Contributed by The Acheson Group (TAG)
In our last TAG blog post, we commented on a highly controversial food safety topic: antibiotic resistance. Few food safety topics are hotter today. But, a case could be made for this one – the increasingly polarizing topic of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). Some groups hail GMOs as the solution to world hunger while others call them Frankenfood. GMO foods are banned completely in certain countries while they’re standard ingredients in others. Let’s take a look at the reasons for the debate as well as the scientific evidence on GMOs.
What makes a food “genetically modified”?
According to the World Health Organization, Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are “organisms in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in such a way that does not occur naturally.” There are actually few organisms that have not been genetically modified one way or another, either through conventional breeding techniques or molecular biology. For generations, breeders have practiced conventional breeding by crossing crops or animals with desirable traits, hoping to achieve the best characteristics. This fairly random process may have yielded a beneficial result, such as an orange with no seeds. However, the process also could have increased the levels of some toxic compound in an organism. Thus, conventional breeding can be slow and results can be unpredictable.
In search of faster results that were much more predictable, genetic modification was undertaken. Molecular biologists applied an understanding of an organism’s genes (and the functional proteins that they code for) to deliberately manipulate them to produce a desired outcome. Genetic modification may involve deleting a gene, increasing the number of copies of a gene, or moving a gene from one organism to another. Supporters point out that strong scientific understanding of genes lead to predictable outcomes, unlike conventional cross-breeding. But, like most things, the terms “genetic engineering” and “genetic modification” represent a wide spectrum of activities, and people’s comfort levels change as we move along the spectrum.
The safety debate
Questions about human and environmental safety and the morality of GMOs cause heated debate. Here, we’ll focus on how safety is evaluated. A 2008 review by the EFSA GMO Panel Working Group nicely lays out what needs to be considered when comparing food (or feed) with non-GMO counterparts:
- potential impact on the environment
- safety for humans and animals
- presence and characteristics of newly expressed proteins and other new constituents and beyond-normal changes in the level of natural constituents
- possibility of unintended/unexpected effects
- nutritional quality
The EFSA group pointed to several ways to evaluate each of these factors including molecular, compositional, phenotypic and agronomic analysis. Reportedly, there have been over 2,000 studies looking at GMO safety from pretty much every angle and the results generally show that GM products are safe. Therefore, the EFSA workgroup noted this in their review. This is, however, dependent on the specific product and circumstances.
Still, opponents raise several issues with genetic engineering. Some are opposed based on ethics, feeling that humans should not interfere with nature. There are also many consumer groups who purport that GMOs are unsafe with respect to human health, although there are very few studies that point to this. One such study, published in 2009, evaluated existing data related to rats fed one of three varieties of maize (corn) that had been genetically modified to either resist an herbicide or produce an insecticide. The analysis showed sex-dependent and sometimes dose-dependent effects on the kidney and liver, although the effects were different between the three GMOs.
U.S. regulation of GMOs
Both FDA and USDA play roles in regulating GMOs. USDA regulates the products of bioengineering but not the process itself. It has responsibility for assessing the ecological effects of new plants developed through genetic modification under the Plant Protection Act of 2000. In 1993, USDA issued a rule that established a notification system for genetically engineered crops that are field-tested in accordance with specific safety criteria. USDA also regulates transgenic animals (those with genetic material from a different species) under existing regulations covering experimental animals in the Code of Federal Regulations.
FDA requires premarket review for all new food additives, including those produced from bioengineering, unless the substances are “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA). FDA considers GMO foods as “substantially equivalent” to non-GMO foods unless the characteristics of the GMO food differs significantly from those of its conventional counterpart, such as the inclusion of a new protein or change in nutritional content. To determine substantial equivalence, FDA has developed a science-based assessment according to the following questions:
- Has the concentration of any naturally occurring toxins in the plant been increased?
- Has an allergen not commonly found in the plant been introduced?
- Have the levels of important nutrients changed?
- Have new substances been introduced into food that raise safety questions?
- What are the environmental effects?
- Have accepted, established, scientific practices been followed?
There is no absolute requirement that bioengineered foods be reviewed. However, many companies voluntarily submit their new products to FDA for review even though most could have bypassed this scrutiny under the GRAS exemption. For most companies, it’s important to gain consumer acceptance by demonstrating that food safety has been assessed by FDA.
In 2010, more than 80 percent of U.S. corn, soybeans, cotton, and sugar beets were GM varieties. Yet, regardless of the prevalence of GMOs, safety evaluations or regulations, true acceptance of GMOs will bear out in the court of public opinion. And it seems that public opinion is already exerting pressure on the food industry about this issue. Just the other day, I noticed that my name-brand microwave popcorn touted it was made from GMO-free corn. Cheerios also made a recent splash by promoting that they will stop using GMO corn starch and sugar cane. Increasing the prevalence of GMO-free labels in mainstream grocery stores, which Whole Foods will require by 2018, will further raise public awareness and likely will lead consumers to ask more questions about where their food comes from and how it’s been produced. Ultimately, safety or ethics may no longer be issues in certain geographies if food producers decide not to risk their market share on the perception of GMOs.
Do you believe the use of GMO’s will increase or decrease in the future? We’d like to hear your opinion.
Genetically Engineered Crops. 2011. Federation of American Scientists. World Health Organization. (Online).(2002). Available from: http://www.fas.org/biosecurity/education/dualuse-agriculture/2.-agricultural-biotechnology/genetically-engineered-crops.html
Foods derived from modern technology: 20 questions on genetically modified foods. Available from: http://www.who.int/foodsafety/publications/biotech/20questions/en/index.php
EFSA GMO Panel Working Group on Animal Feeding Trials. Safety and nutritional assessment of GM plants and derived food and feed: the role of animal feeding trials.Food Chem Toxicol. 2008 Mar;46 Suppl 1:S2-70
Nicolia et al. 2013. An overview of the last 10 years of genetically engineered crop safety research. (Online) http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Nicolia-20131.pdf