By Milton Stokes, PhD, MPH, RD, FAND; Daniel A. Goldstein, MD, FAAP, FACMT
As fathers, the availability of a safe and abundant food supply for our families is very important to us. Since we have nutrition and medical backgrounds, this priority carries over into our professional lives as well. Since we work at Monsanto, we are very experienced in the development and safety testing of new crop varieties by biotechnology methods.
Agriculture plays a critical role in sustaining society and its needs – including the population’s desire for a wide array of healthy and nutritious food sources, as well as supporting its clothing and lifestyle needs. Continuous innovation within agriculture has enabled farmers to keep up with the growing demand and deliver more harvestable yield from each acre of farmland. For instance, in 1960, one acre of farm land supported the food production needs of one person. By 2050 – because of the planet’s increasing population, limits on agricultural land availability and dietary changes of a growing global middle class – more food will have to be grown on less land: about a third of an acre per person. Innovation will continue to be a key to feeding our future world.
Foods have been genetically modified for centuries. The simplest way to do this was to select and replant the best varieties. This was done through selection of phenotypes (what the farmer/scientist saw) without knowledge of effects on the genotype (changes in genes). Over the last three decades, the application of plant biotechnology to agriculture and the development of genetically-engineered crops (also commonly referred to as genetically modified (GM) crops or genetically modified organisms (GMOs)) have proven critical to helping farmers address on-farm challenges presented by weed and insect pests and the environment. GM technology is not the only solution farmers need, but it will be an important tool to meet the future food security challenges.
What is a GMO?
A GMO is developed through a process in which a desired trait (gene) from one organism is placed in another species by means other than ordinary (sexual) reproduction. GMOs are used for a variety of purposes, including production of human insulin, vitamins, vaccines, and enzymes used in cheeses, fermented beverages and starch products. In agriculture, the process takes a beneficial trait that helps a living thing thrive in nature, like an ability to resist pests or to use water more sustainably, and moves that trait into a desired crop plant so it can better survive in its environment. The GMO crops commercially available in the U.S are: soybeans, corn (field and sweet), papaya, canola, cotton, alfalfa, sugar beets and summer squash.
Are GMO’s grown in Puerto Rico?
While GMO’s are approved for cultivation in Puerto Rico and GMO products are routinely consumed by the public, very little commercial cultivation of GMO seed is currently taking place in Puerto Rico. Growers of commodity crops (corn and soybean for example) have not found that the investment in GM seed to control insects or weeds is justified in the geographically isolated growing environment of Puerto Rico. It is quite possible that GM food crops for direct consumption, like sweet corn, papaya, or squash, are being grown in Puerto Rico and that some limited acres of commodity crops are sown, but detailed records of seed purchases are not available. Seed companies, such as Monsanto, as well as other institutions do have limited acreage of GM crops in Puerto Rico for seed production and for research purposes.
Are they safe?
Since their introduction in the 1990s, GM crops have been tested and reviewed more than any other crops in the history of agriculture and have been shown to be as safe as conventional crops. After 30 years of research and assessments, the safety of the process for making GM crops is supported by the global scientific community. In that time, more than 1,700 peer-reviewed safety studies have been published[i], including several from the National Research Council and European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), which focus on human health and the environment. Additionally, authoritative organizations such as the Food and Drug Association (FDA), World Health Organization, American Medical Association, American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the Royal Society of Medicine, and the National Academy of Science have affirmed the safety of the process for developing GM crops.
U.S. and international food safety authorities who have studied GM crops have found the crops as safe as conventional varieties, and to date, no health effects attributable to their use have been found. In fact, since 1994, when the first GM crops were widely commercialized, over 60 different countries have granted over 3,083 commercial use approvals on 357 different GM traits[ii]. In many countries there are multiple regulatory authorities responsible for assessing safety. In the United States, there can be as many as three agencies involved in reviewing food safety (FDA), crop safety (USDA) and environmental safety (EPA). Additionally, Puerto Rico has the Department of Agriculture providing regulatory oversight. Thus, GM crops are routinely subjected to review by literally hundreds of independent scientists across a wide range of disciplines. In comparison, no other currently commercial food is as widely assessed as commercial GM crop products. This includes products widely used across both conventional and organic farming systems.
