Genetically modified organisms (GMO) are not always food (take insulin, for example). But when it is about food, it's like body builders on steroids; bigger, better, stronger. But why do we feel the need to genetically modify our food and does it jeopardize our health or the environment's?
Modern GMOs are created to deter fungal development that can generate diseases, deter pests, overcome environmental conditions like drought or flooding, and produce healthier, larger yields. According to agriculturists, this isn't just intended for the financial benefit of having better and more crops; it's to resist global warming, to prevent food waste and financial ruin from crop diseases, an alternative to pesticides, and it is also meant as a solution to feed our world population crisis. For example, golden rice that is packed full of vitamin A to prevent blindness in malnourished children, wheat that can retain water to withstand severe droughts that are caused by climate change, or corn that can resist rootworm that would otherwise damage the crop and let fungi flourish. In this light, GMOs don't seem so bad.
From a human health standpoint, there has been little to no cases of having any health issues, (immediately, long-term, or genetically) with GM foods. And many of the foods we eat today are in fact, GM- including 90% of our soybeans and 68% of our corn. One point in the public argument, however, is from a moral position. Genetically modifying organisms is playing God (or Demeter). Scientists have argued that we've been doing this for centuries, if not longer, like we've done with the modern dog, albeit outside of a laboratory. But the reader should understand that just because GM food has not been proven to disrupt our health, does not mean that it never will. GMO is not black or white. There are thousands of different ways we genetically modify food with a plethora of genes.
Also, as previously stated, crops can be genetically modified to withstand pesticides, including herbicides; or weed-killers. This means that farmers can still spray their crops with herbicides freely, knowing their crops will be just dandy. Glyphosate is a common herbicide that still has unknown health effects and is sometimes, in some products, combined with 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D), another herbicide. 2,4-D has been linked to an increase in non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, as well as several neurological disorders. And of course, spraying herbicides can be detrimental to environmental quality.
When addressing the environmental impacts of farming, the two main topics are soil and water because of how direct they are, whereas pollinating insects are more indirect. On the GMO side of the debate, genetically modifying a plant with herbicide resistance does nothing to the soil or water quality of its surroundings; even on a microscopic and microbial level, and glyphosate is mostly biodegradable (depending on the species of bacteria). However, it is rarely addressed on the gravity of complexity that is involved in environmentalism. For example, freely spraying herbicides on herbicide-resistant GM crops may doing nothing to the soil itself specifically, but it does lower biodiversity by eliminating all other plants which can then lower the quality of soil. It also can be mixed with groundwater, if not biodegradable, which can affect nearby water sources; harming that ecosystem, as well as being added into the hydrologic cycle of water vapor and rain. Now, that's herbicide-resistant; insecticide GMOs that prevent spraying it instead, are a whole different ballpark, like Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt).
Bt, most commonly known in GM cotton, strips the soil of its quality by reducing: helpful bacteria like Actinomycetes, the general microbial biomass, enzymes, nitrogenase enzymes, acid phosphatase, and helpful arthropods. This was a leading factor of the thousands of recent farmer suicides in India (for more information on the suicides, check out the book, Tropic of Chaos by Christian Parenti). There also have not been very many ecological studies on the environmental longevity of introducing new genes in plants that are not in grown in farms. In other words, when these GMOs enter their native environments in the wild, how do they influence their own ecosystems that have evolved with them as they were? If they disrupt this natural balance, then they will be considered invasive species no matter where they grow. Hypothetically, the results could be devastating.
However, these are all in specific cases and specific GMOs. Again, GMO is not black or white. In some foods, the results can be positive with little to no environmental repercussions based on current testing (such as the water retaining wheat, for example). Some GMOs have a lot of negative side effects and are still being enforced due to the financial gain alone and thus, GMOs as a whole are a mixed bag.
Ironically, a lot of GM crops are unnecessary when implementing sustainable farming practices. Insecticides can be prevented, with or without GMOs, when practicing polyculture and biodiversity, instead of monoculture. Polyculture is a variety of crop species that prevents the harmful insects from wiping everything out, because just like humans, no one insect likes everything that's being planted so it will deter them. Whereas if it's a monoculture, that one insect that just loves whatever crop that's planted has just found an all-you-can-eat buffet. Also, adding mulch and other covers to the crops can retain the soil moisture and prevent weeds from growing; adding manure can increase soil quality by introducing helpful bacteria and enzymes; introducing arthropods like beetles and ants can help to aerate the soil, eliminating the need to plow, as well as other Integrated Pest Management methods; planting cover crops, like clover, during off-season will maintain the health of the soil rather than leaving it bare; rotating crops also improves soil quality and deters harmful insects; and planting the occasional fruit tree will provide shade for pollinating beings and improve the water quality, as well as a little something extra for the produce broker to increase income!
Sustainable farming procedures is where it's at for the future of our food because it is such a win-win. Intermixing sustainable farming practices with the innocuously GM crops that are designed to resist global warming specifically as well as having enhanced nutrition, however, might be ideal for our future of over population, climate change, and growing desertification. But they would have to be greatly improved with a lot of testing and practicing so as to not be detrimental to the environment, but that may cause a lot of degradation in the meantime.