I have written several articles on the coronavirus and on masks and healthcare issues. A series of links have been provided at the bottom of this article for your convenience. This article will, however address a different aspect of the virus or on healthcare issues in general.
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are living organisms whose genetic material has been artificially manipulated in a laboratory through genetic engineering. This creates combinations of plant, animal, bacteria, and virus genes that do not occur in nature or through traditional crossbreeding methods.
What are the 3 types of genetic modification?
- Traditional Crop Modification. Traditional methods of modifying plants, like selective breeding and crossbreeding, have been around for nearly 10,000 years. …
- Genetic Engineering. …
- Genome Editing.
How has genetic engineering changed plant and animal breeding?
Did you know?
Genetic engineering is often used in combination with traditional breeding to produce the genetically engineered plant varieties on the market today.
For thousands of years, humans have been using traditional modification methods like selective breeding and cross-breeding to breed plants and animals with more desirable traits. For example, early farmers developed cross-breeding methods to grow corn with a range of colors, sizes, and uses. Today’s strawberries are a cross between a strawberry species native to North America and a strawberry species native to South America.
Most of the foods we eat today were created through traditional breeding methods. But changing plants and animals through traditional breeding can take a long time, and it is difficult to make very specific changes. After scientists developed genetic engineering in the 1970s, they were able to make similar changes in a more specific way and in a shorter amount of time.
A Timeline of Genetic Modification in Agriculture
Circa 8000 BCE Humans use traditional modification methods like selective breeding and cross-breeding to breed plants and animals with more desirable traits.1866 Gregor Mendel, an Austrian monk, breeds two different types of peas and identifies the basic process of genetics.
1922 The first hybrid corn is produced and sold commercially.
1940 Plant breeders learn to use radiation or chemicals to randomly change an organism’s DNA.
1953 Building on the discoveries of chemist Rosalind Franklin, scientists James Watson and Francis Crick identify the structure of DNA.
1973 Biochemists Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen develop genetic engineering by inserting DNA from one bacteria into another.
1982 FDA approves the first consumer GMO product developed through genetic engineering: human insulin to treat diabetes.
1986 The federal government establishes the Coordinated Framework for the Regulation of Biotechnology. This policy describes how the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) work together to regulate the safety of GMOs.
1992 FDA policy states that foods from GMO plants must meet the same requirements, including the same safety standards, as foods derived from traditionally bred plants.
1994 The first GMO produce created through genetic engineering—a GMO tomato—becomes available for sale after studies evaluated by federal agencies proved it to be as safe as traditionally bred tomatoes.
1990s The first wave of GMO produce created through genetic engineering becomes available to consumers: summer squash, soybeans, cotton, corn, papayas, tomatoes, potatoes, and canola. Not all are still available for sale.
2003 The World Health Organization (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations develop international guidelines and standards to determine the safety of GMO foods.
2005 GMO alfalfa and sugar beets are available for sale in the United States.
2015 FDA approves an application for the first genetic modification in an animal for use as food, a genetically engineered salmon.
2016 Congress passes a law requiring labeling for some foods produced through genetic engineering and uses the term “bioengineered,” which will start to appear on some foods.
2017 GMO apples are available for sale in the U.S.
2019 FDA completes consultation on first food from a genome edited plant.
How are GMOs made?
“GMO” (genetically modified organism) has become the common term consumers and popular media use to describe foods that have been created through genetic engineering. Genetic engineering is a process that involves:
- Identifying the genetic information—or “gene”—that gives an organism (plant, animal, or microorganism) a desired trait
- Copying that information from the organism that has the trait
- Inserting that information into the DNA of another organism
- Then growing the new organism
Making a GMO Plant, Step by Step
The following example gives a general idea of the steps it takes to create a GMO plant. This example uses a type of insect-resistant corn called “Bt corn.” Keep in mind that the processes for creating a GMO plant, animal, or microorganism may be different.
To produce a GMO plant, scientists first identify what trait they want that plant to have, such as resistance to drought, herbicides, or insects. Then, they find an organism (plant, animal, or microorganism) that already has that trait within its genes. In this example, scientists wanted to create insect-resistant corn to reduce the need to spray pesticides. They identified a gene in a soil bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), which produces a natural insecticide that has been in use for many years in traditional and organic agriculture.
After scientists find the gene with the desired trait, they copy that gene.
For Bt corn, they copied the gene in Bt that would provide the insect-resistance trait.
Next, scientists use tools to insert the gene into the DNA of the plant. By inserting the Bt gene into the DNA of the corn plant, scientists gave it the insect resistance trait.
This new trait does not change the other existing traits.
In the laboratory, scientists grow the new corn plant to ensure it has adopted the desired trait (insect resistance). If successful, scientists first grow and monitor the new corn plant (now called Bt corn because it contains a gene from Bacillus thuringiensis) in greenhouses and then in small field tests before moving it into larger field tests. GMO plants go through in-depth review and tests before they are ready to be sold to farmers.
The entire process of bringing a GMO plant to the marketplace takes several years.
What are the latest scientific advances in plant and animal breeding?
Scientists are developing new ways to create new varieties of crops and animals using a process called genome editing. These techniques can make it easier and quicker to make changes that were previously done through traditional breeding.
There are several genome editing tools, such as CRISPR. Scientists can use these newer genome editing tools to make crops more nutritious, drought tolerant, and resistant to insect pests and diseases.
Is genetically engineered food dangerous?
Many people seem to think it is. In the past five years, companies have submitted more than 27,000 products to the Non-GMO Project, which certifies goods that are free of genetically modified organisms.
Last year, sales of such products nearly tripled. Whole Foods will soon require labels on all GMOs in its stores. Abbott, the company that makes Similac baby formula, has created a non-GMO version to give parents “peace of mind.” Trader Joe’s has sworn off GMOs. So has Chipotle.
Some environmentalists and public interest groups want to go further. Hundreds of organizations, including Consumers Union, Friends of the Earth, Physicians for Social Responsibility, the Center for Food Safety, and the Union of Concerned Scientists, are demanding “mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods.”
Since 2013, Vermont, Maine, and Connecticut have passed laws to require GMO labels. Massachusetts could be next.
The central premise of these laws—and the main source of consumer anxiety, which has sparked corporate interest in GMO-free food—is concern about health. Last year, in a survey by the Pew Research Center, 57 percent of Americans said it’s generally “unsafe to eat genetically modified foods.”
Vermont says the primary purpose of its labeling law is to help people “avoid potential health risks of food produced from genetic engineering.” Chipotle notes that 300 scientists have “signed a statement rejecting the claim that there is a scientific consensus on the safety of GMOs for human consumption.” Until more studies are conducted, Chipotle says, “We believe it is prudent to take a cautious approach toward GMOs.”
The World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, the National Academy of Sciences, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science have all declared that there’s no good evidence GMOs are unsafe. Hundreds of studies back up that conclusion. But many of us don’t trust these assurances. We’re drawn to skeptics who say that there’s more to the story, that some studies have found risks associated with GMOs, and that Monsanto is covering it up.
I’ve spent much of the past year digging into the evidence. Here’s what I’ve learned. First, it’s true that the issue is complicated. But the deeper you dig, the more fraud you find in the case against GMOs. It’s full of errors, fallacies, misconceptions, misrepresentations, and lies. The people who tell you that Monsanto is hiding the truth are themselves hiding evidence that their own allegations about GMOs are false. They’re counting on you to feel overwhelmed by the science and to accept, as a gut presumption, their message of distrust.
Second, the central argument of the anti-GMO movement—that prudence and caution are reasons to avoid genetically engineered, or GE, food—is a sham. Activists who tell you to play it safe around GMOs take no such care in evaluating the alternatives. They denounce proteins in GE crops as toxic, even as they defend drugs, pesticides, and non-GMO crops that are loaded with the same proteins. They portray genetic engineering as chaotic and unpredictable, even when studies indicate that other crop improvement methods, including those favored by the same activists, are more disruptive to plant genomes.
Third, there are valid concerns about some aspects of GE agriculture, such as herbicides, monocultures, and patents. But none of these concerns is fundamentally about genetic engineering. Genetic engineering isn’t a thing. It’s a process that can be used in different ways to create different things.
To think clearly about GMOs, you have to distinguish among the applications and focus on the substance of each case. If you’re concerned about pesticides and transparency, you need to know about the toxins to which your food has been exposed. A GMO label won’t tell you that. And it can lull you into buying a non-GMO product even when the GE alternative is safer.
If you’re like me, you don’t really want to wade into this issue. It’s too big, technical, and confusing. But come with me, just this once. I want to take you backstage, behind those blanket assurances about the safety of genetic engineering. I want to take you down into the details of four GMO fights, because that’s where you’ll find truth. You’ll come to the last curtain, the one that hides the reality of the anti-GMO movement. And you’ll see what’s behind it.
The Papaya Triumph
Twenty years ago Hawaiian papaya farmers were in trouble. Ringspot virus, transmitted by insects, was destroying the crop. Farmers tried everything to stop the virus: selective breeding, crop rotation, quarantine. Nothing worked. But one scientist had a different idea. What if he could transfer a gene from a harmless part of the virus, known as the coat protein, to the papaya’s DNA? Would the GE papaya be immune to the virus?
The scientist, Dennis Gonsalves of Cornell University, got the idea, in part, from Monsanto. But Monsanto wasn’t interested in papaya. Although papaya is an important staple in the developing world, it isn’t a big moneymaker like soybeans or cotton. So Monsanto and two other companies licensed the technology to an association of Hawaiian farmers. The licenses were free but restricted to Hawaii. The association provided the seeds to farmers for free, and later at cost.
Today the GE papaya is a triumph. It saved the industry. But it’s also a cautionary tale. The papaya, having defeated the virus, barely survived a campaign to purge GE crops from Hawaii. The story of that campaign teaches a hard lesson: No matter how long a GMO is eaten without harming anyone, and no matter how many studies are done to demonstrate its safety, there will always be skeptics who warn of unknown risks.
In 1996 and 1997, three federal agencies approved the GE papaya. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported “no deleterious effects on plants, nontarget organisms, or the environment” in field trials. The Environmental Protection Agency pointed out that people had been eating the virus for years in infected papaya. “Entire infectious particles of Papaya Ringspot Virus, including the coat protein component, are found in the fruit, leaves and stems of most plants,” the EPA observed.
The agency cited thelong history of mammalian consumption of the entire plant virus particle in foods, without causing any deleterious human health effects. Virus-infected plants currently are and have always been a part of both the human and domestic animal food supply and there have been no findings which indicate that plant viruses are toxic to humans and other vertebrates. Further, plant viruses are unable to replicate in mammals or other vertebrates, thereby eliminating the possibility of human infection.
These arguments didn’t satisfy everyone. In 1999, a year after the new papaya seeds were released to farmers, critics said the viral gene might interact with DNA from other viruses to create more dangerous pathogens. In 2000, vandals destroyed papaya trees and other biotech plants at a University of Hawaii research facility, calling the plants “genetic pollution.”
In 2001 the U.S. Public Interest Research Group identified Hawaii as the state most commonly used for outdoor GE crop tests, and it called for a nationwide moratorium on such tests. “The science of genetic engineering is radical and new,” said U.S. PIRG, and GE crops had “not been properly tested for human health or environmental impact.”
A Dutch study published in December 2002 seemed to vindicate this anxiety. According to the paper, a short stretch of the ringspot virus coat protein, now incorporated in the GE papaya, matched a sequence in an allergenic protein made by worms. The resemblance was only partial, and, as the authors noted, it didn’t show that the protein triggered allergies, much less that the papaya did so.
But anti-GMO activists didn’t wait. The Institute of Science in Society published a “Biosafety Alert” titled “Allergenic GM Papaya Scandal.” Greenpeace flagged the Dutch study and warned that “the interaction of GE papaya with other viruses … can produce new strains of viruses.” The organization accused the papaya’s developers of “playing with nature.”
Some of these early alarms were disconcerting. But scientifically, they made no sense. Start with the distinction between “nature” and “genetic pollution.” Nature had invented the ringspot virus. Millions of people had eaten it without any reports of harm. And breeders had been tinkering with nature for millennia.
Anti-GMO activists decried genetic engineering as imprecise and random. They ignored the far greater randomness of mutation in nature and the far greater imprecision of traditional breeding. Furthermore, after five years of commercial sale and consumption, there was no sign that GE papayas had hurt anyone. But the alarmists continued to fret about unforeseen interactions and doomsday mutations, ignoring research that didn’t bear out these fantasies.
Take the “Allergenic GM Papaya Scandal.” The protein made by the papaya’s new gene consisted of about 280 amino acids. Out of that 280, the number of consecutive amino acids it shared with a putative allergen was six. By this standard, a study found that 41 of 50 randomly selected proteins in ordinary corn would also have to be declared allergenic. But GMO opponents ignored this study. They also ignored a second paper, which concluded that the putative worm allergen used in the papaya comparison was not, in fact, intrinsically allergenic.
Years passed, people ate papayas, and nothing bad happened. But the activists wouldn’t relent. In 2004, Greenpeace vandals tore up a GE papaya orchard in Thailand, calling the plant a “time bomb” and claiming that it had devastated farmers in Hawaii. In 2006, Greenpeace issued another report condemning the fruit. In reality, the source of farmers’ troubles was Greenpeace itself. The organization was working to block regulatory approval and sales of the GE papaya—and then blaming the papaya for farmers’ financial woes.