Image from GMOAnswers
Do GMOs cause allergies?
The process of GM development has safeguards to prevent the introduction of new allergens; and new allergens have never been demonstrated in GM foods. It is important to note that there are hundreds of thousands of different proteins in the human diet, and only a tiny fraction of these are significant food allergens. Thus, the risk of a new protein being a food allergen is very low. Regardless, in the initial stages of product development, researchers avoid sources of known allergens, such as nuts and eggs, as potential gene sources for GM crops.
No matter the source of the gene, every new protein is assessed for certain characteristics to avoid the introduction of potential allergens into a GM crop. Assessing for potential allergenicity of introduced proteins is an FDA-required component of the safety assessment of GM crops.
Do GMOs cause cancer, autism and other health ailments that have increased in occurrence since they were introduced in the 1990s?
Genes in conventional crops are constantly being altered and there is no evidence suggesting that GMOs or associated pesticide use are responsible for any adverse health outcomes. While a number of claims about autism and other health problems have been made in the last several years, these claims are based only on the fact that while some diseases or conditions have increased over the past 20 years, GM and related pesticide use (mainly glyphosate) have increased as well. Precisely the same kind of relationship can be drawn for any two things that are increasing, but this does not mean there is a cause-and-effect relationship. We can find exactly the same relationship, produce exactly the same kind of charts and draw exactly the same kind of conclusions related to cell phone, organic food, or tablet computers. Leading medical organizations, including the American Medical Association, have concluded that GMO’s are safe.
Do GMOs offer any benefits?
Since GM crops were commercially introduced in 1996, farmers around the world have rapidly adopted the products and realized a broad range of benefits from their application on-farm. Between 1996 and 2014, acres planted to GM crops increased 100-fold, growing from 4 million acres in 1996 to more than 450 million acres in 2014. In 2014, 18 million farmers grew GM crops in 28 countries throughout the world and about 90% were risk-averse small, poor farmers in developing countriesii.
GMOs provide real and important benefits to farmers. Extensive field studies demonstrate that GM crops coupled with ecologically sound practices help farmers make food production more sustainable3[iii]. GMOs increase productivity, protect biodiversity, reduce the environmental and human health impacts of insecticides and herbicides, facilitate the adoption of no-till and conservation tillage systems and the related environmental and ecological benefits, enable adaptation to the effects of climate change, and help farmers of all sizes to grow crops more profitably. On average, GM technology adoption has reduced chemical pesticide use by 37%, increased crop yields by 22%, and increased farmer profits by 68%[iv].
Newer traits are going through regulatory approvals that provide better fatty acid profiles for soy oil (less saturated fatty acids, more oleic acid and less potential for trans fats in processed oil) or increased stearidonic acid (SDA). SDA is a fatty acid that is more readily converted than alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) to the heart-healthy eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). It has no fishy taste and is a land-based sustainable way of meeting long-chain omega-3 recommendations.
GM crops have a more than 20-year track record of being grown and used commercially without a single human illness known to be caused by GMOs. Moreover, the livestock industry depends on maintaining healthy animals, and billions of animals have been fed predominantly GMO diets for consecutive generations with no evidence that animal health and productivity were affected[v]. The safety assessment paradigm for GM crops is robust and well established, and the approach has been confirmed by authoritative regulatory agencies and scientific organizations around the globe. We can move forward with high confidence that GM food and feed are as safe and nutritious as their conventional counterparts and enable newer varieties that meet the needs for sustainable agriculture in the future.
[i] Nicolia A, Manzo A, Veronesi F, Rosellini D. An overview of the last 10 years of genetically engineered crop safety research. Critical reviews in biotechnology. Mar 2014;34(1):77-88.
[ii] James C. Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops:2012. Ithaca, NY: ISAAA;2012.
[iii] Carpenter JE. Peer-reviewed surveys indicate positive impact of commercialized GM crops. Nat Biotechnol. Apr 2010;28(4):319-321.
[iv] Klumper W, Qaim M. A meta-analysis of the impacts of genetically modified crops. PloS one. 2014;9(11):e111629.
[v] Van Eenennaam AL, Young AE. Prevalence and impacts of genetically engineered feedstuffs on livestock populations. J. Anim. Sci. 2014;92(10):4255-4278.