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October 5, 2015

What is the Future of GMOs?

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) have become a hot topic in recent years as more media and anti-GMO groups have raised awareness about their existence.  During a recent webinar hosted by Western Growers, Dr. Peggy Lemaux with the University of California, Berkeley, provided a great overview of the current status on GMOs.  I was not surprised to hear that scientists view issues differently than the general public.

New Pew Research Center surveys of citizens and members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) revealed that while 88 percent of the scientists believe it’s generally safe to eat GMOs; only 37 percent of the public have the same belief.  But what does this really mean and what is the future of GMOs?

Genetic Modification (GM), Genetic Engineering (GE), GMOs and biotechnology are terms sometimes used interchangeably.  However, it is important to recognize that while GE, GMOs and biotechnology are equivalent terms, GM is not the same.  Genetic Modification is limited by the traits available in the same species and includes different ways of breeding: natural breeding (traditionally influenced by insects/humans), classical breeding (done by scientists since the 1930s) as well as marker assistance selection (the newest technique utilized by scientists to speed the breeding process).  On the other hand, GMOs are the result of GE or biotechnology, which are tools in genetics that allow a more wide-ranging use of traits from different species.

Earlier this year, I read an article in The Packer titled, “GMO food needs image rehab, but it may take time.”  This article illustrated clearly how consumers have a preference for “natural,” regardless of what their understanding of natural is, and how this has influenced public perception on GMO food.  It is still to be determined if consumers will eventually associate GMOs with health or societal benefits if other traits are brought to the market (for example drought resistant crops, crops that offer protection against inflammation, cancer and cardiovascular disease, and crops that utilize less fertilizer).  The author was optimistic and concluded that current active resistance against GMO food will fade into history.

According to the USDA, in 2014 the percentage of GMO commercial acreage in the United States was mainly distributed among six crops: sugarbeet (98%), cotton (96%), soybean (94%), corn (93%), canola (93%) and alfalfa (25%).  These crops have been mainly engineered to be pest-tolerant crops (BT crops) and/or herbicide tolerant and most of them are currently used in about 75 percent of processed food as food ingredients.  In the produce industry, the concept of GMOs has not been explored widely; most of the whole fruits and vegetables are GMO free, only GMO sweet corn, squash and papaya are currently commercialized in the U.S. market.

While Genetic Engineering has the potential to alleviate many economic, social and environmental issues related to food production, consumer perception, the regulatory environment and scientific community play a critical role in their adoption.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are responsible for evaluating the safety of GMOs.  Although the current regulatory framework is comprehensive, complex and very expensive, it has not been updated since 1986.  Genetic Engineering has clearly evolved since then.

Poor public perception coupled with an unchanged regulatory system are impacting GE efforts and adoption.  In addition, the potential benefits that could be obtained through GE have not been explored and shared as much as findings of studies with no merit or media blogs without accurate information.  A clear example is a widely publicized study completed in 2012 by Gilles-Eric Seralini in Europe.  This study linked GMOs to cancer, liver, kidney damage and hormonal disruption.  The results of this study were featured in television and shared through social media.  When European Food Safety Authority conducted a review of the study, it was determined that the study had no merit.  Yet, this did not get the same attention and publicity.

For the GE community to continue to explore this technology, several issues will need to be addressed, including public perception, peer-reviewed research, peer-reviewed food safety tests, labeling issues, allergen concerns, contamination of the food supply and potential resistance.  The regulatory and scientific community can play a big role in addressing these challenges and determining the future of this technology.  For many, GMOs will become a necessity at some point as growers are faced with producing more with less.  It is not about proving who is right or wrong, but about finding ways to deal with challenges in our food supply chain; this may or may not mean the use of GMOs.

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