Genetic engineering (GE) touches on the routine life of billions of people (but not everyone). Food, clothes, and medicine are commonly made with the help of genetically engineered organisms. Certain medicines, like insulin, could only be mass-produced this way. Fiber for clothes is made less expensive thanks to GE cotton plants. You also PROBABLY sometimes eat plants with a few engineered genes, depending on where you live. But genetic engineering isn’t just for making new or better things. It’s also one of the best tools for discovering new science, and we owe much of the modern textbooks to what’s been learned using genetic engineering. Let’s focus just on food made with GE.
Food made with GE crops affects society in three broad categories: 1) farmers 2) the environment, and 3) consumers.
- Famers who choose to grow GE crops do so mainly because it’s easier. The most popular GE crops have genes for herbicide tolerance and insect resistance. This makes it simpler for farmers to control weeds and pests. The result is more yield or similar yields with lower operation costs. There may be some variations to this, but this is true for most farmers growing GE. Economic studies show most of the added value of GE crops is retained by farmers.
- In terms of the environment, GE crops are associated with more herbicide usage, less insecticide usage, less fossil fuel usage, better retention in the soil, less nutrient runoff, and increases in beneficial insect populations. Most of the increase in herbicide use has been from a compound called glyphosate, which is considered by most expert agencies to be mild and safe, and much safer than some of the herbicides preceding it. However, glyphosate can somewhat alter microbiome communities and in some cases accumulate over time in the soil. The improvement in soil quality is a direct benefit from herbicides, which allow farmers to clear fields without tilling the soil. So, there is a lot to consider. I personally am in favor of glyphosate usage and think others should be too.
- Consumers are not biologically affected by the one or two genes added to their crop plants, to the best available evidence. GE genes and proteins are digested, along with the rest of the it. The data do not support the idea that herbicide residues are affecting people to any degree we can measure. As mentioned before, GE reduces the use of insecticides. Generally, the main impact to the consumer has been in terms of prices. Studies have attributed GE to a 6% decrease in corn prices and 10% decreases in soy prices, for example. But again, the majority of the benefit goes to the farmer, not the consumer. There are a few GE traits designed for consumers in mind, one of which are non-browning apples and potatoes. These aren’t widely popular yet, but if you manage to get one, you will notice it stays fresh for longer – and you are less likely to let it go to waste. In the near future, expect GE crops that are healthier and better-tasting!
Throughout this answer, I have referred to facts from the searchable National Academy of Sciences report on Genetic Engineering.