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Don't Be Scared of Frankenfoods
Food is pretty important. I think most people would agree with me on that. And with over 7 billion humans on our planet, growing enough food for everybody is not going to get any easier. The cost to the environment is certain to be tremendous whatever we do. One of the solutions that agricultural science has put forth for sustainable yield increases is genetic engineering of crop plants.
I’m a double major in Plant Biology and Genetics, with an agricultural biotech concentration. I’ve worked in a molecular biology lab on campus for two semesters. I’m making a career out of the use of genetic engineering, abbreviated GE, to improve crop plants. So it matters a lot to me, both personally and professionally, how the public views what I do. Right now, there seems to be one side who believe that GE crops will save the world. They are essentially at war with the other side, who think that what they call GMOs are going to kill us all. In the middle, there are a bunch of confused consumers who just want to be sure that what they buy in the grocery store isn’t poisonous.
To clear up the confusion and get past the drama, I’m going to tell you about how genetic engineering works, and why it can help with our food problem. Then I’m going to delve into one of the biggest questions surrounding GE crops: are they safe to eat? By the end of our time together, I hope to have convinced you that, while GE foods may not be the answer to absolutely everything, they are an important part of our agricultural future, and they are not inherently dangerous to your health.
About Genetic Engineering
Before I launch into how genetic engineering is done, I want to take a moment to clarify the nomenclature. The term GMO, or Genetically Modified Organism, is probably the one with which you are most familiar. It seems to be the most popular with the media, but it isn’t the most accurate. “Genetic modification” is too broad a term and could apply to traditional methods like plant breeding as easily as to the deliberate introduction of a particular gene in the laboratory. In the FDA Fact Sheet, that organization clearly states that genetic engineering is the more precise term, and I would agree.
With that out of the way, let’s do some science. Gregory Jaffe’s article “Straight Talk on Genetically Engineered Foods,” published by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, or CSPI, summarizes how genetic engineering works, and it goes like this: GE is a collection of techniques used to introduce new genetic material into an organism. The foreign DNA may come from another species, or it may come from a variety of the same species. The new, or recombinant, DNA is inserted into the nuclei of the cells to be transformed. If the transformation is successful, the recombinant cells are grown into whole organisms that possess the introduced gene or genes in all of their cells. Their offspring can inherit the recombinant DNA as well.
It is possible, but very difficult and generally not worth the effort, to go through this process with animals, so when we discuss GE foods, we are almost always talking about plants. GE plant products are what you usually see on the shelves, and you’re probably eating them—and wearing them—every day. Jaffe cites a USDA estimate that 93% of field corn, 94% of soybeans, 95% of sugar beets, and 96% of cotton grown in the U.S. is GE.
No technology is employed that widely if it isn’t very useful. So what kind of traits are introduced into our food plants? Why? The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, in their fact sheet “Food from Genetically Engineered Plants,” list three main reasons for altering the genes of crops: to increase pest resistance, to boost hardiness to environmental conditions, and for added nutritional quality. These are the same sort of favorable traits that traditional plant breeding would select for when trying to make hardier plants and increase yields. GE just does it faster, so that we don’t have to wait ten to twenty years for solutions to our imminent food crises.
Thus far, according to the Gregory Jaffe article, most GE crops have been designed to be resistant to pests or to herbicides. They include Bt corn and cotton, which has been engineered to produce a natural pesticide originally made by a soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringensis. Half a dozen GE crops have been given tolerance to the herbicide glyphosate, also known as Roundup, to allow growers to spray their fields without worrying that their crops will be killed along with the weeds. This permits growers to harvest more per acre with less application of chemicals. However, the idea of food crops that produce a toxin or are able to tolerate being soaked in weedkiller makes people a bit nervous. It’s perfectly reasonable for the public to raise these concerns. If you aren’t sure something is safe, no one should blame you for trying to find out. However, that logical wish to be certain about GE crops has in some cases been turned into total hysteria.
The Health Quagmire
Jeffery Smith, founder of the Institute for Responsible Technology, wrote an article titled “10 Reasons to Avoid GMOs” which illustrates both the concerns people have about GE food, and the bad scientific which has infected public perception of what the possible dangers actually are.
