Genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, are a popular topic in today’s conversations about food and farming, and many of us have heard of or read food labels stating “contains bioengineered ingredients” (another way of referring to GMOs).
While many of us are familiar with the term GMO, not all of us are quite sure what it is—only, perhaps, that we are advised to avoid them by some people. A 2018 consumer survey by the IFIC found that more than one-third (36 percent) of respondents said they know very little or nothing at all about bioengineered or genetically modified foods, identical to the number who say they know at least a fair amount. Despite the low level of knowledge, a higher volume of respondents (47 percent) said they avoid GMO foods at least somewhat.
But when we hear or read “GMO” or “bioengineered food,” do we ever think of the terms “safety,” “regulation” or “sustainability”? If not, IFIC is here to tell you that we should. Let’s look at how these three positive attributes are intertwined with GMOs and what that means for our food supply.
GMO foods have been part of our food system for more than two decades. The GMO crops available in the U.S.—soybeans, corn (field and sweet), canola, cotton (used in cottonseed oil production), alfalfa, sugar beets, summer squash, papaya, apples and potatoes—are as safe and nutritious as their non-GMO counterparts. The science behind their safety has been evaluated extensively over the past 20 years, including an in-depth analysis performed by 50 scientists that worked on a 2016 National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report for more than two years. The NAS scientific cohort examined relevant literature (including more than 900 publications), heard from 80 diverse speakers at three public meetings and 15 webinars, and read more than 700 comments from members of the public to broaden its understanding of issues surrounding GMO crops.
Significantly, the subsequent report noted there are no adverse health effects linked to GMO crops. To address directly some of the adverse health claims linked to GMO consumption, the report highlighted that there is no published evidence to support accusations or beliefs that consumption of genetically engineered foods can cause obesity, type 2 diabetes, food allergies or autism spectrum disorder—or that GMO foods generate unique gene or protein fragments that have the ability to induce health risks.
In addition to this monumental report, the safety of GMOs has been evaluated by national and international food safety authorities. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) have ensured that GMOs are safe for human, plant and animal health—as has the World Health Organization. The U.S. authorities, in addition to evaluating the safety of GMOs, also impose regulations on their production and introduction to the food system.
The realm of regulation
As noted above, three federal agencies regulate GMO foods: the EPA, the FDA and the USDA, with each holding a specific role. A newly developed web resource library published by the FDA explains each U.S. agency’s role in regulating GMOs and how that role overlaps with others. The FDA sets and enforces food safety standards for all foods, and in doing so, the agency works to ensure that foods that are GMOs or have GMO ingredients meet the same strict safety standards as all other foods. The EPA regulates the safety of the substances that protect GMO crops, which are also called plant-incorporated protectants (PIPs) and work to give the crops resistance to insects and disease. The EPA also monitors all pesticides that are used on GMO and non-GMO crops. Lastly, the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) protects agriculture in the United States against pests and disease. APHIS issues “regulations to make sure GMO plants are not harmful to other plants.”
These agencies work together to uphold a coordinated risk-management system to ensure that established and new biotechnology products are safe for the environment, humans and animals. Established as a formal policy in 1986, the Coordinated Framework for Regulation of Biotechnology describes how the federal agencies form a system for evaluating products developed using modern biotechnology.
Shooting for sustainability
GMO technology is not only safe and regulated—it also provides us with a farming tool that has positive environmental and social impacts. GMO crop cultivation and utilization by farmers support food production system sustainability and build social opportunities for farmers and food producers by ensuring crop yields. Many GMO crops grow better than their non-GMO counterparts under environmental stresses and are thus able to ward off crop diseases and pests. GMO crops can grow with less water, energy and pesticides—all environmentally sustainable benefits.
From a productivity standpoint, GMO crops also support food system workers. Farmers face many hurdles as they aim to grow our food sources, including those brought on by climate change—such as extreme weather, drought, flooding and ecosystem disruption. The advancement of GMO seed availability to farmers can lead to more successful harvest seasons, which in turn helps feed food system workers’ families as well as the general population. Giving farmers the opportunity to experience success also builds their business skills. And additional positive impacts on workers and individuals can be seen throughout the food supply chain, from the those that pick a crop to those that process and ship the food to those that sell the product in grocery stores—not to mention us, the consumers.
In summary, GMO technology has many benefits for both people and the environment, and the above insights help underscore the important elements of safety and regulation surrounding GMO foods.