Genetically modified (GM) crops, foods, ingredients, and feeds have received a great deal of media attention because of recent ballot initiatives in states such as California, Washington, and Connecticut, as well as the spread of misinformation about what GM crops actually are.
GM crops are simply those varieties produced through the introduction of pieces of DNA to give them traits otherwise not possible. This is just a more advanced technology of what we have always been doing… Believe it or not, humans have been cross breeding plants for centuries. Crops such as bread wheat and strawberries are entirely a product of human cross breeding. This is because plants naturally experience a high rate of spontaneous DNA mutation and gene transfer from other plants, viruses and/or bacteria. Little did you know, we have been consuming plants with altered DNA for the entirety of their existence.
The first GM crops were planted in 1994. The most popular GM plants in the United States are corn, soybeans, canola, sugar beet, and cotton. In 2013, approximately 17 million farmers planted an estimated 420 million acres of GM crops (that’s the size of the U.S. and Mexico combined). GM technology has traditionally been used to make crops resistant to certain insects or herbicides and to protect them from viral diseases. Genetically modified corn, like the top ear in the picture to the direct right, reduces damage from insects seen in the bottom ear, thus raising yields by preventing loss while reducing the need for insecticide applications. The picture to the bottom left shows a GM potato (left) and a normal potato (right) 10 hours after cutting. As you can clearly see, this type of GM potato has the ability to reduce postharvest waste, but has also been modified to produce less cancer-causing compounds (known as acrylamides) that are formed after potatoes are fried.
Newer technologies have given scientists the ability to add nutritional value for consumers. For example, a new type of GM soybean has been modified to produce oil that does not need hydrogenation (Note: hydrogenation is the process of making oil into a solid; this process also produces harmful trans fat, which is then used in products such as baked goods). Other GM soybeans have been modified to produce oils that are high in omega-3 fats (i.e. the heart healthy fats). On a more global perspective, GM technology has allowed scientists to produce sustainable “yellow rice” that can be grown under harsh environmental conditions and effectively used to combat vitamin A deficiency in Africa.
GM crops have reduced the impact of agrichemical use and helped to conserve soil and water resources. Repeated claims that GM crops would lead to catastrophic environmental disasters have not materialized, and in fact one of the major unanticipated benefits of GM crop farming has been a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, equivalent to taking 22 MILLION cars off the road.
The safety of GM crops has been extensively evaluated by international bodies and to date no credible evidence (only of a few small pay-to-publish journals) suggest ill effect on human health. In fact, numerous national and international expert panels have repeatedly concluded that it will be difficult, if not impossible to meet the future agriculture needs without the use of these technologies. In the United States, GM crops are reviewed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for feed and food safety prior to their marketing. The U.S. Department of Agriculture then approves the crop for marketing post-FDA review, as long as its internal review concludes that the crop is environmentally safe. Crops that are modified for traits such as insect resistance go through an additional evaluation process by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). There have been over 160 FDA pre-market consultations of GM crops to date. It is estimated that over 70% of processed food products and over 30% of “GMO-free” labeled products in the U.S. contain ingredients derived from GM crops.
Just remember – there are a lot of individuals/companies that also seek financial gain from scaring the population into believing that GMO products are harmful (just as there are companies that seek financial gain for marketing to kids and etc.). For example, Mercola, a privately owned GMO-free company operated by Joseph Mercola was the largest donor to the California GMO labeling campaign, contributing over $800K. A wonderful marketing scheme – the company has successfully expanded the market for its products and gained millions in revenue. Unfortunately this company has also received more than three citations from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for making false and misleading claims on their products. The International Food Information Council (IFIC) has a large amount of information on the safety of GM foods and crops (also known as food biotechnology) for those interested in learning more on this topic.