From 2006 to 2010, USDA scientists, prodded by Japanese regulators, subjected the papaya to several additional studies. They verified that its new protein had no genetic sequence in common with any known allergen, using the common standard of eight consecutive amino acids rather than six. They demonstrated that the protein, unlike allergens, broke down in seconds in gastric fluid.
They found that conventional virus-infected papayas, which people had been eating all along, had eight times as much viral protein as the GE papaya. In May 2009, after a decade of scrutiny, Japan’s Food Safety Commission approved the GE papaya. Two years later, after resolving environmental questions, Japan opened its market to the fruit.
Chinese researchers performed additional tests. For four weeks they fed GE papayas to a group of rats. Meanwhile, they fed conventional papayas to another group of rats. The study found no resulting differences between the rats. It confirmed that coat protein fragments dissolved quickly in gastric fluid and left no detectable traces in organs.
By this point the GE papaya had been investigated and eaten for 15 years. GMO skeptics had two choices. They could acknowledge that their nightmares hadn’t come true. Or they could reject the evidence and cling to their faith in a GMO apocalypse.
That dilemma split the anti-GMO camp in 2013, when the Hawaii County Council, which governed Hawaii’s largest island, considered legislation to ban GE crops. The council’s hearings, preserved on video by Occupy Hawaii (which favored the proposed ban), document a yearlong struggle between ideology and science.
As council members heard testimony and studied the issue, they learned that the GE papaya didn’t fit GMO stereotypes. It had been created by public-sector scientists, not by a corporation. It had saved a beloved crop. It had passed extensive scrutiny in Japan and the U.S. It didn’t cross-pollinate nearby fields. It also reduced pesticide use, because farmers no longer had to exterminate the aphids that spread the virus.
One council member, Margaret Wille, yielded to the evidence. Wille was Hawaii’s leading anti-GMO politician. She had introduced the proposed GMO ban. But after listening to the arguments, she exempted the GE papaya from her bill, noting that it was embedded in local agriculture and had been vetted in safety and cross-pollination tests. In effect, she acknowledged two things. First, the legitimate worries of biotech critics, such as pesticide use and corporate control of agriculture, didn’t apply to all GE crops. And second, with the passage of time, novelties became conventional.
Other antagonists held their ground. Chief among them was Jeffrey Smith, the world’s most prolific anti-GMO activist. In September 2013, Smith was given 45 minutes to testify before the council as an expert witness, though he had no formal scientific training. (When he was asked whether he should be addressed as Dr. Smith, he sidestepped the question by answering, “No, Jeffrey’s fine.”) Smith told the council that RNA from the GE papaya might disrupt genes in people and that proteins from the papaya might interfere with human immunity, leading to HIV and hepatitis. He also said the protein might cause cancer.
To support his testimony, Smith cited a March 2013 paper about regulation of GE crops. He said the paper “showed that the evaluation of this technology is sorely inadequate to protect against environmental problems and human health problems. And the papaya was one example cited in that study.” But the paper made no claim about papayas. It simply listed them in a table of GE crops, alongside a theoretical critique of the technology.
Smith told the council that “there hasn’t been any animal feeding studies on the papaya.” Hector Valenzuela, a University of Hawaii crop specialist who also testified as an expert, said the same thing: that scientists hadn’t “conducted a single study” to assess the safety of GE papaya. Neither man mentioned the Chinese papaya feeding study in rats—published two months before the theoretical paper Smith had cited—which had found none of the harms Smith alleged.
To explain why scientific organizations and regulatory agencies had declared GE foods safe, the anti-GMO witnesses offered conspiracy theories. They said the Food and Drug Administration had been captured by Monsanto. So had the American Association for the Advancement of Science. When the New York Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning science reporter Amy Harmon detailed the safety evidence behind the GE papaya, incredulous council members dismissed her article as a “skewed” account by “the political powers that be.”
As for Japan’s approval of the papaya, Valenzuela advised the council to look at U.S. government cables released by WikiLeaks. He said the cables showed “the lengths that the State Department goes to twist arms behind the scenes.” This was a clear insinuation that U.S. officials had coerced Japan’s decision. Smith mentioned the cables, too. But the cables showed no conspiracy.
Nearly 6,000 of the leaked cables had been sent from U.S. embassies and consulates in Japan. They covered the years 2005 to 2010, during which Japanese regulators had debated and approved the GE papaya. Food & Water Watch, an environmental group, had searched the cables for references to pressure or lobbying by U.S. officials on behalf of GMOs. The group’s report, issued in May 2013, cited no cables that indicated any such activity in Japan.
No allegation was too far-fetched for the anti-GMO witnesses, including several who called themselves experts. They said GMOs were especially dangerous to dark-skinned people. They suggested that vaccines were harmful, too. They said GE flowers should be banned because children might eat them.
What they wouldn’t say, regardless of the evidence, was that the GE papaya was safe. Brenda Ford, a council member and sponsor of another anti-GMO bill, told her colleagues that they didn’t have to answer that question, even when they were directly asked. Ford described genetic engineering as “random hits” on chromosomes. She said the science was still “in its infancy.” Smith, in his testimony, suggested that gene transfer in agriculture should be studied for 50 to 150 years before allowing its use outdoors.
In the end, the papaya survived. Ford’s bill died. Wille’s bill was signed into law but was tied up in court. The new law makes an exception for papayas. But GMO labels don’t. They don’t tell you that the fruit you’re looking at in your grocery store was engineered to need fewer pesticides, not more. They don’t tell you about all the research that went into checking its safety. They don’t tell you that people have been eating it with no ill effects for more than 15 years. They don’t tell you that when you buy it, your money goes to Hawaiian farmers, not to Monsanto.
Some people, to this day, believe GE papayas are dangerous. They want more studies. They’ll always want more studies. They call themselves skeptics. But when you cling to an unsubstantiated belief, even after two decades of research and experience, that’s not skepticism. It’s dogma.
Organics Are Not Safer
In 1901 a Japanese biologist discovered that a strain of bacteria was killing his country’s silkworms. Scientists gave the bacteria a name: Bacillus thuringiensis. It turned out to be handy for protecting crops from insects. Farmers and environmentalists loved it. It was natural, effective, and harmless to vertebrates.
In the mid-1980s, Belgian researchers found a better way to produce the insecticide. They put a gene from the bacteria into tobacco plants. When bugs tried to eat the plants, they died. Now farmers wouldn’t need the bacteria. Plants that had the new gene, known as Bt, could produce the insecticidal protein on their own.
Environmentalists flipped. What upset them wasn’t the insecticide but the genetic engineering. Thus began the strange backlash against Bt crops. A protein that everyone had previously agreed was innocuous suddenly became a menace. To many critics of biotechnology, the long history of safe Bt use was irrelevant. What mattered was that Bt was now a GMO. And GMOs were evil.
In 1995 the EPA approved Bt potatoes, corn, and cotton. The agency noted that the toxin produced by these crops was “identical to that produced naturally in the bacterium” and “affects insects when ingested, but not mammals.” But opponents weren’t mollified. In 1999 a coalition led by Greenpeace, the Center for Food Safety, the Pesticide Action Network, and the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements sued the EPA to revoke its approvals. The suit said Bt crops might create insecticide-resistant insects and cause “direct harm to non-target organisms.”
The coalition claimed to speak for environmental caution. But its caution was curiously selective. Thirty of the 34 farmers who were identified in the lawsuit as victims and plaintiffs affirmed that they sprayed Bt on their own crops. Fourteen of the 16 farming organizations listed as plaintiffs said they had members who used Bt spray.
One plaintiff, according to the lawsuit, was a “supplier of organic fertilizers and pest controls” whose business “consists of selling foliar Bt products to conventional apple growers.” Another was “one of the largest suppliers of beneficial insects and natural organisms designed to control agricultural pests,” including “several Bt products.”
Greenpeace and its partners weren’t fighting the Bt industry. They were protecting it. They were trying to convince the public that the Bt protein was dangerous when produced by plants but perfectly safe when produced by bacteria and sprayed by farmers.
The anti-GMO lobby says Bt crops are worse than Bt sprays, in part because Bt crops have too much of the bacterial toxin. In 2007, for instance, Greenpeace promoted a court petition to stop field trials of Bt eggplant in India. The petition told the country’s highest court, “The Bt toxin in GM crops is 1,000 times more concentrated than in Bt sprays.”
But Greenpeace’s internal research belied that statement. A 2002 Greenpeace report, based on Chinese lab tests, found that the toxin level in Bt crops was severely “limited.” In 2006, when Greenpeace investigators examined Bt corn in Germany and Spain, they got a surprise: “The plants sampled showed in general very low Bt concentrations.”
An honest environmental organization, having discovered these low concentrations, might have reconsidered its opposition to Bt crops. But Greenpeace simply changed its rationale. Having argued in its 1999 lawsuit that Bt crops produced too much toxin, Greenpeace now reversed itself. In its report on the German and Spanish corn, the organization complained that Bt crops produced too little toxin to be effective. It argued, in essence, that the Bt in transgenic crops was unsafe for humans but insufficient to kill bugs.
Anti-GMO activists also claim that the insecticidal protein is “activated” in Bt crops but not in Bt sprays, and that this makes Bt crops more dangerous to people. That’s misleading. “Activation” just means that the protein is truncated, which helps it bind to the guts of insects. And each Bt plant is different.
A global database of GE crops, maintained by the Center for Environmental Risk Assessment, shows that some Bt proteins are fully truncated while others are partially truncated. Even the fully truncated proteins are just “semi-activated,” according to a technical assessment that was sent to Greenpeace by its own consultants 15 years ago. Unless you’re a bug, Bt isn’t active.
In its 1999 lawsuit, Greenpeace said Bt crops were dangerous because their toxins were “not readily degraded in the environment.” The organization and its allies have repeated this allegation many times since. But when it’s convenient, Greenpeace says the opposite. Its 2006 petition to block Bt crops in New Zealand speculated that the concentration of toxin in Bt cotton might be too low “because the Bt protein is degraded, linked to heat stress.” The petition added that the plant’s defense mechanisms “may also reduce the insecticidal activity of Bt.”
In fact, the 2006 petition suggested that the low concentration of Bt in Indian cotton was allowing insects to flourish, leading to crop losses, and causing farmers to fall into debt and kill themselves. The suicide allegation was just another anti-GMO fiction. But it allowed Greenpeace to claim that the Bt in transgenic crops was killing people in two ways: by being more persistent and potent than the Bt in sprays, and by being less persistent and potent than the Bt in sprays.
The strangest part of the case against Bt crops is the putative evidence of harm. Numerous studies have found that Bt is one of the world’s safest pesticides. Still, if you run enough experiments on any pesticide, a few will produce correlations that look worrisome. But that’s just the first step in challenging a scientific consensus. Experts then debate whether the correlations are causal and whether the effects are important. They ask for better, controlled experiments to validate the pattern. That’s where the case against Bt crops and other GMOs has repeatedly failed.
But that isn’t what’s strange. What’s strange is that so much of the ostensible evidence against Bt crops is, at best, evidence against Bt sprays.
In its 2006 petition to regulators in New Zealand, Greenpeace argued that Bt crops, by applying evolutionary pressure, would generate Bt-resistant insects, thereby depriving organic farmers of their rightful “use of Bt as a pesticide.” The petition also warned that the “Bt toxin can persist in soils for over 200 days” and that this “could cause problems for non-target organisms and the health of the soil ecosystem.”
But two of the three experiments cited as evidence for the soil warning weren’t done with Bt crops. They were done with DiPel, a commercial Bt spray compound. Greenpeace was asking New Zealand to protect Bt spray from Bt crops based on studies that, if anything, indicted Bt spray.
The 2007 petition against Bt eggplant in India repeated this fallacy. “The natural bacterium Bt is very important in advanced organic agriculture,” said the petition. For this reason, it argued, the evolution of Bt-resistant insects due to Bt crops “would be a serious threat to many types of agriculture on which a country such as India inevitably & rightly relies.” But an addendum to the petition cited, as evidence of Bt’s perils, studies that were done with Javelin, Foray, and VectoBac—three Bt spray compounds.
This paradox pervades the anti-GMO movement: alarmism about any possibility of harm from Bt crops, coupled with relentless flacking for the Bt spray industry. “Farmers have always used Bt sparingly and usually as a last resort,” says the Organic Consumers Association. But that doesn’t square with the product literature for commercial Bt sprays. One brochure recommends “motorized boom sprayers” and says “aerial applications are also commonplace in many crops.” Another explains that “many avocado orchards are sprayed by helicopter.” Saturation is a point of emphasis: “Sprays should thoroughly cover all plant surfaces, even the undersides of leaves.”
Greenpeace says you needn’t worry, because “Bt proteins from natural Bt sprays degrade” within two weeks. But this is a false assurance, because farmers compensate for the degradation by reapplying the spray. A typical brochure recommends reapplication “every 5-7 days.” That’s plenty of time to get the toxin to your mouth, since the product literature tells growers that “ripe fruit can be picked and eaten the same day that it is sprayed.” In YouTube videos, organic farmers deliver the same instructions: You should spray your vegetables with Bt every four days, coating each surface, and you can eat the food right after you spray it.
