Genetically engineered, also called genetically modified, crops and food are currently a divisive issue in our society. There are concerns over effects on health and environment, with claims of genetic modification causing everything from superbugs to autism to kidney disease.
According to a study recently released by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NAS), none of these claims have scientific evidence to substantiate them.
Genetic Modification and Human Health
When crops are genetically engineered, the DNA or RNA of the plant is altered by scientists. Most of the time, the trait exists in one or more species of the plants. Basically, genetic modification in these cases is just a quicker way to achieve the same result as traditional breeding methods. In far fewer instances, genetic alteration introduces an entirely new trait that is not inherent in any known species or subspecies of the plant.
Once a crop is genetically engineered, companies and farmers can use it for a more desirable result, rather than waiting for generations through traditional breeding methods. This is the case for things like drought and pest resistance. Some plants within a species are naturally more tolerant or resistant, and this trait could be spread through the crop with generations of traditional breeding.
Because the genes of crops and other plants are being modified directly, many people have criticized companies – especially large “agribusiness” companies that own patent rights on certain genes or strains of a crop – and the genetic engineering method as a whole. To bolster their criticisms, they used pejorative terms like “frankenfoods” to refer indiscriminately to all types of genetically engineered foods, even if the genetic modification could have been achieved through old-fashioned farming techniques.
In addition, critics of genetic modification have gone so far as to assert that genetically altered foods are unsafe to eat. They make claims about genetically engineered foods causing health problems of all stripes, from liver problems to hormonal imbalances to diabetes, and many other health-related issues. Even those who are unsure about the health claims often have questions about the long-term effects of genetically modified foods on the environment, economy, and human health.
NAS Report on Genetic Alteration
Given the various claims and questions about genetically modified foods, the NAS decided to study the issue. The result is a new report, in which the NAS found that there is no significant increase in diseases or ailments that can be attributed to genetically engineered food.
The goals of the study were set out almost two years ago and include:
- Assessing evidence for purported negative effects of genetically modified foods.
- Assessing evidence for purported benefits of genetically modified foods.
- Conducting a review environmental and food safety, the need for additional testing, and new developments in genetic engineering technology.
Genetic engineering technology was first introduced in the 1970s, and although genetically modified crops did not start making their way into the mainstream food supply until the 1990s. Looking at the incidence of various diseases since the introduction of genetically modified foods, the NAS concluded there is no significant difference in these ailments in the United States – which regularly consumes genetically engineered foods – and the United Kingdom, where such foods are eaten less often.
Furthermore, in controlled animal tests, there were no differences found between those animals who were fed a diet from genetically modified crops and those fed traditional crops. Also there has been no significant impact on the health of livestock fed genetically modified feed.
That’s not to say there is no chance genetically engineered crops could affect us in the long term. The NAS admits that it is difficult to attribute a particular ailment with any food. There isn’t enough data to look at chronic diseases. The NAS recommends that the government continue to be rigorous in the regulation of genetically modified food.
Current Regulations on Genetically Modified Foods
As it stands, there are already a number of ways that the federal government oversees safety with respect to genetically modified foods.
The Coordinated Framework for Regulation of Biotechnology was established by a formal policy in 1986. It is composed of three separate government agencies to evaluate all the aspects of GE crops: USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). A genetically modified crop may be subject to regulation by any or all of these agencies.
APHIS protects animals and plants from pests and diseases. It regulates plant pests and things that may be a plant pest risk by managing imports, handling, interstate movement, and release into the environment of plants, including biotechnology and field trials. All new products, whether genetically modified or not, start out as regulated. This means APHIS controls what can and cannot be done. Companies have to petition for nonregulated status by submitting data from their experiment and field trials. APHIS then examines the information for susceptibility to disease and pest, changes to plant metabolism, expression of gene products, impact on sexual compatibility, amount and tolerance of weeds, effect on non-target organisms, and potential gene transfer to organisms.
The EPA regulates the sale of pesticides to protect human health and the environment, including pesticides produced through biotechnology. Companies may need to file for experimental use permits for the field trials of their products. All pesticides must be registered before they are sold and marketed. The EPA has the ability to impose use restrictions and maximum tolerance levels.
The FDA ensures food is safe for human and animal consumption and is properly labeled. Any food additive, including the ones introduced by biotechnology, must be approved for use by the FDA. The FDA takes the position that it is the responsibility of the company and producers to make sure they are putting safe food into the food supply. The agency encourages companies to participate in their Plant Biotechnology Consultation Program. This is a voluntary program where companies work with the FDA directly to know what information they need for their variant to be approved. The documentation generally includes information that was needed for APHIS as well as toxin, allergen, and nutritional information.
The NAS report stresses that in the future, regulators need to continue to be vigilant on all new variants, whether genetically engineered or not. The technology of genetic engineering will continue and will become more precise than it currently is. Also, technology to distinguish between variants will advance and will be useful to regulators. Most of all, the report stressed using a combination of traditional breeding and genetic engineering to ensure genetic diversity among the crops.