into GM seeds is tightly controlled by the agritech companies that have given themselves the power to quash the work of independent researchers.
Research on genetically modified seeds is still done by independent scientists, but only studies that the seed companies have approved are published in peer-reviewed journals
There’s Questions Over Whether The GMO Testing, Regulation, Approval and Labelling Process Is Adequate In Some Countries
There’s Questions Over How Safe GMOs Are To Eat For Humans, & Possibly For Livestock
Although there’s studies to support the safety of GMOs to consume, other sources at least question the safety of GMOs to consume.
Other Potential Issues, Concerns & Risks Might Exist With GMOs, & It’s Questioned Whether We Actually Need GMOs In The Future
There’s a list of other potential issues that various sources identify might exist with GMOs, and there’s considerations on both sides of the debate when it comes to questioning whether GMOs are required for the future or not.
Other Solutions Exist To Address Food Production For A Growing Population
For example … population management in overpopulated cities, changes to lifestyles, changes to consumer choices and diets, changes what we grow and produce, and where we grow things (geographically) in agriculture, changing farming methods (conventional vs sustainable/organic), and so on.
Other Solutions Exist To Address Other Large Scale Environmental & Social Issues
Such as better and more efficient water and irrigation management to address water scarcity, reducing emissions to address a changing climate, investing in farm, storage and transport level technology in developing countries to address food loss, and minimizing retailer and consumer level food waste to address food waste in developed countries, and so on.
Some Question The Evidence That GMOs Really Provide Specific Benefits & Resistance
Despite biotech industry promises, there is no evidence that any of the GMOs currently on the market offer increased yield, drought tolerance, enhanced nutrition, or any other consumer benefit (nongmoproject.org).
Monsanto had marketed a drought-resistant corn product, but that this has not had great commercial uptake and its efficacy was questioned by a scientific study …
[it is worth noting though that] Arcadia has not yet received regulatory approval for the product, so has not been able to sell drought-tolerant soybeans in Argentina.
As such, the commercial impact of the product is still uncertain
Livestock Feed Crops In The US Are Largely GMO, So There’s A Question Of Whether Reducing Intake Of Animal Products Removes Some Of The Need For GMOs
Food-producing animals consume 70% to 90% of genetically engineered crop biomass, mostly corn and soybean (forbes.com).
Changing our diets and agricultural production to require less animal feed crops and reducing animal products in general brings into question the reliance on GMOs in this regard
There’s Debate On Whether The Money & Resources Put Into GMOs Could Be Put Into Other Agricultural Methods & Technology
For example, the regulatory approval process alone can cost millions of dollars for a new GM crop.
It’s arguable that this money and these resources could be spent elsewhere, such as on plant cross breeding techniques, or on developing organic and sustainable farming technology and programs
Outcrossing Or Mixing Of Genes Can Occur In The Wild
This is where GE foods and crops mix with conventional or natural foods or crops, or a nut gene gets transferred to a soybean for example.
In 2000, it was found that a pest-repelling GMO corn crop that was only approved for feeding animals had cross-pollinated conventional corn crops nearby that were intended for human food
Long Term Impact Of GMOs Might Be Questionable
In the absence of credible independent long-term feeding studies, the safety of GMOs is unknown (nongmoproject.org).
The Australian Organic organisation says … there are no long-term studies on human health (theconversation.com)
Only A Small Number Of Companies Own The Entire GM Seed Market
There are 5 other companies that, along with Monsanto, control nearly all of the GMO seed market.
This include Sungenta, Dow Agrosciences, Bayer, BASF, and DuPont.
This means a majority of corn and soybean products are not only profiting the farmer, but they are profiting companies as well
Many believe that the dominance of the global GM seed and agrichemicals market by a handful of chemical companies (including Dow Chemical, Du Pont, Monsanto, Bayer, ChemChina and Syngenta) puts farmers in financially vulnerable situations, particularly in developing countries.
Where once farmers had choice and saved their own seeds for crop regeneration, now Monsanto has them sign a user agreement that prevents them from saving and replanting the seeds, forcing them to reinvest each season
A Specific Conflict Of Interest By GMO Seed Companies Might Be Their Ownership Of Herbicides That Has Grown In Use Significantly Since The Introduction Of GMOs
Biotech companies have certainly profited from GM crops, not least because seeds and genetic innovations can be patented.
Monsanto, for instance, can sell both Roundup herbicide and Roundup-resistant corn and soybeans to farmers, who must repurchase the seeds every year
More than 80% of all genetically modified crops grown worldwide have been engineered for herbicide tolerance.
As a result, the use of toxic herbicides, such as Roundup®, has increased fifteenfold since GMOs were first introduced
theconversation.com says that ‘glyphosate is safe if used as directed’ and there is ‘no statistically significant evidence for an association [of glyphosate] with cancer’.
But, Forbes.com points out ‘While Roundup has not tested as toxic to humans and other mammals, the longer it has been on the market, the worse its effects on soil health and long-term plant fecundity appear. In addition, Roundup Ready plants may not allow necessary micronutrients to be absorbed by animals consuming them’
Developing Country Farmers Using GM Seeds May Lose Leverage, Become Dependent On GM Companies, & Be Put In A Worse Situation Compared To Using Non GM Seeds
Losing leverage, power and independence, and going into debt.
