September 2017
Farm & Field

Are GMO Crops Safe?

Misinformation about genetically modified food crops has been spreading. Consumers need the facts.

 

The majority of fresh fruits and vegetables are not currently GM crops, although there are a few. In general, for consumers concerned about direct consumption of GM crops, they can greatly decrease the odds of consuming them by avoiding highly processed foods and oils of corn, soybeans and canola.

Genetically modified organisms, commonly known as GMOs, include both food and nonfood crops. They are sometimes referred to as genetically modified, GM, or genetically engineered, GE, crops. GM food crop concerns have increased the interest and growth of both organic and locally grown food, including farmers markets. This has been a good thing – the more diversity in our food supply and your diet, the better. But in the zeal to promote local and organically grown foods, I’ve noticed that many of the reasonable concerns are being crowded out by a lot of hysteria and misinformation.

For someone new to the debate the first question they have is, "What exactly is a GM crop?" The truest answer is that mankind has been genetically modifying crops for millennia, but popular and social media now use these terms to mean "crops that contain added or altered genetic information performed in a laboratory." The purpose of genetically altering a crop is to provide some resistance or tolerance to a pest or pesticide, to give the plant some advantage (for us or them) or increased efficiency such as lower fertilizer or water needs. This is the same goal scientists, innovative farmers and even hobbyists have had for a very long time that in times past was done primarily by selection and crossbreeding (hybridizing). Plant breeders have used various unnatural plant breeding tools in the past and not much was said about it until relatively recently.

For instance, when I was studying agriculture, a process called mutation breeding was commonly used and has been around for nearly a century. Sometimes referred to as variation breeding, it is the process of exposing seeds to chemicals or radiation in order to generate mutant plants with hopefully some desirable trait that can be selected for and perpetuated to future generations of plants through traditional breeding methods.

The main difference in variation breeding or traditional breeding and GMOs is the origin of the genetic material that may come from totally unrelated organisms. One method is called transgenic genetic modification. This appears to be the process that the public fears the most, but is only one method of developing GMOs and amazingly it has been documented to occur naturally. Sometimes a gene is moved within the same species and is called cisgenic or intragenic. Another method is subgenic where a gene within the plant is edited in some way to amplify, delete, insert, silence or repress a specific gene. All of these things could possibly happen naturally or be accomplished with more traditional breeding or with mutation breeding, but with much less speed and precision. When scientists reported (in 2015) that bacterial genes naturally transferred trangenically into sweet potatoes most people either never heard about it or were unconcerned. However, if scientists do the same thing in a lab, it becomes super scary to many people.

The next question people have is, "Are GMO crops safe for me and my family to consume?" All scientific studies to date have shown GMO crops to be as safe as comparable traditionally bred crops. There is no shortage of misinformation on crop safety based on anecdotal information and opinion but there is little if any credible research to back up these opinions.

Unfortunately, scientists are often trusted as little as politicians and the media. However, just like with politicians and the media, you may have a general distrust of these people, but you do trust some politicians and some media, particularly if they agree with your position. Unlike with the former two examples, where everything seems to be based on subjective feeling, there are reasons to put more trust in science that is usually much more objective. Although you may find an outlier of a poorly designed or poorly conducted experiment, the vast majority of peer-reviewed research shows GMO food products are very safe. GMOs have been studied to a much greater extent than many food supplements and herbal products consumed with little fear by most people.

Another question that often comes up is, "What crops are most often genetically modified?" A number of food crops have been genetically modified, but the vast majority of acreage is planted to corn, soybeans and canola. I recently had a client come to me asking for a source of non-GM wheat seed so he could grow his own because he was under the impression that all bread is made from GM wheat. He was very surprised when I informed him that, although research has been conducted for some time on GM wheat, there is currently no GM wheat being sold commercially. Wheat has its own public relations problems related to gluten that the public may confuse with the GMO issue. For instance, I recently came across an article where the author had erroneously said that high gluten came about due to GM wheat. When a reader corrected her, she admitted she jumped to a wrong conclusion. But she had to add, "If wheat becomes genetically modified, my heart tells me that, without doing a speck of research, only bad things will come of it." At least she was willing to admit she had no research to back up her claim. However, her heart may be 100 percent wrong. For instance, researchers in Spain have genetically engineered wheat to lower and almost eliminate gluten in wheat. This could be a very good thing for those intolerant to gluten.

