Genetically Modified Foods—Do Potential Problems Outweigh Benefits?

can of genetically modified tomatoes

Although these tomatoes are labeled, genetically modified foods are not required to be labeled in the United States. However, they must meet the same standards of safety as traditionally grown food.

There is a food fight going on, and you may need to choose a side. Genetically
modified (GM) foods have been on the market since the early 1990s. Today most foods in the United States have GM ingredients. But the wide availability of GM food raises concerns about its effects on our health and on the environment. Should we continue to use GM foods?

New Technology, Old Idea

GM plants have genes that have been artificially introduced into the plant’s genome. This technology gives plants a new characteristic, such as a new color or different flavor. To date, most genetically engineered foods have been bred for disease resistance. GM crops on the market include wheat, rice, corn, soybeans, potatoes, tomatoes, and cantaloupes.

Genetic engineering is a fairly new process, but plants have been modified through careful selection and cross-breeding for thousands of years. In fact, many experts argue that genetic engineering of crops is just a faster and more precise method of selective breeding.

The Green Revolution

In the 1960s, scientist Norman Borlaug and a team of researchers used cross-breeding techniques to develop a new strain of wheat. The new strain produced two to three times as much wheat as traditional varieties, and resisted many types of insects and diseases. Widely planted, these new varieties changed Mexico from an importer of wheat to an exporter within 20 years. Borlaug and his team began shipping the new strain of wheat to India and Pakistan. Both countries quickly doubled their wheat production. This scientific advance, led by Borlaug, became known as the Green Revolution and drastically improved crop yields worldwide. For his work, Borlaug received the Nobel Prize in 1970. Borlaug supported the genetic engineering of crops and viewed it as the next wave of the Green Revolution.

Benefits of GM Crops

GM crops have the potential to improve nutrition worldwide. For example, researchers have developed a GM variety of rice, called “golden rice,” that is high in vitamin A. Half of the world’s population relies on rice as the main part of their diet. Non-modified rice lacks vitamin A, however, and vitamin A deficiency in humans can cause blindness and sometimes death. Golden rice could prevent millions of deaths of young children in developing countries every year. Other promising uses of genetic engineering include growing fruits and vegetables that produce vaccines in their tissues. Carrying important vaccines in food might eventually make shipment, storage, and administration of medicine easier worldwide.

GM crops benefit farmers because they take less time, water, and land to grow. Some GM plants can grow in poor soils or withstand drought, cold temperature, and insect damage. These crops lessen the need for pesticide, herbicide, or fertilizer. Consumers benefit from GM produce that stays fresh longer.

Potential Hidden Costs of GM Crops

biotech protestors

Some people worry that genetically-modified foods will negatlively affect ecosystems.

Opponents of genetically modified foods argue that it is impossible to predict exactly how the new crops—sometimes called “Frankenfoods”—will affect ecosystems. Two major concerns are herbicide-resistant weeds and pesticide-resistant pests, which create new ecological problems.

When herbicide-resistance genes are inserted into crop plants, the weeds are easily killed by herbicides while the crops remain unaffected. But pollen from plants can be carried by the wind for long distances, and seeds from GM crops could be accidentally dispersed outside their intended locations, causing the rise of “superweeds.” In the 1990s, several companies produced crops that were resistant to the herbicide Roundup. However, many weeds, such as pigweed, soon evolved resistance to Roundup. Pigweed can grow as much as three inches per day. It chokes out farm machinery and smothers crops. GM plants with the bacterial gene Bt produce an insecticidal toxin that is harmless to people. However, insects that evolve resistance will reproduce, increasing the population of pesticide-resistant pests.

Unanswered Questions

Genetically modified crops are no longer considered new, but some questions about them remain. Many of the most important research questions concern the long-term effects of GM crops on human health and the environment. Specific questions include

  • Will vitamin levels in genetically modified crops differ from those in their traditional relatives?
  • Could GM crops, such as those engineered to produce medicines, have adverse effects on wildlife?

UPDATES: Straight from the Headlines

Gene Gun

Genetic engineers use various ways to insert new genes into host cells. For plant cells, which have thick cell walls, one of the best ways to put foreign DNA into the cell is to actually shoot it through the plant tissue using a gene gun.

