What is genetic engineering?
According to the FDA, it is the name for “certain methods that scientists use to introduce new traits or characteristics to an organism.” It falls under the broader category of agricultural biotechnology, which also includes traditional breeding techniques.
What is the difference between “genetic engineering”, “genetic modification”, “biotechnology”, and “GMOs”?
They all generally refer to the same thing. While “genetic modification” or the related term “GMO (genetically modified organism)” are used very commonly, the FDA considers the term “genetic engineering” to be more precise, because traditional breeding is also a form of genetic modification. Biotechnology is a broader category that includes genetic engineering as well as traditional breeding techniques.
What is genetic engineering used for?
It is used for a very wide variety of things. The uses we hear about most often are in agriculture.
One use of genetic engineering is to produce what the EPA calls “plant-incorporated protectants” or PIPs. Some plants and other types of organisms contain natural defenses against pests. Scientists can transfer the genes for these defenses into crops like corn or soybeans, allowing them to have internal defenses against pests, as well.
Another common use of genetic engineering – perhaps the most widely known use –is to produce herbicide tolerant crops. Much like PIPs, tolerance to herbicides is naturally occurring in certain organisms. Scientists can take the herbicide tolerance traits from these organisms and transfer them into crops so that farmers can control the weeds in their fields without injuring the crops.
In addition to these two commonly known uses, genetic engineering is also used to create medications, produce human insulin for diabetic patients, and produce enzymes used to make things ranging from cheese to laundry detergent. It can also be used to add additional vitamins and nutrients to crops to make them healthier – a technology with huge potential to combat malnutrition in the developing world.
Who regulates genetically engineered crops?
In the United States, the FDA, EPA, and USDA all regulate genetically engineered crops. Each has its own role in the regulatory process, and they work together in a coordinated framework.
Aren’t the herbicides used on genetically engineered crops dangerous to humans?
The EPA is very stringent in its testing of pesticides and herbicides, including those that the plants produce themselves as a result of genetic engineering (PIPs). Before any such product can be approved, the EPA requires tests at concentrations 10 to 100 times stronger than those that are actually expected to occur. These risk assessments are then peer-reviewed by other scientists within and outside the EPA to make sure that they are correct. This means that if pesticides or herbicides have even a small chance of being toxic to the food supply, the EPA will not approve them. This goes for the products used on genetically engineered as well as non-genetically engineered crops.
Shouldn’t we just mandate the labeling of GMOs, so that consumers will know what is in their food?
There are several reasons why mandating GMO labels would be generally unwise.
First off, as stated above, the term “GMO” is not always used in a very precise way. While some people may generally want “GMOs” to be labeled, this term can be accurately applied to a much broader range of plants than just those developed through genetic engineering, as traditional breeding techniques are used to modify the genetics of organisms, too. Thus, the use of “GMO” to label only genetically engineered, but not selectively bred plants would be arbitrary if not outright misleading.
Secondly, mandating these labels would be extremely costly. Estimates showed that a failed Oregon GMO labeling initiative in 2002 could have cost over $900 million annually for compliance. This is only a tiny fraction of what labeling nationwide would cost. Such costs could certainly be warranted if there were potential benefits as well, but a report by the Washington Academies of Science in regards to that state’s failed labeling initiative stated that there is no benefit to mandatory labeling of GMOs, because there is no difference in health or nutrition when compared to non-GMOs. As such these costs would all be for nothing.
Thirdly, those who wish to avoid GMOs already have the opportunity to do so. Companies that find value in paying extra to produce and market non-GMO products are free to do so, and consumers who find value in paying extra to purchase non-GMO foods are also free to do so. Mandatory GMO labeling would only serve to spread these additional costs out to everyone, including those who have no desire to avoid GMOs.
Finally, the FDA, which regulates food labeling on a national level, supports the voluntary labeling system that we already have in place today. Since there is no health or nutritional difference between GMOs and non-GMOs, labeling them differently would be at best unnecessary, and at worst misleading.
Are you sure GMOs are safe? I’ve heard that Monsanto has funded all the studies claiming they are safe.
Genetically engineered foods are safe. There have been over 1,700 independent scientific studies that have concluded just that. In addition to the FDA, EPA, and USDA, whose standards must all be satisfied before a genetically engineered crop can ever be planted, the World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Research, the U.S. National Academies of Science, the U.K. Royal Society, and several other reputable scientific organizations have all deemed genetically engineered foods to be just as safe as non-genetically engineered foods.
Did you say the European Commission has found GMOs to be safe? That can’t be right. GMOs are banned in Europe.
It is true that genetically engineered crops are highly restricted in Europe, albeit not totally banned. However, this has little to do with science and a lot to do with politics. The European Commission’s Directorate-General for Research published a report of 50 research projects funded by the European Commission over the last decade on the safety of GMOs. Its conclusion: GMOs are safe. The European Commission’s Chief Scientific Advisor Anne Glover even went so far as to say, “I would be confident in saying that there is no more risk in eating GMO food than eating conventionally farmed food.”
I have heard that pest-resistant Bt crops are causing monarch butterflies and bees to die. Is that true?
The EPA not only examines pesticides (including plant-produced pesticides like Bt) for safety in humans, but also for effects on non-target organisms. Since bees are considered “representative insects” it is normal practice for the EPA to study effects on bees, even if the targeted insects are not related to bees. Furthermore, the USDA coordinated a study specifically designed to see if Bt had a negative effect on monarch butterflies, and found there to be “no significant risk to monarch butterflies.”
I have seen graphs associating GMOs with numerous health problems, such as stroke and renal failure. What is your response to these correlations?
“Correlation” is the key here. A correlation, or association, is much different from a cause. Take, for example, the graphs showing a correlation between GMOs and strokes. It is true that both strokes and GMOs have increased in frequency over the last twenty years. It is not particularly difficult to graph this data and play around with the scales of the graph until they match each other pretty closely. The problem lies in the assertion that because they have coincided, one caused the other. For evidence of that, take a look at this graph, showing a very strong correlation between autism and organic food consumption (here) or this one associating polio with ice cream consumption (here). All the real scientific studies – and there are hundreds – have shown that GMOs are just as safe as non-GMOs.
What do organic farmers use on their crops instead of the Bt protein that’s found in GMOs?
Sources: FDA, USDA, EPA