Bt sprays, unlike Bt crops, include live bacteria, which can multiply in food. Several years ago researchers examined vegetables for sale in Denmark. They found 23 strains of Bt identical to the kind used in commercial sprays. In China a similar study of milk, ice cream, and green tea beverages found 19 Bt strains, five of them identical to the kind used in sprays. In Canada nasal swabs of people living inside and outside zones where Bt was being applied found the bacteria in 17 percent of samples taken before crops were sprayed, as well as 36 percent to 47 percent of samples taken afterward.
Nobody monitors how much Bt is applied worldwide. Last fall the Wall Street Journal estimated that annual sales of biopesticides were roughly $2 billion. Bt has been said to account for 57 percent to 90 percent of that market. In 2001, Bt was reportedly applied in the U.S. to more than 40 percent of tomatoes and 60 percent of brassica crops, which include broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage.
Since then, biopesticide sales have risen substantially. In Europe the annual growth rate since 2000 has been nearly 17 percent. Every market analysis predicts that biopesticides will grow at a much faster rate than the overall insecticide market, in part because governments are promoting them. The Journal projects that by 2020, 10 percent of global pesticide sales will be Bt and other biological formulas.
One result of this paradox—GMOs under attack, while biopesticides flourish—is that you can think you’re eating less Bt, when in fact you’re eating more. Suppose you live in Germany. According to a 2014 congressional research report, Germany has some of the world’s strictest GMO policies. It requires labels, discourages GMO cultivation, and has prohibited even some crops approved by the European Union.
But U.N. data show that during the most recent 10-year reporting period, for every 1,000 hectares of arable German land, an annual average of 125 metric tons of biological and botanical pesticides (the category that includes Bt) were sold for agricultural use in crops and seeds. That works out to more than 100 pounds per acre per year. By comparison, no Bt corn variety produces more than 4 pounds of toxin per acre.
And guess who’s selling all that Bt: the same companies Greenpeace condemns for peddling chemical pesticides and GMOs. Since 2012 the top four companies on Greenpeace’s list of global pesticide villains—Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer, and BASF—have spent about $2 billion to move into the biopesticide market. Another agrochemical giant, DuPont, has invested $6 billion. If you’re boycotting GMOs or buying organic to escape Bt and fight corporate agriculture, think again. Monsanto is one step ahead of you.
Anti-GMO zealots refuse to face the truth about Bt. Two years ago the Organic Consumers Association and its allied website GreenMedInfo published the headline “New Study Links GMO Food to Leukemia.” Today that headline remains uncorrected, even though the study was done with Bt spore crystals, which are components of Bt spray, not Bt crops. (The study is a mess. Most of what was fed to the test animals wasn’t Bt toxin, and the write-up, for undisclosed reasons, was withdrawn from an established journal and published instead in a journal that had never before existed.)
Meanwhile, last year, Greenpeace published a catalog of “exemplary” agriculture, in which it celebrated a Spanish farm where “the use of Bacillus thuringiensis is being expanded to a greater cultivated surface area.” Both organizations encourage you to buy organic, neglecting to mention the dozens of Bt insecticides approved for use in organic agriculture.
GMO labels won’t clear this up. They won’t tell you whether there’s Bt in your food. They’ll only give you the illusion that you’ve escaped it. That’s one lesson of the Non-GMO Project, whose voluntary labels purport to give you an “informed choice” about what’s in your food.
Earlier this year, Slate interns Natania Levy and Greer Prettyman contacted the manufacturers of 15 corn products bearing the Non-GMO Project label. They asked each company whether its product included any ingredients sprayed with biopesticides. Five companies didn’t reply. Two told us, falsely, that their organic certification meant they didn’t use pesticides or anything that could be harmful. One sent us weasel words and repeated them when we pressed for a clearer answer. Another told us it adhered to legal limits. Three confessed that they didn’t know. None of the manufacturers could give us a clear assurance that its product hadn’t been exposed to Bt.
That’s the fundamental flaw in the anti-GMO movement. It only pretends to inform you. When you push past its dogmas and examine the evidence, you realize that the movement’s fixation on genetic engineering has been an enormous mistake. The principles it claims to stand for—environmental protection, public health, community agriculture—are better served by considering the facts of each case than by treating GMOs, categorically, as a proxy for all that’s wrong with the world. That’s the truth, in all its messy complexity. Too bad it won’t fit on a label.
A Humanitarian Project Zealots Hate
Right now, across the world, a quarter of a billion preschool-age children are suffering from vitamin A deficiency. Every year, 250,000 to 500,000 of these kids go blind. Within a year, half of the blinded children will die. Much of the affliction is in Southeast Asia, where people rely on rice for their nutrition. Rice doesn’t have enough beta carotene—the compound that, when digested, produces vitamin A.
Twenty-five years ago, a team of scientists, led by Ingo Potrykus of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, set out to solve this problem. Their plan was to engineer a new kind of rice that would make beta carotene.
The idea sounded crazy. But to Potrykus it made more sense than what some governments were already doing: giving each person two high-dose vitamin A pills a year. Wouldn’t it be smarter to embed beta carotene in the region’s staple crop? That way, people could grow the nutrient and eat it every day, instead of relying on occasional handouts. This was a sustainable solution. It would use biotechnology to prevent suffering, disability, and death.
In 1999, Potrykus and his colleagues achieved their first breakthrough. By transferring genes from daffodils and bacteria, they created the world’s first beta carotene rice. The yellow grains became known as “Golden Rice.” President Clinton celebrated the achievement and urged GMO skeptics to do the same.
He acknowledged that genetic engineering “tends to be treated as an issue of the interest of the agribusiness companies, and earning big profits, against food safety.” But in the case of vitamin A deficiency, the greater risk to health lay in doing nothing. “If we could get more of this Golden Rice … out to the develop[ing] world,” said Clinton, “it could save 40,000 lives a day.”
Anti-GMO groups were confounded. This humanitarian project undermined their usual objections to genetic engineering. In 2001, Benedikt Haerlin, Greenpeace’s anti-GMO coordinator, appeared with Potrykus at a press conference in France. Haerlin conceded that Golden Rice served “a good purpose” and posed “a moral challenge to our position.” Greenpeace couldn’t dismiss the rice as poison. So it opposed the project on technical grounds: Golden Rice didn’t produce enough beta carotene.
The better approach, according to biotechnology critics, was to help people cultivate home gardens full of beans, pumpkins, and other crops rich in Vitamin A. Where that wasn’t feasible or sufficient, Greenpeace recommended supplementation (distributing vitamin A pills) or food fortification, by mixing vitamin A into centrally processed ingredients such as sugar, flour, and margarine.
Greenpeace was right about Golden Rice. At the time, the rice didn’t provide enough beta carotene to cure vitamin A deficiency. But neither did the alternatives. Gordon Conway, the president of the Rockefeller Foundation, which was funding the project, explained some of the difficulties in a 2001 letter to Greenpeace:
Complete balanced diets are the best solution, but the poorer families are, the less likely it is that their children will receive a balanced diet and the more likely they will be dependent on cheap food staples such as rice. This is particularly true in the dry seasons when fruits and vegetables are in short supply and expensive.
Conway echoed the skepticism of UNICEF nutritionists, who doubted that plants native to the afflicted countries could deliver enough digestible beta carotene. To Potrykus, the notion of home gardens for everyone—Let them eat carrot cake—reeked of Western ignorance. “There are hundreds of millions of landless poor,” Potrykus pointed out. “They don’t have a house to lean the fruit tree against.”
Potrykus and Conway wanted to try everything to alleviate vitamin A deficiency: diversification, fortification, supplementation, and Golden Rice. But the anti-GMO groups refused. They called Golden Rice a “Trojan horse” for genetic engineering. They doubled down on their double standards. They claimed that people in the afflicted countries wouldn’t eat yellow rice, yet somehow could be taught to grow unfamiliar vegetables. They portrayed Golden Rice as a financial scheme, but then—after Potrykus made clear that it would be given to poor farmers for free—objected that free distribution would lead to genetic contamination of local crops.
Some anti-GMO groups said the rice should be abandoned because it was tied up in 70 patents. Others said the claim of 70 patents was a fiction devised by the project’s leaders to justify their collaboration with AstraZeneca, a global corporation.
While critics tried to block the project, Potrykus and his colleagues worked to improve the rice. By 2003 they had developed plants with eight times as much beta carotene as the original version. In 2005 they unveiled a line that had 20 times as much beta carotene as the original. GMO critics could no longer dismiss Golden Rice as inadequate. So they reversed course. Now that the rice produced plenty of beta carotene, anti-GMO activists claimed that beta carotene and vitamin A were dangerous.
In 2001, Friends of the Earth had scoffed that Golden Rice would “do little to ameliorate VAD [vitamin A deficiency] because it produces so little beta-carotene.” By November 2004 the group had changed its tune. Crops that yielded beta carotene could “cause direct toxicity or abnormal embryonic development,” it asserted. Another anti-GMO lobby, the Institute of Science in Society, documented its own shift in a 2006 report:
ISIS critically reviewed golden rice in 2000. Among the observations was that the rice produced too little beta-carotene to relieve the existing dietary deficiency. Since then, golden rice strains have been improved, but still fall short of relieving dietary deficiency. On the other hand, increasing the level of beta-carotene may cause vitamin A overdose to those [whose] diets provide adequate amounts of the vitamin. In fact, both vitamin A deficiency and supplementation may cause birth defects.
To support the new alarmism, David Schubert, an anti-GMO activist and neurobiologist at the Salk Institute, drafted a paper on the ostensible perils of boosting vitamin A. In 2008 he got it published in the Journal of Medicinal Food. In the article he noted that beta carotene and dozens of related compounds, known as carotenoids, could produce other compounds, called retinoids, which included vitamin A. He declared that all retinoids “are likely to be teratogenic”—prone to causing birth defects—and, therefore, “extensive safety testing should be required before the introduction of golden rice.”
Schubert systematically distorted the evidence. To suggest that Golden Rice might be toxic, he cited a study that had been reported in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1994. Schubert said the study found that “smokers who supplemented their diet with beta-carotene had an increased risk of lung cancer.”
He neglected to mention that the daily beta carotene dose administered in the study was the equivalent of roughly 10 to 20 bowls of Golden Rice. He also failed to quote the rest of the paper, which emphasized that in general, beta carotene was actually associated with a lower risk of lung cancer. Furthermore, he claimed that a 2004 report by the National Research Council said genetic engineering had “a higher probability of producing unanticipated changes than some genetic modification methods.”
In reality, the NRC report said genetic engineering has a higher probability of producing unanticipated changes than some genetic modification methods, such as narrow crosses, and a lower probability than others, such as radiation mutagenesis. Therefore, the nature of the compositional change merits greater consideration than the method used to achieve the change.
By omitting the second half of the sentence—“and a lower probability than others”—Schubert made the NRC report appear to raise alarms about GMOs, when in fact the report had explained why alarmism about GMOs was wrongheaded.
Schubert gave opponents of Golden Rice what they needed: the illusion of scientific support. Every anti-GMO lobby cited his paper. The movement’s new position, as expressed by Ban GM Food, was that “Golden Rice is engineered to overproduce beta carotene, and studies show that some retinoids derived from beta carotene are toxic and cause birth defects.”
But the new position, like the old one, relied on double standards. To begin with, every green plant produces carotenoids. For years, anti-GMO groups had argued that instead of eating Golden Rice, people should grow other plants rich in beta carotene. They had also encouraged the use of selective breeding to increase carotenoid levels. If carotenoids were toxic, wouldn’t these plants deliver the same poison?
GMO critics didn’t seem to care how much beta carotene people ate, as long as the food wasn’t genetically engineered. They demanded extra safety tests on Golden Rice, on the grounds that “large doses of beta-carotene can have negative health effects.” But they shrugged off such vigilance in the case of home gardens, saying it was “not necessary to count the amount” of each vitamin consumed.
They also advocated the mass administration of vitamin A through high-dose capsules and chemical manipulation of the food supply. By their own alarmist standards—which, fortunately, were unwarranted—this would have been reckless. The human body derives from beta carotene sources, such as Golden Rice, only as much vitamin A as it needs.
In the context of GMOs, Greenpeace claimed to stand for freedom. Its 2009 statement “Hands off our rice!” said “keeping rice GE-free” was an issue of “consumer choice” and “human rights.” The statement complained that GE rice was “controlled by multinational corporations and governments” and “severely limits the choice of food we can eat.”
But as long as GMOs weren’t involved, Greenpeace was all for corporate and government control. It lauded the distribution of vitamin A and beta carotene capsules in “mass immunization campaigns.” It praised health officials and food-processing companies for putting vitamin A and beta carotene in sugar, margarine, and biscuits. It suggested that governments could “make fortification compulsory.”
In the Philippines, where Greenpeace was fighting to block field trials of Golden Rice, its hypocrisy was egregious. “It is irresponsible to impose GE ‘Golden’ rice on people if it goes against their religious beliefs, cultural heritage and sense of identity, or simply because they do not want it,” Greenpeace declared. But just below that pronouncement, Greenpeace recommended “vitamin A supplementation and vitamin fortification of foods as successfully implemented in the Philippines.”
Under Philippine law, beta carotene and vitamin A had to be added to sugar, flour, and cooking oil prior to distribution. The government administered capsules to preschoolers twice a year, and to some pregnant women for 28 consecutive days. If Greenpeace seriously believed that retinoids caused birth defects and should be a matter of personal choice, it would never have endorsed these programs.