  1. A researcher coats gold or tungsten particles with DNA and places them on the end of a microscopic plastic bullet.
  2. The plastic bullet is placed in the gene gun and directed toward the target plant tissue.
  3. A burst of helium propels the bullet to the end of the gun. The gold particles containing the DNA are released, while the bullet remains in the gun.
  4. Particles enter the cytoplasm of some of the cells in the target tissue. DNA is released from the gold particles and moves into the plant cell’s nucleus, where it ultimately combines with the cell’s DNA.

Research Engineer in Action

Dr. Tong-Jen Fu
Title: Research Engineer, Food and Drug Administration
Education: Ph.D., Chemical Engineering, Pennsylvania State University

Dr. Tong-Jen Fu is a research engineer with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), where she evaluates the methods currently used by scientists to determine the allergic potential of GM foods. She and other researchers are trying to understand exactly what makes substances in food cause allergic reactions.

One of the concerns of GM food is its potential to increase allergies in humans. Many proteins can potentially be an allergen—that is, cause an allergic reaction in some people. Since genetic engineering introduces new proteins into crops, concerns have been raised that unexpected allergies may arise. GM foods could trigger allergies by including proteins already known to cause a reaction, or by introducing completely new allergy-causing proteins—such as those from bacteria—into the food supply.

Researchers use extensive safety tests to determine whether a genetically modified food is likely to cause an allergic reaction. If any of these tests has a positive reaction, the GM food is not likely to be commercially produced. These tests include checking the amino acid sequences of introduced proteins against those of known allergens and testing whether the introduced proteins are resistant to digestion.


  1. Taylor Lighty says:

    It is clear to my group that we know ALL food is genetically modified but we wonder what happens to these genes and how are you extracting them or even putting in other genes. We mainly talked about how even if the label reads ‘ORGANIC’ it may honestly be the same apple you see in Wal-Mart that you may see in Whole Foods. With genetic modification, just how old is some of the “fresh” foods in the produce aisle? We may be eating these foods but how long will these foods take to digest in our system? Does genetically modified mean it is better for me?

  2. Chandler Britton says:

    Group 2, Chandler, Brittany, Perry, Amilia, Korey. Genetically modified foods are a new type of technology to the world. Scientists have created a way to alter the nutrients in foods. If a food lacks a certain vitamin, scientists can insert it in the food. Originally scientists would cross-breed plants to come up with certain combinations.

  3. Noah Solomon says:

    Noah Solomon, Jihad Abdur-Rahman, Joshua Okogie, Cody Oliver, Timothy White

    Scientist have been using genetically modified foods for years. The article above states the benefits and disadvantages in a non biased standpoint pertaining to genetically modified foods. The benefits of genetically modified foods include a much more efficient way of producing food at a lower cost. Also, the consumer of the food can generally buy more for less due to the surplus of food available to the market. The disadvantages of genetically modified foods are that animals, insects, and diseases resistant to the chemicals on the crops will reproduce and overpopulate. Also, with the genetics being altered, there is a possibility of altered diseases with the consumption of the agricultural product or animal.

    Our group believe that even with the disadvantages available to the genetically modified foods, the benefits are substantially better. There is the question of how can DNA extraction cause a food to modify into a disease? Only further experimentation can answer that question, but without the genetically modified foods there would a huge decrease and the production of food in America or anywhere else. This could cause world wide spreading of famine and starvation. Our group also asked if there was anyway to produce genetically modified foods with a 100% guarantee of safety. As of now, there is no possible way scientist can modify any food without there being at least one side effect to one person, but with further experimentation, there might be a day when scientist can guarantee 100% safety with the production of genetically modified foods.

  4. Yea what they said

  5. Sean catherdral says:

    What are the risks to GMO’s? How will these (as Taylor Lighty has said) affect our digestive systems? we may possibly placing foreign DNA and foreign nucleotide’s into our DNA, this may cause another human mutation or increase cancer. Yes, I do agree with Noah Solomon, GMOs decrease the price of foods but at what cost. It has been proven that a large amount of time on phones, TV, and PCs cause a dramatic drop in IQ scores yet they are still being sold why, because of money, if they were to remove them from the shelf’s and take longer to make a safe version of these products LG, Apple, Windows, etc. would lose money. Yet if GMOs do not have any side-affects, we may be closer to safely restore removed limbs and at the edge of a cure for cancer or possibly a vaccine for people, before they are even born.

What Do You Think?