Smith makes his thoughts clear with reason #1 on his list: “GMOs are unhealthy.” He supports this claim by saying that, quote “the toxic insecticide produced by GM corn was found in the blood of pregnant women and their unborn fetuses.” He also points out that there has been an increase in the incidence of disease in the U.S. since GE crops were first introduced to us in 1996, and therefore GE crops must have caused the uptick in illness. Smith also makes the fairly common assertion that GE crops, merely through the process of being engineered, produce toxins, allergens, and carcinogens, or cancer-causing compounds.
It is possible that genetic engineering could create new allergens, but the science has been around for a few decades now, and the companies who make GE crops know to check for that. There hasn’t yet been a case of people having allergic reactions to a new, unknown allergen in an engineered food. People do, however, have unexpected allergic reactions to all kinds of foods every day. Since GE crops have to be tested for allergic effects, they may actually be less likely to cause a reaction than their traditionally-bred counterparts.
As to Smith’s other claims of poisons and cancers, I would like to defer to Layla Katiraee of the Genetic Literacy Project and her article “10 studies proving GMOs are harmful? Not if science matters.” She too mentions the study that found Bt pesticide in the blood of pregnant women, but notes that the study used a test designed to measure the protein in plants, not human blood. Then there’s what Katiraee refers to as the “so what factor:” Bt toxin targets a particular kind of pest very specifically. Human beings do not have a receptor for the protein at all. It isn’t toxic to people. It doesn’t have an effect of any kind. Our bodies don’t recognize its presence. So, even if the study results are accurate, it doesn’t matter for human health. The babies will be fine.
Katiraee mentions an article that connects the increasing incidence of gluten disorders with GE crops, an assertion much like Smith’s claim that GMOs are responsible for giving Americans more allergies and chronic diseases. The problem with these two conclusions boils down to one of the most basic principles of statistics: correlation does not imply causation. This means that two things which are happening together are not necessarily related. “The incidence of gluten allergies have increased over the past decade and the amount of GMOs we eat have increased too,” Katiraee explains. “But, so [has] the number of plasma screens manufactured.”
The myth that GE foods cause cancer relates back to a now infamous publication known as the Seralini paper, which Katiraee also tackles. The Seralini paper is a single study, ultimately redacted by the journal which first published it, in which rats were fed a long-term diet of GE feed, food treated with the herbicide glyphosate, or normal grain feed. At the end of the trial the rats were examined for tumors, and tumors were found. But the breed of rat used for the study is notoriously prone to tumors already, and similar studies have never replicated those results, so the scientific community has discounted the report. Less scrupulous anti-GE groups sometimes still use the Seralini paper as evidence, however, because they can call it a scientific study and make people believe that it’s gospel truth. That’s not to say that everybody who has said “GMOs cause cancer” is being manipulative. A lot of people genuinely believe that the science supports that consensus. A little more digging, though, would show them that the vast majority of studies don’t find any such connection.
I want to let CSPI have the final say on this. In the “Straight Talk” article, Jaffe writes “There is no evidence whatsoever that current GE foods…or ingredients made from GE crops…pose any risk to humans.” The FDA, the National Academy of Sciences, and the European Food Safety Agency have reached the same conclusion. These organizations are respected for their authority and their use of sound science. The FDA in particular is responsible for evaluating each and every new GE food product before it goes to market. Nothing reaches the public unless they’re sure it’s safe to eat. We’ve been eating GE foods since 1996. Clearly, the FDA doesn’t think we’re in danger, and the evidence overwhelmingly supports them.
We’ve looked at the Reader’s Digest version of how genetic engineering works, why we use it, and why the health scare over GE crops has been blown out of proportion. Like all new products, each new GE crop variety should be examined for safety, just in case. However, there are processes in place to make sure that happens, and so far no human health risks have emerged. There are other aspects of safety to consider, which we haven’t had time to go over here. I will gladly discuss them at length with you on our own time if you want. For now, though, remember that GE foods are not giving you cancer, allergies, heart disease, or a third eye. If you think about it, really, that makes sense. The companies which create biotech food varieties are not out to get you. They want you to be alive and healthy, because dead people do not buy groceries.