Despite this, the anti-GMO lobby went ballistic when scientists fed Golden Rice to 24 children during clinical trials in China. The trials, conducted in 2008, were designed to measure how much vitamin A the rice could generate in people who suffered from vitamin A deficiency. One group of kids was given Golden Rice, a second group was given beta carotene capsules, and a third was given spinach.
The researchers found that a single serving of Golden Rice, cooked from 50 grams of grains, could supply 60 percent of a child’s recommended daily intake of vitamin A. In a separate study, they found that an adult-sized serving could do the same for adults. Golden Rice was as good as capsules, and better than spinach, at delivering vitamin A.
When Greenpeace found out about the trials, it enlisted the Chinese government to stop them. It accused the researchers of using the kids as “guinea pigs.” In a letter to Tufts University, which was responsible for the trials, Schubert and 20 other anti-GMO scientists protested:
Our greatest concern is that this rice, which is engineered to overproduce beta carotene, has never been tested in animals, and there is an extensive medical literature showing that retinoids that can be derived from beta carotene are both toxic and cause birth defects.
In these circumstances the use of human subjects (including children who are already suffering illness as a result of Vitamin A deficiency) for GM feeding experiments is completely unacceptable.
For all the scare talk about beta carotene, Schubert and his colleagues never mentioned the kids who were given beta carotene capsules in the studies. Nor did Greenpeace. Their sole concern was the rice.
Supporters of Golden Rice were baffled. In a letter to the Daily Mail, six scientists wrote, “The experiments were no more dangerous than feeding the children a small carrot since the levels of beta-carotene and related compounds in Golden Rice are similar.” But anti-GMO groups were determined to discredit the studies. They discovered that although the consent forms given to the children’s parents said Golden Rice “makes beta carotene,” the forms didn’t specify that this had been achieved through gene transfer.
Greenpeace was outraged. Its press release titled “Greenpeace alarmed at US-backed GMO experiments on children” quoted a Greenpeace official in Asia: “The next ‘golden rice’ guinea pigs might be Filipino children. Should we allow ourselves to be subjects in a human experiment?” In another press release, Greenpeace questioned whether the Chinese parents were “properly informed of the risks.” Yet in the same statements, Greenpeace praised the Philippines for administering vitamin A to pregnant women and for putting beta carotene in the food supply.
Eventually, Tufts commissioned three reviews of the clinical trials. Two were internal; the third was external. The findings, released in 2013, confirmed that the reviews had “identified concerns” about “inadequate explanation of the genetically-modified nature of Golden Rice.” But the more important verdict was that “the study data were validated and no health or safety concerns were identified.” The university explained:
These multiple reviews found no concerns related to the integrity of the study data, the accuracy of the research results or the safety of the research subjects. In fact, the study indicated that a single serving of the test product, Golden Rice, could provide greater than 50 percent of the recommended daily intake of vitamin A in these children, which could significantly improve health outcomes if adopted as a dietary regimen.
This verdict didn’t suit opponents of Golden Rice. So they ignored it. For 16 years they’ve ignored every fact or finding that doesn’t fit their story. Their enmity is unappeasable; their alarmism is unfalsifiable. Take the question of allergies. In 2006, scientists found no allergens among the proteins in Golden Rice.
The critics refused to accept this finding. They demanded additional tests. They said climate change could undermine the rice’s “genetic stability.” They claimed that unforeseen environmental interactions could cause unintended changes in the rice after several generations, and therefore, regulators should indefinitely delay its approval.
It would not be a surprise if additional unexpected changes in the plant occurred, posing new risks to the environment or human health. … However, it is virtually impossible to look for unexpected effects—by definition, one cannot know what these effects might be, or where to look for them!
And these standards apply only to GMOs. They don’t apply to alternatives favored by the anti-GMO movement. Three years ago Greenpeace recommended marker-assisted selection—essentially, breeding guided by genetic analysis—as a better way to increase levels of beta carotene and other nutrients. One argument quoted in the Greenpeace report was that genetic engineering caused “unpredictable integration sites, copy numbers and often spontaneous rearrangements and losses”—in short, that it screwed up the DNA of the altered organism.
Shortly afterward, a study found that Greenpeace had it backward: In rice, marker-assisted selection caused more genetic and functional disruption than genetic engineering did. Nevertheless, Greenpeace continues to claim that genetic engineering, unlike marker-assisted selection, creates “novel traits with novel hazards.”
There’s no end to the arguments and demands of anti-GMO watchdogs. They want more studies—“systematic trials with different cooking processes”—to see how much vitamin A the rice delivers. They want studies to assess how much beta carotene the rice loses when stored at various temperatures. If the rice delivers enough vitamin A, they say that’s a problem, too, because people won’t feel the need to eat other plants and will consequently develop other kinds of malnutrition. They claim that criminals will counterfeit the rice, using yellow spices or naturally yellow grains, so people will think they’re getting vitamin A when they aren’t.
Sixteen years after it was invented, Golden Rice still isn’t commercially available. Two years ago anti-GMO activists destroyed a field trial of the rice in the Philippines. Last year they filed a petition to block all field tests and feeding studies. Greenpeace boasted, “After more than 10 years of research ‘Golden’ Rice is nowhere near its promise to address Vitamin A Deficiency.” And a million more kids are dead.
A Legitimate Concern
Up to this point, we’ve been focusing on health concerns about GMOs. The stories of papaya, Bt, and Golden Rice demonstrate, in several ways, that these concerns are unfounded. One thing we’ve learned is that fear of GMOs is unfalsifiable. Hundreds of studies have been done, and tons of GE food have been eaten. No amount of evidence will convince the doomsayers that GMOs are safe. You can’t live your life clinging to such unappeasable fear. Let it go.
Another thing we’ve learned is that it makes no sense to avoid GMOs based on standards that nobody applies to non-GMO food. Yes, it’s conceivable that you could overdose on vitamin A or ingest a viral or insecticidal protein from eating fruits, grains, or vegetables. But GMOs don’t make any of these scenarios more likely or more dangerous. In fact, if you look at illness or direct fatalities—or at correlations between food sales and disease trends, which anti-GMO activists like to do—you can make a better case against organic food than against GMOs.
A third lesson is that GMO segregation, in the form of labels or GMO-free restaurants, is misguided. GMO labels don’t clarify what’s in your food. They don’t address the underlying ingredients—pesticides, toxins, proteins—that supposedly make GMOs harmful. They stigmatize food that’s perfectly safe, and they deflect scrutiny from non-GMO products that have the same disparaged ingredients.
The people who push GMO labels and GMO-free shopping aren’t informing you or protecting you. They’re using you. They tell food manufacturers, grocery stores, and restaurants to segregate GMOs, and ultimately not to sell them, because people like you won’t buy them. They tell politicians and regulators to label and restrict GMOs because people like you don’t trust the technology. They use your anxiety to justify GMO labels, and then they use GMO labels to justify your anxiety. Keeping you scared is the key to their political and business strategy. And companies like Chipotle, with their non-GMO marketing campaigns, are playing along.
But safety isn’t the only concern that’s been raised about GMOs. There are other criticisms, and one of them is worth your attention. It addresses the world’s most common agricultural application of genetic engineering: herbicide tolerance.
Three-quarters of the corn and cotton grown in this country is engineered to resist insects. These crops have the bacterial Bt gene, which makes them lethal to bugs that eat them. Slightly more than that, about 80 percent to 85 percent of corn and cotton, is engineered to withstand weed-killing chemicals, especially glyphosate, which is sold as Roundup. (The two traits are usually packaged together.) The percentages are similar for soy. Worldwide, insect-resistant crops are grown on about 50 percent of the land allotted to GMOs, while herbicide-tolerant crops are grown on more than 80 percent.
Both applications are considered pesticidal, because weeds, like bugs, are pests. And this is crucial to understanding the debate over whether GMOs, as a whole, have raised or lowered the level of pesticide use. One study, published in 2012 by Charles Benbrook, the most sensible critic of GMOs, calculates that GMOs increased pesticide use in the United States by 7 percent. An international analysis of multiple studies, published last year, calculates that GMOs decreased pesticide use by 37 percent. But the two assessments agree on a fundamental distinction: While bug-resistant GMOs have led to lower use of insecticides, herbicide-tolerant GMOs have led to higher use of weedkillers.
Two factors seem to account for the herbicide increase. One is direct: If your crops are engineered to withstand Roundup, you can spray it profusely without killing them. The other factor is indirect: When every farmer sprays Roundup, weeds adapt to a Roundup-saturated world. They evolve to survive. To kill these herbicide-resistant strains, farmers spray more weedkillers. It’s an arms race.
Despite an ongoing debate about the effects of glyphosate, experts agree that it’s relatively benign. Benbrook has called it one of the safest herbicides on the market. He concludes: “In light of its generally favorable environmental and toxicological properties, especially compared to some of the herbicides displaced by glyphosate, the dramatic increase in glyphosate use has likely not markedly increased human health risks.”
But the arms race could change that. As weeds evolve to withstand Roundup, farmers are deploying other, more worrisome herbicides. And companies are engineering crops to withstand these herbicides so that farmers can spray them freely.
Chipotle complains that GMOs “produce pesticides” and “create herbicide resistant super-weeds.” The company says Benbrook’s study showed that “pesticide and herbicide use increased by more than 400 million pounds as a result of GMO cultivation.” (Chipotle, unlike Benbrook and other experts, uses the term pesticide to mean insecticide.)
But this is misleading in two ways. First, by pooling the data, Chipotle has hidden half of what Benbrook found: that Bt crops reduced insecticide use and thereby, in terms of their contribution to the bottom line, reduced the combined use of pest-killing chemicals. And second, the problem that’s driving the herbicide arms race isn’t genetic engineering. It’s monoculture.
Everyone who has studied the problem carefully—Benbrook, the USDA, the National Research Council—comes to the same conclusion: By relying too much on one method of weed control, we’ve helped weeds evolve to defeat it. To confound evolution, you have to make evolutionary pressures less predictable. That means switching herbicides so weeds that develop resistance to one herbicide will be killed by another.
It also means alternating crops, so weeds have to compete with different plants and grow under different tilling, watering, and harvest conditions. Industry and regulators, belatedly, are beginning to address this problem. As part of its product approval and renewal process, the EPA, backed by the USDA, is requiring producers of herbicides and herbicide-tolerant crops to monitor and report use of their chemicals, work with farmers to control excessive use, and promote non-herbicidal weed control methods.
GMOs are part of the problem. Herbicide-tolerant crops let farmers spray weedkillers more often and more thoroughly without harming their crops. It’s no accident that Monsanto, which sells Roundup-ready seeds, also sells Roundup. But GMOs didn’t invent monoculture, and banning them won’t make it go away. Farmers have been cultivating homogeneity for millennia. Roundup has been used for more than 40 years.
Chipotle illustrates the folly of renouncing GMOs in the name of herbicide control. According to its new policy, “All corn-based ingredients in Chipotle’s food that formerly may have been genetically modified have been removed or replaced with non-GMO versions, while all soy-derived ingredients that may have been genetically modified were replaced with alternatives, such as rice bran oil and sunflower oil.”
But shifting to sunflower oil is demonstrably counterproductive. As NPR’s Dan Charles points out, “many sunflower varieties, while not genetically modified, also are herbicide-tolerant. They were bred to tolerate a class of herbicides called ALS inhibitors. And since farmers start[ed] relying on those herbicides, many weeds have evolved resistance to them. In fact, many more weeds have become resistant to ALS inhibitors than to glyphosate.”
That’s just one example of how tricky it is to assess the effects of swearing off GMOs. Roundup isn’t the only herbicide, genetic engineering isn’t the only technology that creates herbicide tolerance, and your health (which is no more likely to be affected by a given herbicide in GE food than in non-GE food) is just one of many factors to consider. To judge the environmental wisdom of switching from a GMO to a non-GMO product, you’d have to know which pesticides each product involves and how those pesticides affect species that live where the crops are grown. None of that is on the label.
You’d also have to consider the environmental benefits of agricultural efficiency. By making cropland more productive, with less output lost to weeds and insects, GMOs reduce the amount of land that has to be farmed and the amount of water that’s wasted. Herbicide-tolerant crops even mitigate climate change by reducing the need to till fields, which erodes soil and releases greenhouse gases.
The more you learn about herbicide resistance, the more you come to understand how complicated the truth about GMOs is. First you discover that they aren’t evil. Then you learn that they aren’t perfectly innocent. Then you realize that nothing is perfectly innocent. Pesticide vs. pesticide, technology vs. technology, risk vs. risk—it’s all relative. The best you can do is measure each practice against the alternatives. The least you can do is look past a three-letter label.
Twenty years after the debut of genetically engineered food, it’s a travesty that the technology’s commercial applications are still so focused on old-fashioned weedkillers. Greenpeace and Chipotle think the logical response to this travesty is to purge GMOs. They’re exactly wrong.
The relentless efforts of Luddites to block testing, regulatory approval, and commercial development of GMOs are major reasons why more advanced GE products, such as Golden Rice, are still unavailable. The best way to break the herbicide industry’s grip on genetic engineering is to support the technology and push it forward, by telling policymakers, food manufacturers, and seed companies that you want better GMOs.
