The Science of GMOs

By Katie Jones

food scientist using a microscope

Comparing Genetically Modified crops (GMO) and conventionally bred crops

In the early 1990’s the term Frankenfood captured public concern when GE (genetically engineered) crops were first introduced. Although these foods are often tagged with the more general name “GMOs” (genetically modified organisms), the GMO label includes all genetic modifications, such as cross-pollinating two kinds of apples to produce a new third variety. GE, in contrast, refers specifically to introducing a new genetic component into a food. It is this kind of modification that has produced concern among the general public.

With nearly 20 years of GE food production, scientists now have enough data to determine the safety of these foods. A committee from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine studied over 900 scientific reports and research papers on the uses and effects of GE crops. The committee found that the current data do not show any association between “disease or chronic conditions and the consumption of GE foods.”

On the contrary, the article goes on to state that ”there is some evidence that GE insect-resistant crops have had benefits to human health by reducing insecticide poisonings. In addition, several GE crops are in development that are designed to benefit human health, such as rice with increased beta-carotene content to help prevent blindness and death caused by vitamin A deficiencies in some developing nations.”

So what about the claims of health risks and environmental impacts?

Allergies, autism, cancer, IBS, and obesity are just a few of the modern-day illnesses claimed to be caused by GE food. Could splicing genes from a drought-resistant grass into corn really cause human health to suffer? The National Academies of Science report comparing genetically engineered crops and conventionally bred crops did not discover a higher risk to human health in GE crops.

Comparing epidemiology reports for countries with a history of GE foods (US and Canada) against those without (United Kingdom and Western Europe), the committee looked at diabetes, cancer, and obesity among other chronic diseases. Data over the last 20 years did not show any evidence of higher risk to human health between GE crops and conventionally grown crops.

Is the Committee’s report enough to convince consumers that GE foods are safe to consume? Supporters of the non-GMO movement are flocking into the organic food market, and this multimillion-dollar market is continuing to grow in the food industry. Until a comparison of GE food vs organic food is conducted, opponents of GMOs will continue to question the Committee’s findings. However, the majority of consumers choose conventional foods over organic due to availability and cost. Scientific studies will continue to prove important as our food systems modernize to meet growing populations.

For further information, a free download of the report is available here. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine website has additional links with information on Committee members, how the study was conducted, and a frequently asked questions section.

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About the Author:

Katie Jones
Katie is an innovator, organoleptic guru and food geek with over a decade of experience in the food industry. She created new product categories while working as a Food Technologist in the Organic/ Natural food industry. Her curiosity led her to the study of Sensory Science where Katie developed a sensory program to suit the specific needs of non-traditional food products. She has a passion for bridging the technical language of food science with the art of down-home baking.

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