GMO Food: Complicated Questions but No Simple Answers

Food containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) made by genetic engineering (GE) has been in the news recently following the May release of results from a major study conducted by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NAS), a private non-profit corporation funded entirely by the federal government and originally chartered by Congress in 1863 to provide trustworthy and independent advice on scientific matters of public concern. After reviewing over 1,000 studies, hearing from 80 witnesses and receiving over 700 comments filed by interested groups and the general public, the GMO report was produced by a committee of 20 experts from academia with no direct ties to the biotech industry. The inclusiveness of the process was unusual, allowing what were criticized by some as unscientific or even anti-scientific advocates to be heard.

Despite the depth of the 400-page report and the fact that it is the 11th NAS report on the subject since 1987, it presents a complicated issue in a way that consciously avoids simplifying it, leaving both proponents and opponents to find support for their essentially contradictory positions.

Although the report concludes unambiguously that the scientific evidence shows GMO food is safe, it takes no position on whether food products containing GMOs should be labeled, and especially takes no position on whether such labeling should be mandated by regulation. After substantial discussion of matters of market acceptance, the actual conclusions about labeling are reduced unhelpfully to “Consumers’ willingness to pay for non-GE food is price-sensitive” and “The economic effects of mandatory labeling of GE food at the consumer level are uncertain.” Mandatory labeling has been the main practical flashpoint of the controversy, with Vermont set to become the first state to require it beginning July 1 after the law survived an initial free speech challenge from grocery manufacturers. At the federal level, last month the Senate declined to follow the House in prohibiting state mandatory GMO labeling as in Vermont.

One of the most prominent criticisms of GMO crops is that they can be made resistant to herbicides such as glyphosate, commonly marketed by Monsanto under the trade name “Roundup,” which in turn might pose risks either through consumption in the food chain or to agricultural workers. The report concludes that there is “disagreement among expert committees on the potential health harm that could be caused by the use of glyphosate,” citing increased concern about cancer-causing potential from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) of the World Health Organization (WHO), while noting that this view is an outlier not shared by the European Food Safety Authority, Canada’s health agency or the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Such herbicides are becoming less effective, the report states, because the weeds they are intended to kill are naturally evolving resistance similar to the GMO crops.

What everyone agrees is that most consumers have almost no understanding of GMO food issues. Although as of 2013 it was estimated that 90% of corn, 93% of soybeans and 95% of sugar beets grown in the United States contain GMOs, a Rutgers University survey of consumers found that 53% say they know very little or nothing at all about them and 25% say they have never heard of them. The result is uninformed fear rather than rational decision-making, with the same Rutgers consumer survey finding only 45% say they believe GMO foods were safe and 63% say they would be upset if they were served GMO food in a restaurant without knowing it, but an unrealistically small 26% believe that they have never eaten food containing GMO ingredients. A recent Oklahoma State survey suggested the extent of public ignorance, finding that 82% of consumers want mandatory labeling for food containing GMO material, almost the same as the 80% who want mandatory labeling of food containing DNA – a natural and essential component of all nutrition derived from plants or animals.

In the resulting “Wild West” lack of standards, food makers are almost free to define on their own what constitutes a GMO product and claim on the label that the contents are GMO-free. Although there are legal definitions of terms such as “organic,” attempts to define other terms such as “natural” that are widely misinterpreted have failed in repeated regulatory attempts since 1991 – and another effort begun by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has received almost 8,000 comments since 2014. Voluntary certification agencies try to impose consistent standards, the most well-known of which is the Non-GMO Project, and some retailers such as Whole Foods have committed to eventually phasing out GMO products over the next few years. For consumers who choose to avoid GMO foods and also are concerned about use of antibiotics and animal welfare, the most reliable way to shop is from local farmers markets, of which there are over 50 active in RI.

Favoring non-GMO food has its own costs, however. Aside from possibly negative economic effects in the Third World, conventional plant breeding is largely unregulated and is, in theory, more likely to produce undesirable consequences than modern genetic engineering, a concern to which the report devotes an entire chapter. Inducing inheritable genetic changes with ionizing radiation or mutagenic chemicals is considered a conventional breeding technique, so the results are not regarded as GMO and can even be labeled as organic. There’s no evidence the kiwi fruit is harmful, but because it is a 20th Century product developed in New Zealand from a hard and unpalatable Chinese berry, the report notes, its safety was tested in the United States during the 1960s only by putting it into the commercial market and letting people eat it.

Full NAS report as a freely downloadable PDF file:

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