The USDA’s catalog of recently engineered plants shows plenty of worthwhile options. The list includes drought-tolerant corn, virus-resistant plums, non-browning apples, potatoes with fewer natural toxins, and soybeans that produce less saturated fat. A recent global inventory by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization discusses other projects in the pipeline: virus-resistant beans, heat-tolerant sugarcane, salt-tolerant wheat, disease-resistant cassava, high-iron rice, and cotton that requires less nitrogen fertilizer.
Skim the news, and you’ll find scientists at work on more ambitious ideas: high-calcium carrots, antioxidant tomatoes, nonallergenic nuts, bacteria-resistant oranges, water-conserving wheat, corn and cassava loaded with extra nutrients, and a flaxlike plant that produces the healthy oil formerly available only in fish.
That’s what genetic engineering can do for health and for our planet. The reason it hasn’t is that we’ve been stuck in a stupid, wasteful fight over GMOs. On one side is an army of quacks and pseudo-environmentalists waging a leftist war on science. On the other side are corporate cowards who would rather stick to profitable weed-killing than invest in products that might offend a suspicious public.
The only way to end this fight is to educate ourselves and make it clear to everyone—European governments, trend-setting grocers, fad-hopping restaurant chains, research universities, and biotechnology investors—that we’re ready, as voters and consumers, to embrace nutritious, environmentally friendly food, no matter where it got its genes. We want our GMOs. Now, show us what you can do.
How GMOs Are Regulated for Food and Plant Safety in the United States
Three federal agencies within the U.S. government work together to regulate most GMOs. “GMO” (genetically modified organism) has become the common term consumers and popular media use to describe a plant, animal, or microorganism that has had its genetic material (DNA) altered through a process called genetic engineering.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) ensure that GMOs are safe for human, plant, and animal health.
These agencies also monitor the impact of GMOs on the environment.
The Coordinated Framework for the Regulation of Biotechnology, established in 1986, describes how the agencies work together to regulate GMOs.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration
FDA regulates most human and animal food, including GMO foods. In doing so, FDA makes sure that foods that are GMOs or have GMO ingredients meet the same strict safety standards as all other foods. FDA sets and enforces food safety standards that those who produce, process, store, ship, or sell food must follow, no matter how the foods are created.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
EPA is responsible for protecting human health and the environment, which includes regulating pesticides. EPA regulates the safety of the substances that protect GMO plants, referred to as plant-incorporated protectants (PIPs), that are in some GMO plants to make them resistant to insects and disease. EPA also monitors all other types of pesticides that are used on crops, including on GMO and non-GMO crops.
U.S. Department of Agriculture
The USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) protects agriculture in the United States against pests and disease. APHIS sets regulations to make sure GMO plants are not harmful to other plants, and USDA’s Biotechnology Regulatory Services implements these regulations.
Who makes sure GMOs are safe to eat?
Many federal agencies play an important role in ensuring the safety of GMOs. As described in the Coordinated Framework for the Regulation of Biotechnology, FDA works closely with EPA and USDA to ensure the safety of GMO foods and plants. Collaboration and coordination among these agencies help make sure food developers understand the importance of a safe food supply and the rules they need to follow when creating new plants through genetic engineering.
FDA’s voluntary Plant Biotechnology Consultation Program evaluates the safety of food from new GMOs before they enter the market. This program allows developers to work with FDA on a product-by-product basis.
How does the Plant Biotechnology Consultation Program work?
The Plant Biotechnology Consultation Program is a voluntary program with four key steps:
- GMO plant developer meets with FDA about a potential new product for use in human and animal food.
- GMO developer submits food safety assessment data and information to FDA.
- FDA evaluates the data and information and resolves any issues with the developer.
- Consultation is complete once FDA has no more questions about the safety of the human and animal food made from the new GMO plant variety. Completed consultations are all made public.
The Program allows FDA to work with crop developers to help create a safe food supply. It also allows FDA to collect information about new foods. See a full list of GMOs that have gone through the Plant Biotechnology Consultation Program.
How can I tell if I’m eating GMOs?
Starting in January 2022, certain types of GMOs will require a disclosure that lets you know if the food you are eating (or ingredients in the food you are eating) is a bioengineered food. Bioengineered food is the term that Congress used to describe certain types of GMOs when they passed the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard.
The Standard establishes requirements for labeling foods that humans eat that are or may be bioengineered and defines bioengineered foods as those that contain detectable genetic material that has been modified through certain lab techniques and cannot be created through conventional breeding or found in nature.
The Standard requires that by 2022, food makers, importers, and certain retailers label foods that are bioengineered or have bioengineered ingredients. At that time, foods sold in the United States that meet the definition of bioengineered food must have information on their packaging using one of the approved methods, including text on the package that says “bioengineered food,” the bioengineered food symbol, or directions for using your phone to find the disclosure.
For more details on the labeling requirement for foods that are genetically modified or bioengineered, including sample labels, visit www.ams.usda.gov/be.
Revealed: the new lobbying effort to deregulate GMOs
Political pressure aimed at deregulating the new generation of genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) has been mounting in the EU since 2018 – when the European Court of Justice ruled that these new techniques still fall under the current framework dealing with genetic-engineering products.
New genetic technologies allow speeding up plant-breeding, increasing yields and improving their tolerance to diseases or environmental changes.
However, given that these techniques have not yet shown a sustained safety record, they cannot be exempted from the rules that apply to GMOs, the EU’s top court concluded in 2018.
In 2019, member states asked the European Commission to prepare a study covering legal uncertainties for new genomic techniques, and policy options, under EU law.
This paper, expected to be published before the end of April, is based on consultations with member states and other interested parties.
However, a recent analysis shows that most of the input (74 percent) comes from agri-industry bodies, who favour the deregulation of new genome-editing techniques.
Moreover, the consultation included twice as many questions about the potential benefits of new GMOs as those about potential risks.
Meanwhile, the EU executive has avoided publishing responses to the consultation in advance of its publication – what has triggered outrage from green groups.
“The European Commission promised a strategy sustainable food system with its Farm to Fork strategy, but it seems to be trying to let in a new generation of genetically-modified crops onto our fields and plates without safety checks and labelling,” said Mute Schimpf from Brussels-based NGO Friends of the Earth Europe.
EU current legislation imposes a pre-market authorisation for any GMO to be placed on the market, following an assessment of the risks they may present for human health and the environment. The rules also make them subject to traceability, labelling and monitoring obligations.
However, lobbyists have been trying to get new GMOs techniques (also called gene-editing or CRISPR) deregulated, which would lower the standards for risk-assessment, monitoring or labelling requirements.
A new investigation by the NGO Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO), published on Monday (29 March), has uncovered how fresh lobbying strategies aimed at deregulating modern genetic techniques are driven by various academic and biotech research institutes with corporate interests – using ‘climate-friendly’ narratives.
Nina Holland, a researcher at CEO warned: “We should be extremely wary of the biotech industry’s attempts to hype genome editing products as ‘green’ and ‘climate-friendly’.”
For example, the lobby platform EU-SAGE, founded by the Flemish Biotech Institute (VIB), recently published a sign-on letter calling for a change in the EU GMO directive, claiming that it was signed by “over 129 research institutes”.
However, according to CEO analysis, in many cases, it is individual biotech researchers who sign these letters – not the institute that employs them.
In May 2020, a Belgian university demanded SAGE remove their logo from the letter, saying its use without consent was “illegal”.
In its letter, the lobbying group warned that if the EU applies strict legislation to these new techniques, “European farmers will miss out on a new generation of hardier and more nutritious crop varieties that are urgently needed to respond to the results of climate change”.
Meanwhile, the European Plant Science Organisation (EPSO), which represents academics and research institutes, has arranged a series of meetings with national lawmakers on gene-editing deregulation.
The documents show that countries which had shown an openness to the deregulation of new GMOs were invited to these meetings.
In January, a dozen countries were invited to meet EPSO representatives – namely, Belgium, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Denmark, Italy, Lithuania and Portugal.
“EPSO offers to collaborate with policymakers to develop appropriate future-ready regulations that…contribute…to food and nutritional security and to [the] use all available tools to reduce the environmental impact of agriculture,” according to a document from the organisation.
Another meeting, scheduled for May, will focus on the upcoming commission study.
Meanwhile, green groups have warned that the unintended effects of new GMOs are unpredictable.
“While these new techniques are more precise, the entire process still involves many random events whose results cannot be predicted,” warned Schimpf.
“This unpredictability was one of the main arguments for the strict regulation originally introduced for GMOs and this risk remains with the[ir] new generation,” she added.
Learning to Love G.M.O.s
Overblown fears have turned the public against genetically modified food. But the potential benefits have never been greater.
On a cold December day in Norwich, England, Cathie Martin met me at a laboratory inside the John Innes Centre, where she works. A plant biologist, Martin has spent almost two decades studying tomatoes, and I had traveled to see her because of a particular one she created: a lustrous, dark purple variety that is unusually high in antioxidants, with twice the amount found in blueberries.
At 66, Martin has silver-white hair, a strong chin and sharp eyes that give her a slightly elfin look. Her office, a tiny cubby just off the lab, is so packed with binders and piles of paper that Martin has to stand when typing on her computer keyboard, which sits surrounded by a heap of papers like a rock that has sunk to the bottom of a snowdrift. “It’s an absolute disaster,” Martin said, looking around fondly. “I’m told that the security guards bring people round on the tour.” On the desk, there’s a drinks coaster with a picture of an attractive 1950s housewife that reads, “You say tomato, I say [expletive] you.”
Martin has long been interested in how plants produce beneficial nutrients. The purple tomato is the first she designed to have more anthocyanin, a naturally occurring anti-inflammatory compound. “All higher plants have a mechanism for making anthocyanins,” Martin explained when we met. “A tomato plant makes them as well, in the leaves. We just put in a switch that turns on anthocyanin production in the fruit.” Martin noted that while there are other tomato varieties that look purple, they have anthocyanins only in the skin, so the health benefits are slight. “People say, Oh, there are purple tomatoes already,” Martin said. “But they don’t have these kind of levels.”
The difference is significant. When cancer-prone mice were given Martin’s purple tomatoes as part of their diet, they lived 30 percent longer than mice fed the same quantity of ordinary tomatoes; they were also less susceptible to inflammatory bowel disease. After the publication of Martin’s first paper showing the anticancer benefit of her tomatoes, in the academic journal Nature Biotechnology in 2008, newspapers and television stations began calling. “The coverage!” she recalled. “Days and days and days and days of it! There was a lot of excitement.” She considered making the tomato available in stores or offering it online as a juice. But because the plant contained a pair of genes from a snapdragon — that’s what spurs the tomatoes to produce more anthocyanin — it would be classified as a genetically modified organism: a G.M.O.
That designation brings with it a host of obligations, not just in Britain but in the United States and many other countries. Martin had envisioned making the juice on a small scale, but just to go through the F.D.A. approval process would cost a million dollars. Adding U.S.D.A. approval could push that amount even higher. (Tomato juice is known as a “G.M. product” and is regulated by the F.D.A. Because a tomato has seeds that can germinate, it is regulated by both the F.D.A. and the U.S.D.A.) “I thought, This is ridiculous,” Martin told me.
Martin eventually did put together the required documentation, but the process, and subsequent revisions, took almost six years. “Our ‘business model’ is that we have this tiny company which has no employees,” Martin said with a laugh. “Of course, the F.D.A. is used to the bigger organizations” — global agricultural conglomerates like DowDuPont or Syngenta — “so this is where you get a bit of a problem. When they say, ‘Oh, we want a bit more data on this,’ it’s easy for a corporation. For me — it’s me that has to do it! And I can’t just throw money at it.”
Martin admitted that, as an academic, she hadn’t been as focused on getting the tomato to market as she might have been. (Her colleague Jonathan Jones, a plant biologist, eventually stepped in to assist.) But the process has also been slow because the purple tomato, if approved, would be one of only a very few G.M.O. fruits or vegetables sold directly to consumers. The others include Rainbow papayas, which were modified to resist ringspot virus; a variety of sweet corn; some russet potatoes; and Arctic Apples, which were developed in Canada and resist browning.
It also might be the first genetically modified anything that people actually want. Since their introduction in the mid-1990s, G.M.O.s have remained wildly unpopular with consumers, who see them as dubious tools of Big Ag, with potentially sinister impacts on both people and the environment. Martin is perhaps onto something when she describes those most opposed to G.M.O.s as “the W.W.W.s”: the well, wealthy and worried, the same cohort of upper-middle-class shoppers who have turned organic food into a multibillion-dollar industry. “If you’re a W.W.W., the calculation is, G.M.O.s seem bad, so I’m just going to avoid them,” she said. “I mean, if you think there might be a risk, and there’s no benefit to you, why even consider it?”
The purple tomato could perhaps change that calculation. Unlike commercial G.M.O. crops — things like soy and canola — Martin’s tomato wasn’t designed for profit and would be grown in small batches rather than on millions of acres: essentially the opposite of industrial agriculture. The additional genes it contains (from the snapdragon, itself a relative of the tomato plant) act only to boost production of anthocyanin, a nutrient that tomatoes already make. More important, the fruit’s anti-inflammatory and anticancer properties, which seem considerable, are things that many of us actively want.
Nonetheless, the future of the purple tomato is far from certain. “There’s just so much baggage around anything genetically modified,” Martin said. “I’m not trying to make money. I’m worried about people’s health! But in people’s minds it’s all Dr. Frankenstein and trying to rule the world.”
