But people claiming that an increase in intestinal disorders are ‘caused’ by GM foods are making equally simplistic assumptions that confuse correlation with causation, according to Dr Wayne Parrott, professor of Crop Science at the University of Georgia, who was speaking at a session on genetic engineering at the IFT show last month.
We should also pay close attention to dosages used in studies alleging substance X causes health problem Y, he said. For example, if you feed a mouse 10lbs of cheese, it will probably die: “So is cheese dangerous?”
Similarly, if Sprague-Dawley rats get tumors after being fed substance X over a lengthy period, it might mean that substance X is bad news, or it might mean nothing of the sort, he said, as Sprague-Dawley rats will develop tumors regardless of what they are eating after a certain period of time.
“We need to get some perspective. GM crops are the most tested crops in all of human history.”
We have changed our crops so much that only a trained botanist could recognize wild versions of most popular crops we grow commercially today
What we should be focusing on is not the novelty of the technology per se, but whether the food crop it generates has unique characteristics and attributes that may present risks, he said.
Indeed, much of Dr Parrott's presentation was devoted to explaining that genetically engineering crops is something we have been doing since time began, with modern techniques enabling the process to become more precise, and predictable.
“People think that food crops are just found somewhere and have always been as they are now, but modern strawberries tomatoes or corn are nothing like what we were eating 300 years ago", he said.
“We have changed our crops so much that only a trained botanist could recognize wild versions of most popular crops we grow commercially today. So we’ve been genetically modifying our crops for centuries. All of these crops are different at the DNA level.”
Ever since there has been agriculture, farmers have been in an arms race with weeds
But what about the issue of herbicide-resistant GM crops, and ‘super weeds’?
Speaking to FoodNavigator-USA at our booth after his presentation, Dr Parrott said that the issue of weeds developing resistance to glyphosate (Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide) is a challenge, but not one unique to GM crops.
“Ever since there has been agriculture, farmers have had an arms race with weeds”, he said. ”Farmers find ways to kill weeds and the weeds find a way to overcome it.
“Every 10 years or so they have to find a new herbicide to maintain its usefulness, and in that regard GMOs are no different.
“It’s more of a management issue, but there is a new generation of GM crops coming on that will allow farmers to have better rotations and management practices to keep these problems down to a minimum.”
GM crops will be an important part of food security, but only a part of it
As for feeding the world’s growing population, GM crops are not a silver bullet he said, just part of the toolkit: “GM crops will be an important part of food security, but only a part of it.”
Asked whether he felt optimistic that there is some middle ground in this debate given how polarizing it is, he said educating people about how plant breeding works will be key.
“Food is an emotional issue and everyone needs to be well informed.”
Click here to watch our interview at IFT with Dr Bruce Chassy, Professor Emeritus of Food Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, on GMO labeling.
Click here to see all of our coverage on the GM debate.