The Natural Products Association took advantage of the brief pause in the debate, afforded by the lame duck session, to identify and untangle some of the myths, misperceptions and truths surrounding GMO foods during a Dec. 17 webinar.
Beginning with the basics, Gregory Jaffe, director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s Biotechnology Project, explained during the webinar the difference between genetic engineering and breeding and noted they are both means to the same end. He added that separating out the truth from fiction about GE is impossible without first fully understanding what it is.
GE allows scientists to move beneficial traits from one organism to another by inserting a gene into the DNA of a plant or animal cell either with a gene gun, which literally shoots the gene into a cell, or through agrobacterium, which infects plant chromosomes with altered plasmids, Jaffe explained. Once this is done, scientists breed the plants or animals normally and the new genes are replicated in the new cells.
He noted agrobacterium “is a natural process of sorts,” in that it “hijacks” the natural bacterial infection process to cross cell walls, which dispels anti-GMO claims that genetic engineering is unnatural because it crosses cell barriers that are not supposed to be crossed.
In addition, he explained that GE is a way to speed up and control the plant breeding process, which scientists also use to suppress or magnify plant traits, such as yield, maturation time, flavor and other qualities.
Breeding, which is a much longer trial and error process, can achieve many of the same outcomes as GE, Jaffe noted. However, he said, it only can occur between closely related species and thus is usually limited to the DNA variety found within a species, unlike GE which can pull genes across species. He added that plant breeders have long used a variety of “unnatural” techniques to introduce variation into the DNA of a species, including using chemicals, x-rays and gamma radiation to induce mutation.
In fact breeding, not genetic engineering, is how food scientists created seedless watermelons, seedless cucumbers and plouts, Jaffe said. In addition, modern wheat was created through breeding, not GM, he noted.
Jaffe also set the record straight on several other myths propagated by pro- and anti-GMO advocates.
Myth 1: Most U.S. crops and processed foods are GMO
Contrary to popular belief, the vast majority of crop varietals grown in the U.S. are not genetically modified, Jaffe clarified. Rather, he said, only eight crops in the U.S. are GMO: alfalfa, sugar beet, corn, soybean, canola, cotton, papaya and squash.
In addition, Jaffe dispelled the myth that most processed foods in the U.S. are GMO because they include oil or sugar made from GMO crops. He explained that the process of creating oil and sugar breaks down all the proteins from the plant – including the GMO proteins – so that the end products do not include any of the original GMO proteins.
Myth 2: Monsanto and other seed developers are the primary beneficiaries of engineered crops
Of course seed developers benefit financially from selling GE crops, but farmers and the environment also can benefit, Jaffe said. “But there are not direct benefits to consumers,” he acknowledges.
Who benefits from GMOs and how depends on the crop, the GE trait, the agricultural system in which the crop is planted and the receiving environment, Jaffe said.
Some potential benefits of GE crops with built in pesticides include reduced application of pesticides from 10 to 12 times a year to one or two times a year on farms that use them, Jaffe said. For farmers that do not use pesticides, these crops can produce higher yields and generate more income because fewer crops are lost to pests.
Farmers who use herbicide-tolerant crops also are able to reduce tillage more than farmers of conventional crops, which saves top soil and reduces water runoff into streams, Jaffe said. But, again, he stressed the benefits are crop and location specific.
Myth 3: Food made with genetically engineered ingredients is harmful to eat
Among the general concerns that people have about GMOs is that introducing a new gene or protein into a food could trigger allergens in people who consume them, Jaffe said.
“Evidence is overwhelming that there is no harm from foods made from current GE foods. The FDA, the National Academy of Science and the European Food Safety Authority have all reached the same conclusion that the GE crops that are here today are safe,” Jaffe said.
He also noted that most GMO crops are not consumed by people, but rather used as animal feed, to create biofuels, make clothes and create processed foods, which do not include the DNA or protein that was genetically altered.
Only a small amount of GMO food is eaten as whole foods, he said.
However, just because the current crops are safe, does not mean all GE crops in the future will be safe as there is a risk of unintentionally adding an allergen or toxin, Jaffe acknowledged.
Myth 4: FDA approves GE foods and ingredients before we eat them
“FDA does not do that. The only things that get premarket approval are food additives,” Jaffe said.
However, FDA established a voluntary consultation process at the end of which it either lists its concerns or it issues a letter noting it has no questions, Jaffe said. During a recent GMO labeling hearing, an FDA official said all GE companies have complied with the voluntary process and the agency had not identified any concerns.
Many consumers likely would not view a voluntary food safety process as sufficient, Jaffe said. Indeed, he noted, CSPI supports creating a mandatory pre-market approval process that will ensure food safety and give consumers confidence in the government’s oversight and regulation.
Myth 5: Genetically engineered crops are environmentally sustainable
One reasons for genetically engineering crops was to make them resistant to herbicides that could be more easily applied to kill weeds without harming the crop. However, over the years more weeds have become resistant to the herbicides, prompting farmers to use different or more herbicides, which has a greater environmental impact, Jaffe said.
The solution, however, is not discontinuing GE crops, but rather using them and herbicides in a sustainable way, Jaffe said.
He recommends mandatory restrictions on where and how the crops and spray can be used, such as restricting use of glyphosate in the same field two years in a row. He also advocates requiring weed management plans at the farm level and offering incentives for integrated weed management.
These strategies, combined with rotation of crops and modes of action, can help GE food be sustainably produced, he said.