In the three decades since G.M.O. crops were introduced, only a tiny number have been developed and approved for sale, almost all of them products made by large agrochemical companies like Monsanto. Within those categories, though, G.M.O.s have taken over much of the market. Roughly 94 percent of soybeans grown in the United States are genetically modified, as is more than 90 percent of all corn, canola and sugar beets, together covering roughly 170 million acres of cropland.
At the same time, resistance to G.M.O. foods has only become more entrenched. The market for products certified to be non-G.M.O. has increased more than 70-fold since 2010, from roughly $350 million that year to $26 billion by 2018. There are now more than 55,000 products carrying the “Non-G.M.O. Project Verified” label on their packaging. Nearly half of all U.S. shoppers say that they try not to buy G.M.O. foods, while a study by Jennifer Kuzma, a biochemist who is a director of the Genetic Engineering and Society Center at North Carolina State University, found that consumers will pay up to 20 percent more to avoid them.
For many of us, the rejection of G.M.O.s is instinctive. “For people who are uncomfortable with this, the objection is that it isn’t something that would ever happen in nature,” says Alan Levinovitz, a professor of religion and science at James Madison University. “With genetic engineering, there’s a feeling that we’re mucking about with the essential building blocks of reality. We may feel OK about rearranging genes, the way nature does, but we’re not comfortable mixing them up between creatures.”
Our distrust might also stem from the way G.M.O.s were introduced. When the agribusiness giant Monsanto released its first G.M.O. crop in 1996 — an herbicide-resistant soybean — the company was in need of cash. By adding a gene from a bacterium, it hoped to create crops that were resistant to glyphosate, the active ingredient in its trademark herbicide, RoundUp, enabling farmers to spray weeds liberally without also killing the soy plant itself — something that wasn’t possible with traditional herbicides. Commercially, the idea succeeded. By 2003, RoundUp Ready corn and soy seeds dominated the market, and Monsanto had become the largest producer of genetically engineered seeds, responsible for more than 90 percent of G.M.O. crops planted globally.
But the company’s rollout also alarmed and antagonized farmers, who were required to sign restrictive contracts to use the patented seeds, and whom Monsanto aggressively prosecuted. At one point, the company had a 75-person team dedicated solely to investigating farmers suspected of saving seed — a traditional practice in which seeds from one year’s crop are saved for planting the following year — and prosecuting them on charges of intellectual-property infringement. Environmental groups were also concerned, because of the skyrocketing use of RoundUp and the abrupt decline in agricultural diversity.
“It was kind of a perfect storm,” says Mark Lynas, an environmental writer and activist who protested against G.M.O.s for over a decade. “You had this company that had made Agent Orange and PCBs” — an environmental toxin that the E.P.A. banned in 1979 — “that was now using G.M.O.s to intensify the worst forms of monoculture farming. I just remember feeling like we had to stop this thing.”
That resistance was compounded because early G.M.O.s — which focused largely on pest- and herbicide-resistance — offered little direct benefit to the consumer. And once public sentiment was set, it proved hard to shift, even when more beneficial products began to emerge. One of these, Golden Rice, was made in 1999 by a pair of university researchers hoping to combat vitamin A deficiency, a simple but devastating ailment that causes blindness in millions of people in Africa and Asia annually, and that can also be fatal. But the project foundered after protests by anti-G.M.O. activists in the United States and Europe, which in turn alarmed governments and populations in developing countries.
“Probably the angriest I’ve ever felt was when anti-G.M.O. groups destroyed fields of Golden Rice growing in the Philippines,” says Lynas, who publicly disavowed his opposition to G.M.O.s in 2013. “To see a crop that had such obvious lifesaving potential ruined — it would be like anti-vaxxer groups invading a laboratory and destroying a million vials of Covid vaccine.”
In recent years, many environmental groups have also quietly walked back their opposition as evidence has mounted that existing G.M.O.s are both safe to eat and not inherently bad for the environment. The introduction of Bt corn, which contains a gene from Bacillus thuringiensis, a naturally insect-resistant bacterium that organic farmers routinely spray on crops, dropped the crop’s insecticide use by 35 percent. A pest-resistant Bt eggplant has become similarly popular in Bangladesh, where farmers have also embraced flood-tolerant “scuba rice,” a variety engineered to survive being submerged for up to 14 days rather than just three. Each year, Bangladesh and India lose roughly four million tons of rice to flooding — enough to feed 30 million people — and waste a corresponding volume of pesticides and herbicides, which then enter the groundwater.
In North America, though, such benefits can seem remote compared with what we think of as “eating naturally.” That’s especially true because, for many of us, G.M.O.s and the harms of industrial agriculture (monocultures, overuse of pesticides and herbicides) remain inextricably linked. “Because of the way that G.M.O.s were introduced to the public — as a corporate product, focused on profit — the whole technology got tarred,” Lynas says. “In people’s minds it’s ‘Genetic engineering equals monoculture equals the broken food system.’ But it doesn’t have to be that way.”
The greenhouse where Martin grows her tomatoes is surprisingly modest: a small and somewhat grubby building filled with leggy plants in plastic pots. Martin often has multiple projects going at one time, and as she walked me down the row, she pointed out a (non-G.M.O.) tomato bred to be rich in vitamin D; another with high levels of resveratrol, the antioxidant compound in red wine; and one that a postdoc, Eugenio Butelli, is trying to modify to produce serotonin, a neurotransmitter used in antidepressant drugs. When I asked whether antidepressant tomatoes were next, Martin shrugged. “He’s playing,” she said. “A lot of what we do is play.”
Even if the serotonin-producing tomatoes proved possible, she added, they wouldn’t be sold in grocery stores but would simply be added to the growing list of “biologics”: plants or bacteria that have been genetically engineered to produce the active ingredient in medications, including ones for diabetes, breast cancer and arthritis. Martin herself recently created a tomato that produces levodopa, the primary drug for treating Parkinson’s disease, in hopes of making the drug both more affordable and more tolerable. (The synthetic version of levodopa can cause nausea and other side effects, and it also costs about $2 a day — more than some patients, especially those in developing countries, can afford.)
Farther down the row was the next-generation purple tomato: a dark blue-black variety called Indigo that Martin has created by crossing the high-anthocyanin purple tomato with a yellow one high in flavonols, an anti-inflammatory compound found in things like kale and green tea, making it even richer in antioxidants. The Indigo, which is also a G.M.O., is too new to have been evaluated for health benefits, but Martin is hopeful that it will have even more robust health effects than the purple tomato.
One pot over, Martin stopped at a purple-tomato plant hung with a single luscious cluster of fruit. “There’s a lovely one,” Martin said, picking it gently and brushing off a few white flecks. “Interestingly, the high-anthocyanin tomatoes also have an extended shelf life. We’re not sure why, but they seem to be more resistant to fungal infection, which is what causes tomatoes to rot.”
Such unanticipated genetic changes can cut both ways, of course. In 1996, researchers determined that soybeans containing a gene from a Brazil nut could trigger a reaction in someone who is allergic. (The soybeans were experimental and never intended for the market.) Likewise, instead of lasting longer, Martin’s tomato could have turned mealy or become more bitter. Theoretically, it could even have become dangerous. Had Martin added genes that increased production of solanine — a toxic chemical produced by plants in the nightshade family, including tomatoes and potatoes — the resulting fruit could have been lethal.
For anyone wondering, I sampled Martin’s purple and Indigo tomatoes, and eating them has so far not had any alarming effects, at least that I can detect. But of course, I can’t say for sure. What if genetically modified produce turns out to have delayed or unpredictable consequences for our health? Something we can’t easily observe or test for, or perhaps even detect until it’s too late?
The fear of such unforeseen effects — what Kuzma calls “unknowingness” — is perhaps consumers’ biggest concern when it comes to G.M.O.s. Genetic interactions, after all, are famously complex. Adding a new gene — or simply changing how a gene is regulated (i.e., how active it is) — rarely affects just a single thing. Moreover, our understanding of these interactions, and their effects, is constantly evolving. Megan Westgate, executive director of the Non-G.M.O. Project, echoed this point. “Anyone who knows about genetics knows that there’s a lot we don’t understand,” Westgate says. “We’re always discovering new things or finding out that things we believed aren’t actually right.” Charles Benbrook, executive director of the Heartland Health Research Alliance, also notes that any potential health impacts from G.M.O.s would be stronger in whole foods — produce we consume raw, unprocessed and in large amounts — than in ingredients like corn syrup.
‘For the majority of people, the anxiety around G.M.O.s is almost entirely untethered to an understanding of what’s happening at a scientific level.’
Despite that, plant geneticists tend not to be overly concerned about the risks of G.M.O.s, as long as the modifications are made with some care. As a 2016 report by the National Academy of Sciences found, G.M.O.s were generally safe, though it allowed that minor impacts were theoretically possible. Fred Gould, a professor of agriculture who was chairman of the committee that prepared the 600-page report, noted that genetic changes that alter a metabolic pathway — the cellular process that transforms biochemical elements into a particular nutrient or compound, like the anthocyanins in Martin’s tomato — were especially important to study because they could cause cascading effects.Sign up for The New York Times Magazine Newsletter The best of The New York Times Magazine delivered to your inbox every week, including exclusive feature stories, photography, columns and more. Get it sent to your inbox.
Gould likened these pathways to the plumbing in a house. If a genetic edit shuts off one pipe — say one that generates a bitter compound — the building blocks for that compound will start flowing elsewhere, the way a blocked pipe will force water into neighboring channels. The results of this redirection, Gould told me, are poorly understood. “Do the extra precursor chemicals end up producing more of something else?” Gould asked. “Or do they just stay as precursors? For some pathways, plant biologists know the answer. But in other cases we don’t.”
But he also noted that this problem wasn’t unique to G.M.O.s. Years ago, for instance, farmers crossbred cucumbers to reduce the amount of cucurbitacin (a bitter compound that repels spider mites) in the peel. But because those cucumbers were made with conventional breeding, growers weren’t required to sequence the genome of the new variety, or even to look at its nutritional and toxicity profile, as they would with something genetically engineered. “We’ve never really asked a conventional breeder: ‘Hey, when you turn off the production of cucurbitacin by crossbreeding, does something else get produced?’” Gould added. “Or do the levels of other important compounds go up or down?”
Gould emphasized that many genetic modifications to food are trivial and extremely unlikely to have any measurable effect on people. And even the effects of precursor changes would mostly be slight. “I mean, we’ve been changing all these things already with conventional breeding, and so far we’re doing all right,” he added. “Making the same change with genetic engineering — there’s really no difference.”
If we don’t find these sorts of distinctions very reassuring, it’s in part because our extravagant concern about G.M.O.s reflects something more fundamental: the fact that most of us don’t really understand how genes work. As several scientists I spoke with pointed out, a gene is just a narrow set of biological instructions, many of which appear across a wide range of species. The snapdragon gene in Martin’s tomato, for instance, is known as a transcription factor: essentially, a kind of volume knob that regulates how much of something a particular gene will produce. That something could be anthocyanin, or it could be a dangerous toxin, but the knob itself isn’t the problem, nor is the process by which it was added. “For the majority of people, the anxiety around G.M.O.s is almost entirely untethered to an understanding of what’s happening at a scientific level,” Levinovitz says. “But that actually makes the anxiety harder to address, rather than easier.”
This is particularly true around food. Whether or not people actually understand where their fruits and vegetables come from, Levinovitz says, we think that we do — and are disturbed when that changes. The philosophical term for this is epistemic opacity. “When you imagine you know how something works, or where it comes from, that’s comforting,” he added. “So when you hear that an apple was genetically modified, it’s like, What does that mean? It’s alienating.”
For many consumers, Levinovitz notes, the word “natural” has become a heuristic: a mental shortcut for deciding if something is good or safe. “We hear it all the time, and it is often true. Why do we have chronic pain? Because we weren’t meant to sit at a desk for hours. Why is the sea turtle not reproducing? Because of the artificial light we introduced on beaches. It’s not a very consistent view” — there are all kinds of unnatural things that nobody worries about, like Netflix and indoor plumbing — “but it’s become a kind of shorthand for this world we feel like we’ve lost.”
In practice, of course, almost everything we grow and eat today has had its DNA altered extensively. For millenniums, farmers, discovering that one version of a plant — usually a random genetic mutant — was hardier, or sweeter, or had smaller seeds, would cross it with another that, say, produced more fruit, in hopes of getting both benefits. But the process was slow. Simply changing the color of a tomato from red to yellow while preserving its other traits could take years of crossbreeding. And tomatoes are one of the easiest cases. Introducing even a minor change to a cherry through crossbreeding, I was told, could take up to 150 years.
To those who worry about G.M.O.s, that slowness is reassuring. “There’s a sense that, yes, these things have been altered,” Levinovitz noted. “But they’ve been altered over a very long time, in the same way that nature alters things.”
Yet the way nature alters things is also profoundly haphazard. Sometimes a plant will acquire one trait at the expense of another. Sometimes it actually becomes worse. The same is true for agricultural crossbreeding. Not only is there no way to control which genes are kept and which are lost; the process also tends to introduce unwanted changes. The technical term for this is “linkage drag”: all the unintended, and unknown, genes that get pulled along during cross-pollination, like fish in a net. Commercial berry growers spent decades trying to create a domesticated version of the black raspberry through crossbreeding but never succeeded: the thornless berries either tasted worse or produced almost no fruit, or they developed other problems. It’s also why meeting the needs of modern agriculture — growing produce that can be shipped long distances and hold up in the store and at home for more than a few days — can result in tomatoes that taste like cardboard or strawberries that aren’t as sweet as they used to be. “With conventional breeding, you’re basically just shuffling the genetic deck,” the agricultural executive Tom Adams told me. “You’re never going to carry over only the gene you want.”
