Guest Editorial: More questions, about GMOs
About a year ago, fast-food chain Chipotle trotted out its “G-M-Over It” campaign, boldly declaring that it would extend its commitment to healthy food by eliminating genetically engineered ingredients from its menu. GMO-fearing burrito eaters rejoiced, while most food scientists rolled their eyes at what they called needless fear over genetically modified organisms. We joined in the eye-rolling.
Even Chipotle acknowledged it was still serving a few GMO-laced foods (soft drinks and some meats and dairy products). Its No. 1 reason for taking its anti-GMO stand? “Scientists are still studying the long-term effects of GMOs (and) more independent studies are needed.”
Last week, the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine released a long-anticipated study that clarified two major points:
— Genetically engineered crops are no more of a health risk to humans than conventionally bred crops are.
— The insect and weed resistance that has evolved through their use is a “major agricultural problem.”
Significant differences were found in nutrient composition between engineered and nonengineered crops. But the variance is no different than what occurs naturally among nonengineered crops.
A search for evidence that engineered food leads to a higher incidence of health problems such as cancer, obesity or autism came up empty, even as the report noted an absence of long-term, case-controlled research. The report relied on epidemiological data collected in the U.S. and Canada in the 1990s, before engineered foods were introduced, and in the years after.
Findings regarding the agriculture industry are more troubling. Genetic engineering is used primarily in commercial farming to provide insect and herbicide resistance — so that a soybean plant, for instance, will repel harmful insects and also won’t be harmed by toxic weedkillers.
About 12 percent of the world’s cropland is used for growing genetically engineered crops, mostly soybeans, cotton and corn. For decades, the hope has been that with insect- and herbicide-resistant crops, yields would increase, boosting profits for large commercial farmers, for sure, but also improving food security around the world and reducing the need for toxic insecticides.
The study found that less insecticide is being used, which is good for the environment, but it found little evidence that the genetically engineered crops have increased yields in the U.S. any more than they were already improving.
The study isn’t the last word on GMOs, but it provides a clearer framework for the discussion. It ends with a chapter on the regulation of genetically engineered crops. And it recommends, in effect, that we stop confusing the process (genetic engineering) with the product (say, a corn tortilla).
“All technologies for improving plant genetics — whether genetic engineering or conventional — can change foods in ways that could raise safety issues,” the report counsels. “Therefore, it is the product that should be regulated, not the process.”
In the U.S. and Europe, activists have turned “GMO” into a dirty acronym, and some states are moving forward with laws that will require foods with GMOs to be labeled. The first of its kind takes effect July 1 in Vermont. Without more complete information about a food’s origins or the process through which it was grown, we don’t see how a basic “GMO” label will help consumers make truly informed purchases.