Like the battles over gluten and MSG, the debate over genetically modified organisms (or GMOs) is one of those health-and-nutrition controversies that involves so much complex back and forth being shouted from both sides that it's difficult to even wrap your head around the issue, much less form an opinion on it yourself!

First of all, the point stands that people have been "genetically modifying" plants and animals as soon as we developed a conceptual understanding of genetics, which may have been as early as 7800 BCE.

To do this, we would encourage those of our plants and animals that had the most desirable traits to reproduce with one another in an attempt to increase the chances of these traits being present in their offspring. In this manner, we facilitated the creation of dogs from wolves and the propagation of countless new plant breeds worldwide.

Yet "genetic modification" as the term is usually used today began in 1973, when scientists first transferred a gene from one strain of bacteria into a different type of bacteria. The new technology was first used on animals shortly after in 1974.

Now, we could do more than enhance and exaggerate the traits nature had given our plants and animals. By transferring genes, we could attempt to imbue them with traits that came from other species entirely!

In the early 80s, a variety of insulin produced by genetically engineered bacteria was approved. The first approved genetically modified food product, a tomato engineered to stay firm longer, appeared a good deal later in 1992. (This instead of, say, trying to figure out how to provide the public with fresher tomatoes.)

Then came varieties of corn that naturally produced insecticides, and new breeds of plants designed to withstand herbicides, which quickly became widely used. Despite the fact that almost half of all American claim to distrust GMOs, genetically modified ingredients have now infiltrated as much as 70 percent of our food supply.

Most corn, soy, cotton, and sugar beets grown today have been genetically modified, and you'd be hard-pressed to find a non-organic variety of processed food free of additives derived from genetically modified versions of one of the crops above.

Genetically modified corn is also used by the meat industry as animal feed, meaning that we may be getting a decent dose of GMO food second-hand when we eat non-organic chicken or beef.

However, there may be nothing to worry about. GMO products have been declared "not inherently dangerous" by the FDA. Mainstream science has similarly concluded that genetically modified foods are no less safe than other foods and that rates of major diseases among humans seem not to have risen since GMOs were introduced into our food supply.

While some experts on the anti-GMO side assert otherwise, there are many ways to distort statistics, and the opposition is quick to point out that any correlation between the incidence of a disease and the advent of GMOs cannot necessarily be interpreted as implying that one caused the other.

However, if the effects of GMOs on our health were subtle ones, it's also possible that a correlation would go unnoticed. With such a new technology, we wouldn't even know what health problems to look for!

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While the anti-GMO crowd have been derisively referred to as the "climate skeptics of the left," or on the same level as anti-vaxers, there are some very real risks that come with the technology. For example, a gene added to an organism could have some kind of snowball effect on other genes in an organism, leading to the production of a novel toxin.

This has actually happened at least once, when a supplement produced using genetically modified bacteria led to an outbreak of a new disease called eosinophilia myalgia, which was characterized by severe muscle pain, an overload of white blood cells, and, in some patients, paralysis. The disease killed 37 people and affected over 1500 others, disabling many permanently.

Others worry that genetic engineering could accidentally introduce a new allergen into a plant that did not previously contain them. Of course, the risk of these occurrences could conceivably be minimized by adequate testing before any genetically modified plant or animal leaves the laboratory.

However, there's also at least one case where a genetically engineered crop that should have still been in a testing phase was found to have made its way into nature. What if a less innocent Franken-plant manages to do the same thing?

GMO proponents also assert that stronger plants could allow farmers to use less pesticides and herbicides and thus cause less damage to the environment. Unfortunately, since some GMO plants can withstand more chemicals, farmers may well spray them with more chemicals, chemicals which can have plenty of their own toxic effects on the environment and our food supply.

Additionally, farmers' over-reliance on pesticide-resistant and herbicide-ready plants have already begun to lead to the advent of herbicide-resistant superweeds and pesticide-resistant insects; by carelessly removing all but the strongest weeds and bugs from the gene pool by robbing them of their usual food source, farmers leave only the stubborn mutants to reproduce.

The creation of herbicidal plants has also led to a decline in milkweed, which in turn seems to have had a detrimental effect on the population of butterflies who use that milkweed as a food source.

Other arguments against GMOs have less to do with the technology itself than how that technology is likely to be used. Because a genetically engineered plant can be patented, any great new variation of a crop that is created is likely to be used not for the greater good but to enhance the monopoly of a corrupt seed company.

Yet in focusing on the relatively small risks of GMOs, could we be ignoring their potential to provide huge benefits if their creators were able to keep the greater good in mind? For example, in hopes of addressing devastating Vitamin A deficiency in the developing world, a group of scientists have created genetically modified "golden rice," a food just as cheap and easy to grow as plain rice but with a higher beta-carotene content.

A food without GMOs also isn't neccesarily a healthy one. GMO-free junk food will still be junk food, and if you think it is "natural" or "safe," you may be far more inclined to eat too much of it!

In fact, when the GMO ingredients were removed from Cheerios, the cereal actually became less nutritious. Since locating vitamins from GMO-free sources is becoming more and more difficult, it proved easier for the manufacturers to do away with the vitamins altogether!

Though foods free of GMOs will often proclaim that status loud and proud, you can find food that is genetically modified by watching for text indicating that a food has been "partially produced by genetic engineering" or a symbol like this one:

It's unfair to lump in humanitarian GMO projects like golden rice with projects undertaken by huge corporations in their efforts to make a deeply flawed food system more efficient. Thus, it seems that the answer as to whether genetically modified organisms are good or bad depends largely on how we use them.

If used unwisely, the propagation of GMOs could easily lead to economic and environmental disaster; but if used with wisdom, they could be the next food frontier!

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