In recent years genetic-engineering tools like CRISPR have offered a way around this imprecision, making it possible to identify which genes control which traits — things like color, hardiness, sweetness — and to change only those. “It’s far more precise,” says Andrew Allan, a plant biologist at the University of Auckland. “Instead of rolling the dice, you’re changing only the thing you want to change. And you can do it in one generation instead of 10 or 20.”
Last year, the U.S.D.A. ruled that plants that had undergone simple cisgenic edits — changes to the plant’s own DNA, of the kind that could theoretically be created by years of traditional crossbreeding — would not be subject to the same regulation as other G.M.O.s. And some people are arguing that it’s time to reconsider how G.M.O.s are regulated as well, especially when it comes to small growers like Martin. From a regulatory perspective, Allan pointed out, all G.M.O.s are treated the same, regardless of the modification and regardless of the scale. “Whether you’re a corporation that wants to plant millions of acres of pest-resistant corn or someone who’s made a lovely little tomato that could save lives, it’s all the same process,” he said. Allan noted that his current project, the red flesh apple, contains a single gene taken from a crab apple which increases its antioxidants. “It’s an extremely low-risk change,” he said. “We’re literally just taking a gene from one kind of apple and putting it into another. But it is still, demonstrably, a G.M.O.”
The policy is partly a holdover from the early days of genetic engineering, when less was known about the process and its effects. But it has persisted, in part because of powerful anti-G.M.O. campaigning. Eric Ward, co-chief executive of the agricultural technology company AgBiome, described the situation as “stuck in a closed loop.” He went on: “People think, Well, if you’ve got this really strict regulatory system, then it must be really dangerous. So it becomes self-reinforcing.”
For Martin, this has created a strange catch-22. Grocery stores are afraid to carry something like a genetically modified tomato because they worry that consumers will reject it. Growers and businesses are afraid of investing in one for the same reason. Genetic engineering, Ward notes, has become far more accessible since the first G.M.O. crops were introduced in the 1990s. “But it’s turned into this thing that only half a dozen companies in the world can afford to do, because they’ve got to go through all this regulatory stuff.” He paused. “It’s ironic. The activists that first objected to G.M.O.s did it because they didn’t trust big agribusiness. But the result now is that only big companies can afford to do it.”
A few days before traveling to Norwich, I joined Martin at the Royal Society in London for the Future Food conference, a series of talks on genetic engineering in agriculture. There I met Haven Baker, a founder of a company called Pairwise, which was started to create fruits and vegetables that are genetically edited but not G.M.O.“I don’t think we can change people’s minds about G.M.O.s,” Baker said. “But gene editing is a clean slate. And maybe then G.M.O.s will be able to follow.”
In his talk, Baker noted that there are hundreds of kinds of berries in the world. But among those we commonly call berries, we eat just four: strawberries, raspberries, blueberries and blackberries. There’s a reason the other varieties rarely reach us. Sometimes the fruit rots within days after picking (salmonberries), or the plant puts out fruit for only a few weeks in summer (cloudberries). Sometimes the plant doesn’t produce much fruit at all or is too thorny or sprawling for the fruit to be picked without a vast amount of labor. As Joel Reiner, a horticulturalist at Pairwise, would later put it, “Berries always have some tragic flaw.”
Black raspberries, one fruit that Pairwise hopes to bring to market, used to be widely grown in North America, until a virus decimated them. (The red raspberries we eat now originally came from Turkey.) The revived version, which will be in field trials in 2024, has been engineered to be thornless and seedless, while retaining the fruit’s signature jammy flavor.
More recently, the company began a similar project with vegetables. Baker says that we underestimate the mediocrity of most grocery-store produce, which tends to be tasteless and also offers little in the way of novelty. On top of that, most vegetables just aren’t very appealing, especially compared with processed foods. Vegetables take work to prepare, vary in quality and can be bitter or woody. They’re also perishable, often going bad before we get around to cooking them. “Especially if you’re on a budget, you hate the idea of wasting food,” Megan Thomas, one of Baker’s colleagues, noted. “You buy processed food, you can put it in the freezer or in the pantry for eight months and not worry about it.”
These drawbacks have affected our diet. Only 10 percent of Americans eat the U.S. recommended daily allowance of fruit and vegetables, and teenagers eat even less. And that isn’t because the standard is particularly high: In an entire year, the average American consumes just a few heads of broccoli. “So how do we change that?” Baker asked. “People already know that they’re supposed to be eating vegetables. They just aren’t doing it. But if we can use gene editing to make broccoli slightly less bitter, maybe people — and especially kids — will eat more of it, and therefore be getting more fiber and more vitamins. Which might make a difference in their long-term health.”
Not long after the conference, I flew to North Carolina to meet with Baker and his co-founder, Tom Adams. Before starting Pairwise, Baker and Adams each worked at large companies that invested in G.M.O. crops: Adams at Monsanto and Baker at Simplot, where he oversaw the development of a potato that produces less acrylamide, a carcinogen, when fried. (Monsanto, which is now owned by Bayer, provided some of the initial funding for Pairwise and retains the option to commercialize any innovation in row crops, though not in consumer produce.)
Pairwise’s office is in an airy former textile mill that also houses a yoga studio, a tattoo parlor and several artist studios. When I showed up in February 2020, the area was just recovering from a winter storm that brought snow and black ice. Inside the greenhouses, though, it was warm and humid. “It’s a great place to work in the winter,” said Reiner, who tends to Pairwise’s plants. “In the summer it can get rough.”
In anticipation of my visit, Reiner had set up samples from the company’s “superfood greens project,” which he described as creating “something that’s essentially lettuce but healthier.” Baker noted that Americans trying to eat well often order salads, but around half of those are made with iceberg or romaine lettuce, which have few nutrients and very little fiber. “If those empty leaves could be swapped for a healthy green, it would be a big nutrition boost,” he said. The problem is that nobody really likes the taste of healthy greens. “Do you want to guess what percent of the leafy green market is kale?” Baker asked at one point. “From what we can gather, it’s about 6 and a half percent. And the thing is, kale is known to be extremely good for you. It’s very rich in fiber and micronutrients: vitamins and minerals. But people don’t like to eat it.”
In theory, gene editing could change that. Pairwise’s initial lettuce alternative, mustard greens, are in the same family as kale, Reiner explained, and have better nutritional value. But they’re extremely pungent, a trait the company hopes to minimize. For the tasting, Reiner laid out two varieties of genetically altered mustard greens. The first was beautiful: a dark green leaf veined with red, like a miniature chard. The edited version tasted extremely mild — perfect for salad — but when Reiner talked with consumer researchers, they complained that the leaves were too red. (“It’s OK to have a little bit of red, like some leaf lettuces,” Reiner explained. “But people expect most of what they see in the bag to be green.”)
The second variety was more recognizable: a big, frilly, light green leaf that resembled the mustard greens I often buy — and then fail to eat — from the farmers’ market. That version was also extremely, almost inedibly, strong. Just nibbling the edge of a leaf cleared my sinuses like eating wasabi. “The compound that you’re tasting is called allyl isothiocyanate,” Reiner said as I dabbed at my watering eyes. “It’s not made until you chew it. The plant contains both the enzyme and the compound that converts it — but it holds them separate. When you chew, they combine to make something that tastes like horseradish. That’s why you have that little delay when you first bite into it, before it hits you.”
By comparison, the genetically edited version was delightful, if almost unrecognizable: mild to the point of sweetness, with a pleasant, springy texture. It also has the advantage of looking more like romaine lettuce, and with its larger size and greater frilliness, it does a better job, as Reiner puts it, of “filling up the plate.” It seemed like something that I would happily eat, and in the months after the tasting, as I slogged through my usual salads, I found myself looking forward to the day when I could buy Pairwise’s mustard greens. I liked the idea of getting all that extra nutrition — the vitamins, the fiber — without the punishing pungency. But I also found myself worrying. If I got used to eating greens that were genetically edited to be milder, would I lose my tolerance for funkier ones, like bitter rapini or peppery radishes? At what point would I not want to eat even the local greens from the farmers’ market?
After Baker’s talk at the Future Food conference, a member of the audience voiced the same concern: He was terrified, he said, by the prospect of using genetic engineering to “change what is natural just to meet people’s taste.” Rather than bending the natural world to our palates, shouldn’t we be adapting ourselves to the world? I put this question to Heather Hudson, who oversees Pairwise’s vegetable projects. Hudson smiled grimly. Modifying people’s taste, she said, is extremely difficult. An individual might manage it, by training her palate to appreciate, say, the slight bitterness of radicchio, but as a public health strategy it’s essentially hopeless. “I actually started out in nutrition, hoping to change how people ate,” Hudson went on. “But changing people’s behavior is hard.” There’s also a big difference between what we virtuously say we want and what we actually buy, let alone consume.
This disconnect is something that Baker has thought about as well. With berries, Baker noted: “People definitely like them better when they’re sweeter. They don’t want sour berries, they want sweet berries!” From a purchasing perspective, he added, berries are in competition with “cheap sugar”: candies and cookies. “So, then you ask, should we even be editing these berries to make them sweeter? Have we then made these healthy berries more like candy?” He shook his head. “But the flip side is I don’t see us making progress on fruits and vegetables if we don’t make them more palatable at some level.”
For all of Pairwise’s innovations, there’s a significant limit to how much a plant can be altered without making it a G.M.O. Insect-resistant crops like Bt corn and eggplant, for instance, rely on a gene from a bacterium; neither plant has a gene capable of performing the same function. Even Martin’s purple tomato would have been harder to make without using the transcription factor from snapdragons — although it would theoretically be possible. In general, it’s easy to stop an existing gene from functioning, but much harder to use gene editing to add a new trait or function.
If Pairwise’s fruits and vegetables succeed with consumers, they will almost certainly open the door to other produce made through various kinds of genetic engineering. But getting shoppers to trust that these products are safe requires building confidence in how they’re regulated. “For a G.M.O., you’d want to ask: Is there anything in this which is toxic? Are there any novel proteins, or anything else potentially allergenic?” Lynas says. “And you’d do a compositional analysis. It’s basic food-safety stuff, really.” Gould and his co-authors on the National Academy of Sciences report have floated a more meticulous alternative: Researchers would compare the chemical and nutritional profiles of a genetically modified fruit or vegetable against existing varieties we’re already eating. “We have technologies now that allow you to check thousands of traits, to see if anything has changed,” Gould told me. “Why not use them to look at whether, you know, the vitamin C content in the orange you’ve made has gone down or stayed the same?”
‘We’ve been changing all these things already with conventional breeding, and so far we’re doing all right. Making the same change with genetic engineering — there’s really no difference.’
Should these sorts of comparisons become standard, they could determine, at a molecular level, whether there’s a measurable difference between the tomatoes and apples we’re already eating and the genetically modified version. Paradoxically, these comparisons might also reveal just how much ordinary breeding has already done to create the very changes we fear that G.M.O.s introduce: lowering a vegetable’s nutritional value, say, or increasing an allergen or invisibly altering the biochemical makeup of a plant in ways that could affect our long-term health. Conversely, they may show that G.M.O.s are just as safe, if not safer, than foods that have been altered more conventionally.
Providing such safeguards for G.M.O. fruits and vegetables should be reassuring. But just as someone who distrusts vaccines tends to persist in that belief even when presented with abundant evidence of safety and efficacy, those who distrust G.M.O.s are unlikely to change their views until there’s a pressing reason. One possibly persuasive factor is climate change. As Allan notes, the global population is only increasing: By 2050, it will have gone up by two billion, and all those people need to be fed. “So where’s that extra food going to come from?” Allan says. “It can’t come from using more land, because if we use more land, then we’ve got to deforest more, and the temperature goes up even more. So what we really need is more productivity. And that, in all likelihood, will require G.M.O.s.”
Others believe that we’ll embrace G.M.O.s only when the alternative is to lose something we value. For years, the Florida citrus industry has been plagued by “citrus greening,” a bacterial disease that is currently being controlled — with limited success — by sprayed antibiotics and pesticides. “If it comes down to buying orange juice that’s G.M.O., or not buying any orange juice, what are you going to choose?” the grower Harry Klee told me. “It’s the same thing that happened with the papaya in Hawaii. At some point, the consumer is going to have to decide what really matters to them.”
One of those things might be the very biodiversity that G.M.O.s have helped diminish. As agriculture has industrialized, genetic diversity has shrunk profoundly, with monocultures (or a limited number of hardy varieties) replacing what was once a cornucopia of wild varieties. One study found that before G.M.O.s were even introduced, we’d lost 93 percent of the genetic diversity in our fruits and vegetables. In the early 1900s, farmers in Iowa regularly grew pink-fleshed Chelsea watermelons, which were known for being intensely sweet but have now all but disappeared because they’re too delicate for shipping. Blenheim apricots, once widely cultivated in California, have a sublime, honeyed flavor and a delicate blush-mottled skin, but also bruise easily and ripen from the inside out, confusing consumers. As a result, fresh Blenheims are now almost impossible to find, even though, as the food writer Russ Parsons put it, they’re the apricot that “reminds you of what that fruit is supposed to taste like.”
