People opposed to or afraid of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) complain that GMOs are unsafe and unnatural. What do those words mean? Is something inherently safe just because it is natural? Does choosing natural food or organic food guarantee safer or healthier food?
LET’S COMPARE DEFINITIONS
The definition of safety is straightforward. Something safe does not cause harm. However, safety is also contextual. That is to say, food is safe only in a specific context. For example, rhubarb stalks make a tasty pie, but the leaves can be poisonous. Soy is a staple for many people, but those allergic to it avoid it.
The definition of natural is a bit looser. Many people think of natural as something produced in nature. That’s fair. But what does that encompass? Is organic synonymous with natural? A box of macaroni and cheese may meet the requirements to be labeled as organic, but I don’t think you can call anything natural if it’s processed down to powdered cheese.
BUT WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?
Are GMOs natural? A knee-jerk reaction may be, “Of course not! They were produced in a lab!” But consider these comments. GM crops are grown in fields just like conventional and organic crops. They use similar production and management systems, except organic is restricted to mostly naturally derived chemicals. All three growing systems apply fertilizer, and in part because pesticides cost money and time, all three systems use pesticides only when necessary. As discussed last month, GM crops have the equivalent chemical composition and nutrient levels of their conventional counterparts. Agrobacterium, the primary vector used to insert genes in GM crops, was chosen for that task because it regularly transfers its own bacterial DNA into plants in nature. In fact, Agrobacterium genetically modified the sweet potato by transferring its own bacterial DNA into the crop during early domestication in the Americas several thousand years ago. (Read more at bit.ly/2NnbQpB.) Sweet potatoes are naturally transgenic!
Regardless of whether you agree with the concept that GMOs are natural, the term natural is not synonymous with safe. Many crops, irrespective of whether they were organically or conventionally grown, contain natural toxins and antinutrients, which are naturally occurring compounds that interfere with nutrient absorption. Undercooking the kidney beans in your chili can result in severe intestinal distress if a certain compound is not destroyed through boiling. Several plant species look edible but are actually poisonous. Examples include pokeberry and the cherry-tomato-shaped fruit of horse nettle. Tobacco is natural, and even without all of the additives in cigarettes, its use has been linked to cancer risk.
Likewise, organic is not synonymous with safe. I recently read a blog post where the blogger boasted that she never washes her veggies because she only buys organic. Wow! Lettuce contaminated with E. coli is clearly not safe. And organic lettuce can be contaminated with bacteria just as readily as conventionally grown lettuce. Organic also does not mean pesticide-free, and many people have written at length about the topic. (For a balanced perspective, check out Tamar Haspel’s May 21, 2018, article in the Washington Post: wapo.st/2QDv0FC.)
What is the point? Organic and natural do not guarantee health or safety benefits. There may be benefits to buying organic foods, but buzzwords used in marketing those foods may lead you astray from the science. Two decades of research has demonstrated that foods produced from GM crops are just as safe and nutritious as foods from non-GM crops.
Editor’s Note: Joy Whitsel contributed to this article.