Although controversial, genetically modified crops are safe, efficacious, and necessary to meet future food needs and preferences.
Genetically modified (GM) crops, foods, ingredients, and feeds produced from them have been very much in the news. In the United States, voters have gone to the polls in California and Washington to reject initiatives that would have required mandatory warning labels on foods containing even traces of GM crop-derived materials. Connecticut passed a GM labeling bill that will not take effect until five other states adopt similar legislation; such legislative actions are pending in about 20 other states.
Campaigns for labeling initiatives use emotional claims, sensational graphics, and indignation-producing statistics to claim that GM crops are not sufficiently regulated by the government and are unsafe to eat and to release in the environment. Photos of lumpy rats taken by doctor-turned-researcher Giles Séralini have circulated widely, and are commonly cited as proof that GM corn is unsafe. Oprah, Dr. Oz, leading chefs, and assorted celebrities have spoken out against GM crops. The net result is that GMOs are now lumped together in the consumer’s mind with other foods that have been vilified rightly or wrongly, such as high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), trans fats, and artificial colorings and preservatives.
What Are GM Crops?
A major problem surrounding GM crops is that most people don’t understand what GM crops really are, and what they do know is often misinformation, which circulates widely in social media as well as in the mainstream media. The purveyors of GM crops and foods derived from them have totally failed to educate consumers, and the information vacuum has been filled by rumors, opinions, misinformation, and marketing opportunities for some products by sowing fear and distrust in GM foods.
GM crops are simply those varieties produced through the introduction of pieces of DNA to give them traits otherwise not possible. The technology has been used to make crops resistant to certain insects or herbicides, and/or protect them from viral diseases. Newer crops increasingly focus on traits of value to consumers, such as soybeans with oil that does not need hydrogenation, and thus does not lead to the production of trans fats, or potatoes that do not produce acrylamide when fried.
GM corn, soybean, canola, sugar beet, and cotton are the leading crops planted in the United States. GM papaya, squash, sweet corn, and alfalfa are also planted. GM rice, tomato, and potato varieties have been approved, but are not currently on the market.
In the United States, GM crops are reviewed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for feed and food safety prior to marketing. There is a period of review and consultation, and once satisfied, the FDA advises developers that they have no further safety questions about new GM varieties, at which point the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) approves the crop for marketing, as long as their own review and consultation reaches the same conclusion about environmental safety. For some traits, such as insect resistance, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is also involved.
There have been 165 FDA pre-market consultations to date, covering 19 species. Because of the nature of the global market, the FDA counterparts in all major importing countries also conduct independent safety reviews before approving importation of the GM crop, so there is substantial redundancy in the safety assessment process.
Ingredients derived from soybean, canola, and corn (i.e., oils, starch, protein fractions, lecithin, mono- and di-glycerides, HFCS, tocopherols, and others) are used in many food products, as is sugar from sugar beet. It is estimated that at least 70% of processed food products in the United States have ingredients derived from GM crops (Cornell CES, 2003). It is, however, important to note that these ingredients are chemically identical to their counterparts isolated from non-GM crop plants and seldom contain DNA or protein associated with the GM trait. In the European Union, food products containing more than 0.9% of any of the above-mentioned food ingredients must be labeled as GM food.
The first GM crops were planted in 1994, and statistics have been collected since 1996. The impact of GM technology on global agriculture during the past 17 years has been substantial. Approximately 10% of the world’s agricultural fields are now planted with GM crops. Last year alone, more than 17 million farmers in about 30 countries planted GM crops on over 420 million acres. The cumulative area planted over the past 17 years is equivalent to the size of the United States and Mexico, meaning that there is an abundance of information on how these crops have done in the real world. The dire consequences (e.g., the cancer epidemics predicted by Greenpeace) have not materialized.
GM crops have increased harvests by decreasing losses to pests, decreased input and labor costs, reduced the impact from agrichemical use, helped conserve soil and water resources, and conferred a number of environmental and sustainability gains (Brookes and Barfoot, 2013). One of the major unanticipated benefits has been a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, equivalent to taking 22 million cars off the roads, which is roughly 36% of the cars registered in Great Britain (Brookes and Barfoot, 2013). Repeated claims that planting of GM crops would lead to catastrophic environmental disasters have not materialized.
From a food technology perspective, GM technology to improve color, flavor, nutrition, and other consumer-desirable traits is only now beginning to reach the marketplace. Improved low-polyunsaturated vegetable oils suitable for thermal processing and oils that are high in omega-3 fatty acids are two examples. There is a concerted push by the soybean industry to plant high-oleic soybeans on 25–30% of U.S. acreage by 2023. For the first time in history, oil comparable in quality to that of olive oil will be abundant at an affordable price.
It is worth noting here that national and international expert panels around the globe have repeatedly concluded that it will be exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to meet the food and agricultural needs of future generations without the use of all available technologies (Solutions for Sustainable Agriculture and Foods Systems, 2013).