American consumers have not yet developed firm opinions on the presence of genetically modified organisms (GMO) in their food. Many are sympathetic toward better crop yields and insect resistance. For others, GMO opposition is rooted in suspicion toward “tinkering with nature” or the popular pejorative “frankenfood.”
Public attitudes aren’t yet shaped by a dispassionate assessment of GMO science, economics and the decades of GMO use without harm to the public. Indeed, the science is difficult to digest unless you have a grasp of molecular genetics. The major seed developers are working hard to dispel myths that could lead them into a regulatory straightjacket.
The development of a GMO strain is straightforward — “When creating a GMO, researchers copy specific genetic information from one plant or organism and introduce it into another to improve or enhance a specific characteristic or trait, such as resistance to insects.” GMO successes are already pervasive in many crops. For canola, 90% of the crops are the GMO variant. For corn it’s 88%, for cotton 90%, for soy 94% and for 95% of sugar beet are GMO variants.
GMO research pays off for the consumer in several ways. GMO crops often grow quicker, need fewer pesticides, have improved shelf life, and cost consumers 20% to 30% less. Cutting back on pesticides can be a major health advantage, as has been demonstrated for ailments such as Parkinson’s disease.
For most consumers, safety is the top issue. FDA review has confirmed that GMOs are nutritionally the same as non-GM crops including the same levels of key nutrients. Hundreds of studies have documented that GMOs present no health risk. Despite the science and a benign GMO track record without human injury, public fears (and no doubt commercial rivalries) have led some countries to ban importation of GMO foods.
A few health- and organic-oriented food chains (e.g. Whole Foods) encourage GMO food fears because it tracks the hyper-healthy mindset of their customers. A signature-collecting campaign is underway to have the FDA require labelling of food containing GMO ingredients. That “Just Label It” campaign has collected 1.3 million signatures, but the FDA has not acted. Connecticut adopted a law that requires such labelling – but only if other states impose the same requirement.
The environmental movement is home to an aggressively anti-GMO faction that publishes unsubstantiated claims such as Morgellons disease being a byproduct of GMO developments. Of course many of these proponents or websites happen to be selling non-prescription “natural” cures. Evidently there is a unified market for potions and phobias.
Despite rumblings on the Hill, policy on regulation of GMO foods is likely to be under development for several more years. The FDA could help consumers by compiling an easy to understand summary of the reputable studies on GMO science. That may help us avoid making health decisions based on tie-dyed fairy tales.
Alan Daley is a retired businessman who writes for The American Consumer Institute Center for Citizen Research