Seeking a Fertile Middle Ground: A Reasonable Approach to GMOs

by Justin Q Taylor

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are in the news again: unwelcome GMO wheat was found in an Oregon wheatfield, the Senate recently voted not to allow states to mandate GMO labeling, and extensive global protests were held against GMO monopolist Monsanto. The issue of GMO foods is full of misunderstandings and misinformation, so it is important to learn the facts behind the rhetoric.

New Food

The term GMO itself is based on a misleading premise. In fact, genetic modification of crops has been going on in some form throughout the history of farming. We have been changing the genes of plants through selective breeding and other methods for thousands of years, possibly even in ways that make our food less healthy. The FDA uses the term GE or Genetically Engineered to ” distinguish plants that have been modified using modern biotechnology from those modified through traditional breeding.”

Modern genetic engineering is certainly a new level of  modification of our food supply. While many of these genetic modifications are simple and fairly predictable, there are still unknowns involved in the process. In addition, GE foods are very widespread in the US. The FDA has some figures: “In 2012, GE cotton accounted for 94 percent of all cotton planted, GE soybeans accounted for 93 percent of soybeans planted, and GE corn accounted for 88 percent of corn planted.”

While the European Union requires GMO foods to be labeled, the US has never had such a requirement and most foods’ GMO status is not easily attainable. Last Thursday, the Senate rejected a measure that would have allowed individual states to require labeling of GMO foods.

The process of genetically engineering a plant usually involves inserting a gene that codes for a specific protein. A popular modification is to add a gene that allows a plant to become resistant to the common herbicide Roundup (Glyphosate). Another example is Golden Rice, which adds a gene for Vitamin A production to rice crops in order to prevent Vitamin A deficiency (and resulting blindness) in poor regions. Other modifications improve drought resistance, pest resistance, and growth and efficiency in crops. The FDA provides an infographic on how the modification process goes, ideally:

http://www.fda.gov/downloads/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/UCM352193.pdf

Methods of Plant Breeding Source: FDA

What’s the Problem?

There are potential problems with the modification process. New genes could cause unexpected allergies, have other unexpected effects on humans, aid in the creation of herbicide resistant superweeds, or spread their new genes to non-GMO crops. Other concerns include the overuse of glyphosate products in herbicide resistant crops. Though glyphosate is widely considered one of the safest herbicides for humans, some toxicity reports raise concerns about the forms used in herbicide products (no one has established that there is a significant danger to humans in the levels of glyphosate they might consume). The herbicidal mechanism of glyphosate involves disrupting the action of a protein (EPSPS) which humans do not produce.

The Rise of Superweeds

SOURCE: IAN HEAP, INTERNATIONAL SURVEY OF HERBICIDE RESISTANT WEEDS http://WWW.WEEDSCIENCE.ORG/GRAPHS/SOAGRAPH.ASPX (2013) VIA http://www.nature.com/news/case-studies-a-hard-look-at-gm-crops-1.12907

Because genetic engineering of food has emerged so recently and has quickly become dominant in agriculture, there are concerns that the new products are not well vetted before being made available to the public. The FDA guidance document on genetically modified plants requests that data be submitted to the FDA before their use.  It does say, however,  that “during the consultation process, the FDA does not conduct a comprehensive scientific review of data generated by the developer.” In other words, the conclusions of the safety studies commissioned by the new plant owners are not independently verified. The WHO seems to leave safety assessments of these new plants to national regulators.

Seeking a Fertile Middle Ground

While there are always potential health risks in creating new organisms, there is a broad consensus in the scientific community that the widely used strains of genetically engineered crops do not impose significant risks over conventional crops. Numerous reports and meta-analyses have indicated that there is very little potential danger to humans. Studies which have found possible risks have been almost universally discredited (though scientists have been known to be particularly harsh on these findings for giving ammunition to GMO opposition which has otherwise had very little scientific backing).

In addition, the world’s population is increasing. It is difficult to produce enough food for the world’s population, and genetic engineering holds promise for increasing crop yields, allowing for agriculture in dry or otherwise inhospitable regions, and adding essential nutritional content to easily grown staple foods.

The scientific journal Nature’s May special on GMOs  includes an article calling for nonprofit research to develop GE foods beyond the commonly used pest and herbicide resistant strains. Newer GE technology will allow for much more precise gene insertions, opening up new possible modifications while decreasing the chances of unintended effects.

The future of genetically engineered foods is full of promise, but is hindered by misunderstanding of the technology. If health and environmentally conscious groups can accept the idea of genetically engineered foods, they may be able to successfully push for higher safety standards and more consumer-focused modifications rather than the elimination of this area of research.

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