The facts about health, corruption, and saving the world
American farmers started growing genetically engineered (GE) crops (which are also commonly referred to as "GMOs") in 1996, and now plant 165 million acres annually. Food manufacturers estimate that 70 percent of processed foods contain at least one ingredient made from GE crops. But along with such rapid adoption of a scary-sounding technology have come myths propagated by proponents and opponents. Here are some facts that sometimes get lost in the hype--and that will come as a surprise to people on both sides of the constant arguments.
Myth: "Frankenfoods" made with GE ingredients are harmful to eat.
There is no reliable evidence that ingredients made from current GE crops pose any health risk whatsoever. Numerous governmental and scientific agencies, including the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and National Academy of Sciences, have conducted reviews that did not identify any health concerns. Indeed, even the fiercest opponents have not shown any health risks.
That should not come as a surprise. The DNA inserted into GE seeds, and the protein it produces, are largely digested in the gastrointestinal tract. And the proteins are sometimes molecules that humans have already been exposed to in our diets. For example, GE crops that fend off viruses contain components of plant viruses that we've long eaten without any harm.
Furthermore, current GE crops enter our food supply primarily as highly processed ingredients that are essentially free of the engineered DNA and its protein products. High-fructose corn syrup and corn oil made from GE corn, soybean oil from GE soybeans, and sugar from GE sugar beets are identical to ingredients made from non-GE crops.
While current GE foods are not harmful, they haven't improved our diet, though that may change. Farmers have started growing soybeans that produce high-oleic oil that could substitute for trans-fat-rich partially hydrogenated oil. And the long-awaited "golden rice," engineered with beta carotene to combat vitamin A deficiency, is expected to be grown by Southeast Asian farmers in 2014.
Myth: FDA approves GE foods before we eat them.
Despite industry claims, the FDA does not formally approve the foods or ingredients made from GE crops. Laws only requires pre-market approval of "food additives" such as aspartame or dyes. In 1992, FDA decided that inserting a gene into a crop does not make the protein it produces a food additive.
Instead, FDA adopted a voluntary process whereby seed developers submit data showing that the GE crop is "substantially equivalent" to its traditional counterparts and does not pose novel health risks. FDA reviews those data and alerts developers to any concerns, but doesn't formally approve the seeds or foods made from the crops.
It is worth noting that many traditional crop varieties, such as some red grapefruit and barley varieties, which could even be grown on organic farms, were developed by blasting seeds with mutagenic chemicals or gamma radiation. In theory, those human-modified crops could pose similar risks as GE crops. But they are not subject to special regulation (and have never caused problems).
Senator Richard Durbin has supported legislation that would establish an approval process, but it has failed to win support from either ardent GE advocates or opponents.
Myth: Monsanto and other seed developers are the main beneficiaries of GE crops.
Seed developers have certainly benefited from engineered crops. They spend millions developing them and then charge hefty premiums to recoup their costs and make a nice profit. However, others also obtain significant benefits.
American farmers growing GE cotton that contains a biological insecticide have greatly reduced their use of highly poisonous insecticides. That cuts their costs and the harms from using those chemical insecticides.
Outside the United States, small-scale farmers growing GE cotton in India and China cut their use of insecticides sharply, obtained increased yields, and enjoyed higher income. In China, studies have documented that reduced insecticide use has led to fewer hospitalizations of farmers and reduced harm to beneficial insects and other species.
In the United States, planting herbicide-tolerant soybeans has not reduced herbicide use, but the glyphosate herbicides used are less toxic than the ones previously used. Department of Agriculture economists found that farmers planting those soybeans had greater income because saving time in the field allowed for more off-farm employment.
Remarkably, a study by William Hutchison, an entomology professor at the University of Minnesota, estimated that farmers who grew non-GE corn benefited more from GE crops than neighboring farmers planting pesticide-producing GE corn--benefits of $4.3 billion versus $2.6 billion from 1996 to 2009. The reason is that engineered corn reduces insect loads in the whole area, reducing non-GE farmers' need for expensive insecticides. Moreover, farmers growing non-GE crops don't pay any licensing fee to seed companies and often get paid a premium for their crops.