There is much talk about foods containing GMOs. Are they safe? Should they be labeled? They aren’t real and natural foods, right? Non-GMO is always better, right? These are questions we hear at work; in the store; and at family gatherings, church and many other places. There is one thing for certain: people have a lot of questions about GMOs. So, in my next few articles, I am going to address these questions and share what I might say when given the chance to talk to others about GMOs and why agriculture needs them. Here are a few starting points:
ARE THEY SAFE?
There has never been a single confirmed report of a person becoming sick or dying as a direct result of consuming food from GMO crops. Thousands of people die of starvation every day. Can GMO crops save them all? No. Unfortunately, many factors contribute to starvation. However, in the future, growers may not be able to produce enough safe and affordable food to feed the world’s ever-growing population without GMO crops.
SHOULD THEY BE LABELED?
I don’t particularly agree that they should. They’ve been shown to be safe for consumption and, other than the modified gene, not significantly different from conventional foods. I do understand the debate. However, to me, foods that were never commercially available as a GMO should never be labeled as non-GMO. GM wheat, rice, peanuts, oranges and peaches, for example, have never been available. Fewer than a dozen crops commercially available in the U.S. have GMO varieties available. The problem with labeling is that when you put a “does not contain GMOs” label on an orange juice container, you are basically putting a poison label on all other orange juices. Does the non-GMO label make that particular orange juice worth more than one without the label? It shouldn’t because all orange juice is made from non-GMO oranges. It doesn’t seem right to me to charge more for a product just because a consumer isn’t aware that there is no such thing as GMO oranges.
THEY AREN’T REAL AND NATURAL FOODS, RIGHT?
All crops used for food have been bred and “modified” for many years. Since the beginning of agriculture on this planet, we have gathered seeds from plants with the traits we desire and used them for the next year’s crop. Corn provides an excellent example of the extreme change we can make to a species just through traditional breeding. Several Brassica plants such as broccoli, cabbage and kale are other examples. Today, our level of technology allows us to speed up these processes to identify and select for desirable traits much more quickly and efficiently. GMO varieties are developed in many ways, and I will discuss this in more detail in a future article.
NON-GMO IS ALWAYS BETTER, RIGHT?
My wife and I operate a private contract research organization. Some of our work involves gathering data on GMO crops. The data are later used with data collected from many other locations to approve or reject commercial approvals. I grew up farming, and if I hadn’t gotten involved in research, then I may have believed that non-GMO varieties were possibly safer than their GMO counterparts. Companies that develop GMO varieties spend millions of dollars annually to conduct trials and gather data to prove to themselves and the world that their GMO varieties are safe. Every step of the process from our work in the field to the analysis of samples we send to labs is overseen by the USDA and even the Environmental Protection Agency in some cases. Seeing the process and the oversight has helped convince me that GMOs are rigorously tested and safe. Please join me in the next issue as we discuss this further.