The majority of fresh fruits and vegetables are not currently GM crops, although there are a few. In general, for consumers concerned about direct consumption of GM crops, they can greatly decrease the odds of consuming them by avoiding highly processed food and oils from the big three crops mentioned and consuming more fresh fruits and vegetables. Even though there is no evidence of harmful effects from consuming GM crops, a diet containing less processed food and more fresh fruits and vegetables is recommended by dieticians and other health professionals.

Locally grown fresh fruits and vegetables are even less likely to be GM crops (with the possible exception of some sweet corn) due to the very high cost of seed and the lack of availability (in small quantities) of GMO seeds. If you are still worried and want to completely avoid GMOs, you should either buy certified organic products (that cannot be GMOs) or find out their varieties and do some research to see if they are GMO crops. Also, some companies label their products as GMO free but remember this does not equate to healthy because many of these products are highly processed. You still need to read the ingredient label.

I have heard many arguments against the use of GM crops that ask the question, "Why would we risk people’s health or the health of the environment if we are not 100 percent sure there is no danger?" The answer to this question can be very complicated and has profound moral implications. For instance, the world’s population is expected to increase from slightly over 7 billion today to 9 billion or more by 2050.

In order to feed this additional population, we will need to use every tool at our disposal. One way may be to cut down trees or plow up more prairies and then plant on this more environmentally vulnerable land. Almost no one wants to see this happen. Another option is to use traditional farming methods more efficiently such as applying irrigation water and nutrients based on actual crop needs and metered out using cutting-edge technology. However, many scientists believe the most sustainable method is a combination of these increased efficiencies and genetic engineering of crops.

The surface has barely been scratched on the potential of genetic engineering of crops and has largely focused on making crops resistant to a pest or pesticides. Naturally, companies involved need to make a return on their investment through seed cost or the sale of a product needed along with the seed such as Roundup Ready crops that allow farmers to spray their crops with glyphosate to kill weeds while not harming the crop. Many scientists believe that, once the technology has progressed more, they will likely be able to make foods healthier and even safer to eat or make them tolerate higher temperatures, dryer weather or even need less fertilizer. It may come as a surprise to many that it is not in the plants’ best interest to be eaten (except possibly for seed dispersal) and plants often produce naturally occurring chemical compounds to discourage other creatures from eating them. If scientists can reduce the harmful compounds and increase the beneficial ones, they could improve the healthful qualities. As mentioned earlier, traditional plant breeders have always done these things through the slow process of plant breeding and selection, but genetic engineering will make this task much more precise, less random and much faster.

We have never lived in a risk-free world and there is no such thing as being 100 percent certain something is perfectly safe to humans and the environment. We take risks all the time in the totally unnatural world of food production as well as all other aspects of our life. The systems we have now and have had in the past, including organic systems, are not totally natural and have always had risk associated with them. Societies must make choices based on the best research at any given time and make changes as the science progresses or becomes more definitive. We also have to balance risk with societal benefits. Having an affordable and plentiful food supply available to an ever-increasing population is worth the risk based on current research. Most food scientists and dieticians agree that our food-related health issues are not the result of GMOs but due to the overconsumption of highly processed foods and the excess consumption of sugars. To address our societies’ food-related health issues, we should literally and figuratively pick the low-hanging fruit (and vegetables) along with reasonable amounts of whole grains, proteins and dairy products.

 

Tony A. Glover is a County Extension Coordinator in Cullman County.