Seeds might not be renewable for example or farmers may be limited by the seeds they can choose from to grow (by way of contract) – which can put developing country farmers in debt if they don’t make a profit on one particular season
… the companies that make GMOs now have the power to sue farmers whose fields have been contaminated with GMOs, even when it is the result of the drift of pollen from neighboring fields.
Genetically modified crops therefore pose a serious threat to farmer sovereignty and to the national food security of any country where they are grown
GMO Farming May Cause Legal Trouble For Some Farmers
To protect GMO profits, patents are sought on certain seeds, which has caused legal troubles for some farmers who have had GMO seeds cross-pollinate with their crops, despite not planting GMOs (vittana.org)
There Can Be External Political & Economic Reasons That Cause Countries To Use Or Not Use GMOs
Such as some countries in Africa who might be hesitant to introduce GM food and crops through fear of damaging trade relations with Europe, who has strict regulations on growing GM food (theconversation.com).
When nations ban the importation or cultivation of GMO products, such moves are generally driven not by science, as the independent science organizations in every major country have come out with public statements that GM products are safe.
Other factors are trade protectionism, pressure from activists, public uneasiness or a desire to protect a country’s image—such as the French belief that genetic crops could “contaminate” the country’s reputation as a world food capital.
As is often the case with GMOs, the situation in the European Union suggests how divisive and political this issue has become.
The EU has witnessed numerous skirmishes between scientists and politically-based opposition.
Scottish leaders, for example, admitted that their decision to opt out of GMO cultivation was based on marketing concerns, rather than science.
And when the European Commission’s science adviser, Anne Glover, spoke in favor of the science of genetic engineering, she found herself out of a job following intense lobbying by opposition groups.
Bans almost always run counter to the advice of scientists and agricultural experts in the nations where they are implemented
It Is Believed There Is Some Connection Between Herbicide Resistant Crops, & The Development Of Herbicide Resistant Weeds In The US – Which Has Actually Led To An Increase In The Use Of Some Types Of Herbicides, and Super Weeds Developing
We are talking about the impact of Glyphosate, Roundup, Glyphosate Tolerant Crops, Glyphosate Resistant Weeds and so on (blogs.umass.edu).
Genetically modified crops also are responsible for the emergence of “superweeds” and “superbugs,” which can only be killed with ever more toxic poisons such as 2,4-D (a major ingredient in Agent Orange) (nongmoproject.org)
The Increase In Herbicide Usage Can Cause Environmental & Wildlife Damage
Due to runoff into soil and water.
And this affects amphibians and other types of wildlife (blogs.umass.edu)
GMO Crops Can Still Be Lost To Weeds Naturally Resistant To Herbicides
There are currently 64 different types of weeds which have been proven to be resistant to atrazine – all without GMO pairing.
Farmers can lose up to half their yield from these atrazine-resistant weeds (vittana.org)
Can Reduce Biodiversity In Some Ways, Or Place Environmental Pressure On Other Plants, Crops & Foods
Modified organisms could be inbred with natural organisms, leading to the possible extinction of the original organism (livescience.com).
If plants and crops and food are continually engineered and bred for the same traits – there may be a loss of overall diversity of genetic information, despite the more favorable new crops and foods being better for farmers and consumers
There’s Debate That Better Farming Results Can Be Achieved With Sustainable/Organic Farming & Non GM Seeds
Such as yields, reduced pesticide use, reduced energy usage, increased revenues and so on (earthopensource.org)
New Diseases May Emerge
Bacteria and viruses are sometimes used in gene modification, and some people believe this could lead to new pathogens.
This is more so speculation at this point though (choice.com.au)
Might Be Linked To Cancer Development
A paper that was first published in 2013 linked the herbicide that is found in Roundup-tolerant crops to cancer development in rats.
Some people are skeptical of eating corn because of this (vittana.org)
May Cause Gene Transfer Of Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria
GMOs are often incorporated with antibiotic-resistant genes in order to strengthen the crops that will grow.
There is speculation, but no confirmed facts or correlations, that this process could be contributing to the formation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria (vittana.org).
Although the probability is low, gene transfer from GM foods into bacteria in our gut, or cells in our body, could occur.
There are fears that antibiotic-resistant genes used as markers when creating GMOs could contribute to antibiotic resistance (choice.com.au)
Could Trigger Food Allergies
There is no clear evidence that supports this, but it is an idea that some people believe could be true (vittana.org)
Could Trigger Allergies In A Secondary Source
In one case, GMOs that contained proteins from Brazil nuts were found to trigger an allergic reaction in people who are allergic to them.
Because of this, any proteins that come from a different food item must be listed as part of the ingredients or growing process and be tested to determine their ability to cause an allergic reaction
In 1996, researchers found that when an allergenic Brazil nut gene was transferred into a soybean, the allergenicity from the Brazil nuts was transferred too.
It wasn’t approved for market and, since then, the FAO and WHO say that allergenic proteins are not allowed to be transferred into a GMO
Do We Need GMOs In The Future?
Considering How To Use & Manage GMOs In Society In The Future
Are GMOs Good Or Bad Overall?