A few months ago, I talked about some questions concerning genetically modified organisms (GMOs) that we hear from our friends and neighbors. Consumers have a lot of fear and animosity toward GMOs, and those who think GM crops are unsafe and harmful fail to understand why farmers would plant such crops. However, a lot of research goes into demonstrating the safety of a GM crop before it’s grown and consumed.
Before any GM crop can be grown and sold commercially, it must go through an extensive approval process with multiple government agencies, including USDA, the Food and Drug Administration and sometimes the Environmental Protection Agency. If the product will be exported, then it undergoes approval processes in each country that will import it. Only GMOs that earn approvals may be consumed as food or animal feed. Currently, almost all GMO products grown in the U.S. have had extensive independent evaluation by governments in Europe, Japan, South Korea, other Asian nations, South America and Central America, and they have been confirmed as safe for human consumption.
The GMO development and approval process has many steps and takes several years from the first time the transgene is inserted into a crop until that GM trait receives government approval for commercial release. Here are the steps that a new GM trait undergoes before being grown and sold commercially.
- A desirable gene from a common bacterium or plant species is isolated, replicated and inserted into a plant embryo. This is known as plant transformation. Only genes that come from bacteria, viruses or other plant species are used for GM crops. Even the non-GM crops we eat have genes from bacteria, viruses and other plant species incorporated into their DNA through natural processes.
- The transformed plants are grown in a greenhouse and evaluated for a) performance of the intended trait and b) growth and development. Only plants that carry the intended trait and grow and develop normally advance for further testing. Hundreds to thousands of plant transformations are culled and never see the light of day again.
- The entire genome is sequenced, and all amino acids in the genome are compared with a database that houses known allergens. To date, no new allergies have been caused by food derived from GMOs, according to the Institute of Food Research in the United Kingdom. (Read more about GMOs and allergies at bit.ly/GMOs-Allergies.)
- Food safety studies are conducted to find whether the chemical composition and nutrient levels of a food or feed product from the GM trait are different from those of conventionally grown counterparts.
- Agronomic and ecological safety studies are conducted to determine if the GM trait has altered growth or development, has a greater potential for weediness or negatively impacts insects or animals compared with conventional counterparts.
We actually know more about the genetics, the potential allergens and the nutrient levels of commercially approved GMO varieties than we do about most conventional or organic varieties. Scientists from academia, industry and governments across the world have verified the safety of every GM product grown.
Editor’s Note: Joy Whitsel contributed to this article.