Genetic engineering and G.M.O.s could help undo these losses, restoring rare and delicate heirloom varieties that were once abundant but have now all but disappeared. One appealing vision is for small growers and academics to figure out what tiny modification would make Blenheims slightly more durable, while preserving everything else about the texture and flavor. While the apricot will most likely never be hardy or controllable enough for mass production, it might be made sturdy enough to allow small producers to plant an orchard that’s sustainable.
It’s not just the most fragile fruits that we’re losing — or may soon lose. Cherries, for instance, are highly sensitive to rain and frost, a problem that makes them especially vulnerable to climate change. They’re also extremely seasonal, ripening all at once over the span of just a few weeks, rather than growing year-round. Faced with labor shortages and shrinking profits, some growers have begun talking about converting their cherry orchards to apples, which keep better and are less risky. To prevent that from happening, Hudson suggested that cherries could be made easier to pick, and perhaps grown year-round, like blueberries (which until recently were also highly seasonal). “Doing that means the farmer gets stability, and the workers get stability,” she added.
But we’re unlikely to see these kinds of projects while G.M.O.s remain the exclusive product of global agrochemical companies. While a researcher at an agricultural college might be interested in bringing back the Blenheim — or creating a wonderful new antioxidant tomato — the financial payoff is nonexistent. “Imagine you’re a big company,” says Ward, the AgBiome chief executive. “You can put a dollar into an insect-control trait in soybean and bring in 10 to 15 billion dollars. Or you can put a dollar into a healthier tomato that at peak might be worth a few million dollars. It’s pretty simple financial calculation.”
There are some signs that the future of small-scale, bespoke G.M.O. produce may already have begun. In late April, Cathie Martin told me that the U.S.D.A. had recently updated its regulations to allow more G.M.O. plants to be grown outside, without a three-year field trial or in tightly contained greenhouses. (The exceptions are plants or organisms with the potential to be a pest, pathogen or weed.) In the wake of this change, Martin and Jones are planning to make the purple tomato available first to home gardeners, who could grow it from seed as soon as next spring — well before the commercially grown tomato reaches grocery stores. (U.S.D.A. approval is expected by December.) They’re currently testing six different varieties, to find the most flavorful. “When we first developed the purple tomato, it was home gardeners who were most interested in it,” Martin noted. “And with home gardening, it’s an opt-in system. It’s up to you whether you want to grow it.”
It was an intriguing idea. Months earlier, while browsing a website called The Garden Professors, I noticed that a home gardener named Janet Chennault had posted a query asking where she could buy G.M.O. seeds. Others had wondered the same thing. “I would love to try some G.M. vegetable seeds in my garden,” a woman named Lorrie Delehanty said.
After some searching, I managed to track down Delehanty, who had recently retired and was living in Charlottesville, Va. Over the phone, she described herself as having “a little tiny backyard in the middle of the city” that she and her husband had worked hard to homestead, planting blackberries along the fence line and creating a bird sanctuary around the vegetable plot. She was interested in G.M. seeds, she said, because she did her own canning and freezing, “and I’m always looking to grow something different.”
When I asked what kind of thing she was looking for, Delehanty grew animated. “Something with the sweet, smoky flavor of a scorpion pepper without the screaming heat,” she began. “Also potatoes that resist bacterial scab. I’m sick and tired of getting scabby potatoes. The purple tomato — I would try that in a heartbeat.” She paused. “Oh, and bigger blackberries!”
Human civilization has been cross-breeding plants for centuries. The original corn plant only contained a scant number of Kernels compared to our ears of corn, that we now take for granted. We have not only been cross breeding plants, we have been adding chemicals and gases to them to delay their ripening. Case in point bananas. We can basically keep them in a suspended animation almost indefinitely, with special gases. Only in the last few generations have we been genetically modifying these plants. The process is more specific than cross breeding plants. There has been a multitude of studies done that prove that GMO crops are just as healthy as non GMOs. However their has been a reticence in European countries on their use. African countries that rely heavily on commerce from Europe, have followed along in an effort to maintain relations with the European countries. This has caused the needless death of tens of thousands of people due to starvation. Only until the last few years have these countries started reducing the restrictions on the use of GMOs. Many of these modified plants are drought tolerant. So hopefully they will help reduce the starvation facing many third world countries in Africa. We also need to work with them in sustainable farming techniques, ie the use of fertilizers, and crop rotation. Hopefully with time we world hunger and malnutrition will be a thing of the past.
businessinsider.com, “The war against GMOs is full of fearmongering and fraud,” By William Saletan; euobserver.com, “Revealed: the new lobbying effort to deregulate GMOs,” By ELENA SÁNCHEZ NICOLÁS; fda.gov, “Science and History of GMOs and Other Food Modification Processes;” fda.gov, “How GMOs Are Regulated for Food and Plant Safety in the United States;” nytimes.com, “Learning to Love G.M.O.s: Overblown fears have turned the public against genetically modified food. But the potential benefits have never been greater.” By Jennifer Kahn; healthline.com, “GMOs: Pros and Cons, Backed by Evidence;” itif.org, “Suppressing Growth: How GMO Opposition Hurts Developing Nations,” By Val Giddings, Robert D. Atkinson, John Wu; ‘Hacking Darwin: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Humanity,” By Jamie Metzel;
GMOs: Pros and Cons, Backed by Evidence
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), GMO seeds are used to plant over 90% of all maize (corn), cotton, and soy grown in the United States, which means that many of the foods you eat likely contain GMOs (1).
Although most notable organizations and research suggest that GMO foods are safe and sustainable, some people claim they may harm your health and the environment.
This article helps explain what GMOs are, provides a balanced explanation of their pros and cons, and gives guidance on how to identify GMO foods.
“GMO,” which stands for genetically modified organism, refers to any organism whose DNA has been modified using genetic engineering technology.
In the food industry, GMO crops have had genes added to them for various reasons, such as improving their growth, nutritional content, sustainability, pest resistance, and ease of farming (2Trusted Source).
While it’s possible to naturally give foods desirable traits through selective breeding, this process takes many generations. Also, breeders may struggle to determine which genetic change has led to a new trait.
Genetic modification significantly accelerates this process by using scientific techniques that give the plant the specific desired trait.
For example, one of the most common GMO crops is Bt corn, which is genetically modified to produce the insecticide Bt toxin. By making this toxin, the corn is able to resist pests, reducing the need for pesticides (3Trusted Source).
GMO crops are incredibly common in the United States, with at least 90% of soy, cotton, and corn being grown through genetic techniques (4Trusted Source).
In fact, it’s estimated that up to 80% of foods in supermarkets contain ingredients that come from genetically modified crops.
While GMO crops make farming much easier, there is some concern around their potential effect on the environment and their safety for human consumption — specifically surrounding illnesses and allergies (5Trusted Source).
However, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and USDA maintain that GMOs are safe for human and animal consumption (6Trusted Source).
GMOs are food items that have been made using genetic engineering techniques. They comprise 90% of soy, cotton, and corn grown in the United States and are deemed safe for human consumption.
GMO foods may offer several advantages to the grower and consumer.
For starters, many GMO crops have been genetically modified to express a gene that protects them against pests and insects.
For example, the Bt gene is commonly genetically engineered into crops like corn, cotton, and soybeans. It comes from a naturally occurring bacteria known as Bacillus thuringiensis.
This gene produces a protein that is toxic to several pests and insects, which gives the GMO plants a natural resistance. As such, the GMO crops don’t need to be exposed to harmful pesticides as often (7Trusted Source).
In fact, an analysis of 147 studies from 2014 found that GMO technology has reduced chemical pesticide use by 37% and increased crop yields by 22% (8Trusted Source).
Other GMO crops have been modified with genes that help them survive stressful conditions, such as droughts, and resist diseases like blights, resulting in a higher yield for farmers (9Trusted Source, 10Trusted Source, 11Trusted Source).
Together, these factors help lower the costs for the farmers and consumers because it allows a greater crop yield and growth through harsher conditions.
Additionally, genetic modification can increase the nutritional value of foods. For example, rice high in beta carotene, also called golden rice, was developed to help prevent blindness in regions where local diets are chronically deficient in vitamin A (12Trusted Source).
In addition, current research suggests that GMO foods are safe for consumption (14Trusted Source).
GMO foods are easier and less costly for farmers to grow, which makes them cheaper for the consumer. GMO techniques may also enhance foods’ nutrients, flavor, and appearance.
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Although current research suggests that GMO foods are safe, there is some concern around their long-term safety and environmental impact (14Trusted Source).
Here are some of the key concerns around GMO consumption.
There is some concern that GMO foods may trigger an allergic reaction.
This is because GMO foods contain foreign genes, so some people worry that they harbor genes from foods that may prompt an allergic reaction.
A study from the mid-1990s found that adding a protein from Brazil nuts to GMO soybeans could trigger an allergic reaction in people sensitive to Brazil nuts. However, after scientists discovered this, they quickly abandoned this GMO food (15Trusted Source).
Although allergy concerns are valid, there have been no reports of allergic reactions to GMO foods currently on the market.
According to the FDA, researchers who develop GMO foods run tests to ensure that allergens aren’t transferred from one food to another (16Trusted Source).
In addition, research has shown that GMO foods are no likelier to trigger allergies than their non-GMO counterparts (17).
Yet, if you have a soy allergy, both GMO and non-GMO soy products will prompt an allergic reaction.
Similarly, there’s a common concern that GMO foods may aid the progression of cancers.
Because cancers are caused by DNA mutations, some people fear that eating foods with added genes may affect your DNA.
This worry may stem partly from an early mice study, which linked GMO intake to a higher risk of tumors and early death. However, this study was later retracted because it was poorly designed (18Trusted Source, 19Trusted Source, 20Trusted Source).
Currently, no human research ties GMO intake to cancers.
The American Cancer Society (ACS) has stated that there’s no evidence to link GMO food intake to an increased or decreased risk of cancer (21).
All the same, no long-term human studies exist. Thus, more long-term human research is needed.
Other environmental and health concerns
Although GMO crops are convenient for farmers, there are environmental concerns.
Most GMO crops are resistant to herbicides, such as Roundup. This means that farmers can use Roundup without fear of it harming their own crops.
However, a growing number of weeds have developed resistance to this herbicide over time. This has led to even more Roundup being sprayed on crops to kill the resistant weeds because they can affect the crop harvest (22Trusted Source, 23Trusted Source, 24Trusted Source).
Roundup and its active ingredient glyphosate are subject to controversy because animal and test-tube studies have linked them to various diseases (25Trusted Source, 26Trusted Source, 27Trusted Source).
Still, a review of multiple studies concluded that the low amounts of glyphosate present on GMO foods are safe for human consumption (28Trusted Source).
GMO crops also allow for fewer pesticide applications, which is a positive for the environment.
That said, more long-term human research is necessary.
The main concerns around GMOs involve allergies, cancer, and environmental issues — all of which may affect the consumer. While current research suggests few risks, more long-term research is needed.
Although GMO foods appear safe for consumption, some people wish to avoid them. Still, this is difficult since most foods in your supermarket are made with ingredients from GMO crops.
In the United States, no regulations currently mandate the labeling of GMO foods.
Yet, as of January 2022, the USDA will require food manufacturers to label all foods containing GMO ingredients (6Trusted Source).
That said, the labels won’t say “GMO” but instead the term “bioengineered food.” It will display either as the USDA bioengineered food symbol, listed on or near the ingredients, or as a scannable code on the package with directions, such as “Scan here for more information” (6Trusted Source).
Presently, some foods may have a third-party “Non-GMO project verified” label, which indicates that the product contains no GMOs. However, this label is voluntary.
It’s also worth noting that any food labeled “100% organic” does not contain any GMO ingredients, because U.S. law prohibits this. However, if a product is simply labeled “organic,” it may contain some GMOs (30Trusted Source).
In the European Union (EU), foods with more than 0.9% GMO ingredients must list “genetically modified” or “produced from genetically modified [name of food].” For foods without packaging, these words must be listed near the item, such as on the supermarket shelf (31).
Until the new regulations come into place in the United States, there is no clear way to tell if a food contains GMO ingredients.
However, you can try to avoid GMO foods by eating locally, as many small farms are unlikely to use GMO seeds. Alternatively, you can avoid foods that contain ingredients from the GMO crops listed above.
Until the 2022 USDA rule takes effect, it’s hard to determine which foods contain GMOs in the United States. You can avoid GMOs by limiting GMO ingredients, eating locally, looking for third-party non-GMO labels, or buying 100% organic.
GMOs are foods that have been modified using genetic techniques.
Most foods in your local supermarket contain GMO ingredients because they’re easier and more cost-effective for farmers, which makes them cheaper for the consumer.
In the United States, foods grown using GMO techniques include corn, soybean, canola, sugar beet, alfalfa, cotton, potatoes, papaya, summer squash, and a few varieties of apples.
Although current research suggests that GMO foods are safe for consumption, some people are concerned about their potential health effects. Due to a lack of long-term human studies, more research is needed.
In the United States, it’s currently not mandatory to label foods that contain GMOs. However, as of 2022, all foods that contain GMO ingredients must have the term “bioengineered food” somewhere on the packaging or a scannable code to show that it has GMO ingredients.
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