Genetically Modified Organisms, or GMOs, have become a featured topic when it comes to food and food regulation since its introduction to the market in the early 1990s. While the acronym is familiar, many don’t know what it actually means for something to be a genetically modified organism, and fewer still have looked into what it means for them if they consume something that falls within the GMO category.
Commonly searched questions include what is a GMO, is it safe to eat GMO foods or is my seedless watermelon GMO? Many consumers are unaware of the developments and innovation that happen within agriculture all the time. Misunderstanding or a lack of information is common fodder for fear and reactive responses to that anxiety. It’s up to individuals to decide their stance on GMOs, but that stance—and the decision-making that comes from it—should be made with supporting information. This article is not meant to be exhaustive in that endeavor, but it will hopefully spur curiosity or act as an introduction for someone looking to make informed voting decisions.
The History of GMOs and What They Are
According to the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), a GMO is “a plant, animal, or microorganism that has been altered through genetic engineering, which involves the manipulation of DNA using techniques that are not possible through traditional breeding methods.” The tag of GMO is often used to mean an organism that has had genetic material introduced to promote a beneficial characteristic. This is different from gene editing, which modifies the genetic material that already exists within the organism.
Genetic modification through selective breeding has been happening throughout human history. A shift away from hunting and gathering toward agriculture started the ever-present push to create more food in a better way that continues today. But in 1982, the FDA approved the first genetically engineered consumer product: Biosynthetic Human Insulin (BHI). Not long after that, the federal government established the Coordinated Framework for the Regulation of Biotechnology in 1986. This document is a comprehensive summary of the roles and responsibilities of the three principal regulatory agencies—FDA, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)—have with respect to regulating biotechnology products. This document was updated in 1992 and again in 2017. In the 2017 version, the document notes that it set out to “clarify current roles and responsibilities, to develop a long-term strategy to ensure that the Federal biotechnology regulatory system is prepared for the future products of biotechnology, and to commission an expert analysis of the future landscape of biotechnology products to support these efforts. The goal of this work is to increase public confidence in the regulatory system and to prevent unnecessary barriers to future innovation and competitiveness.” These updates are an indication of the ever-changing nature of human-affected adaptation in biology. These initiatives are perpetually motivated by the need to feed a growing population fresh, nutrient-dense food.
Of the plants that are classified as GMOs, the United States grows only a few, and of those that are, even fewer are specialty crops. Specialty crops are defined by the USDA as fruits and vegetables, tree nuts, dried fruits and horticulture and nursery crops, including floriculture. According to the FDA, the majority of plant GMOs are used to make ingredients that are used in food products, like cereal, snack chips and vegetable oils.
What a GMO Isn’t
Because there is a gap in explaining what a GMO is, confusion exists around determining which food in the produce section of the grocery store is a product of GMO. Genetic innovation to make fruit sweeter, seedless, bigger, smaller, more robust, or easier to harvest are happening in agriculture all the time, but that doesn’t mean those products are a result of genetic engineering. Along with genetic editing, a lot of these new variants of much-loved produce come from a more traditional approach like selective breeding. This is a more time-intensive approach requiring methodical scientific work. So though some may find a seedless fruit suspicious (how can something that comes from a seed be seedless?), that doesn’t mean the produce is a result of genetic alteration. Innovation in agriculture is creative and groundbreaking, and it is powered by the motivation of the industry to provide fresh, healthy produce to the public year after year while adding a bit of surprise and delight (like making fruit taste like a ballpark candy favorite).
What are Common Fears Related to GMOs?
The primary concern people seem to have in relation to GMOs is the potential negative health outcomes that may come from consuming them. Of the concerns, some note that they’re worried that consuming GMOs may lead to allergic reactions, toxic effects, long-term health issues or that the introduction of foreign genes into crops could have unforeseen consequences. According to the FDA, “GMO foods are as healthful and safe to eat as their non-GMO counterparts. Some GMO plants have actually been modified to improve their nutritional value.” But in the common practice of science, the summary is not a declaration, and many researchers continue to assess whether or not there are long-term health effects associated with consuming GMOs.
It’s important to recognize that the availability of GMOs were created and utilized with a purpose, and they have accomplished some of those objectives. In the article A Meta-Analysis of the Impacts of Genetically Modified Crops, researchers Wilhelm Klümper and Matin state, “On average, GM technology adoption has reduced chemical pesticide use by 37%, increased crop yields by 22 percent, and increased farmer profits by 68%. Yield gains and pesticide reductions are larger for insect-resistant crops than for herbicide-tolerant crops. Yield and profit gains are higher in developing countries than in developed countries…The meta-analysis reveals robust evidence of GM crop benefits for farmers in developed and developing countries. Such evidence may help to gradually increase public trust in this technology.”
What Lies Ahead?
Agriculture is an industry that is pulled by the current of adaptation; it’s a component of the very product growers are in the business of selling. The tools that are used today also change with the adaptive nature of the industry and are one step in the way forward. In the same way that the science of the past seems outdated to us now, the ways of today will look the same to those looking back. Already the techniques of genetic alterations are opening up the way to gene editing.
As a succinct overview, the researchers Alessandro Nicolia et al. noted in the article An Overview of the Last 10 Years of Genetically Engineered Crop Safety Research: “The technology to produce genetically engineered (GE) plants is celebrating its 30th anniversary and one of the major achievements has been the development of GE crops. The safety of GE crops is crucial for their adoption and has been the object of intense research work often ignored in the public debate. We have reviewed the scientific literature on GE crop safety during the last 10 years, built a classified and manageable list of scientific papers, and analyzed the distribution and composition of the published literature. We selected original research papers, reviews, relevant opinions and reports addressing all the major issues that emerged in the debate on GE crops, trying to catch the scientific consensus that has matured since GE plants became widely cultivated worldwide. The scientific research conducted so far has not detected any significant hazards directly connected with the use of GE crops; however, the debate is still intense.”
The effort to provide food to a growing population will continue in both the field and the lab. It’s the responsibility of consumers (who are also voters) to navigate the scientific literature to question beliefs and challenge fears.