In my first post, I listed three procedures banned in organic food production: ionizing radiation, genetic engineering (GE), and sewage sludge. I wrote a full post on radiation, so now I want to dive into genetic engineering. This is going to a be a two-part topic, mostly because I started writing and then I kept writing, and I’m still not done. There is a lot to cover! I also want to preface that because GMOs are a hot button topic, I’m going to tread lightly and stick to the facts. As always, feel free to comment or ask questions if you’d like something covered more in-depth.
Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are simply organisms that have had their characteristics changed by modifying DNA. I won’t go into too many details since that itself could be an entire post.
What I’m really interested in is what does this mean for your food? Crop characteristics have been modified by humans for thousands of years through breeding and cross-pollination. It’s a slow, cumbersome process that requires a lot of time as well as trial and error. That’s why GE was readily embraced by the food industry in the 1990’s, after it had been developed and tested. It allows specific traits to be targeted, gene transfer across species, and it’s quick.
What types of food are genetically modified? Not everything you see in the grocery store is GMO. 29 crops have received regulatory approval, with the highest volumes coming from corn, soybeans, and cotton. Used widely in processed foods, about 90% of these three crops are grown from GMO seeds.
Why are crops modified? The most common reasons for modifying crops is to provide herbicide tolerance; resistance to insects, disease, and environmental stress; and an elongated shelf life. They can also be modified to be more appealing to consumers by having characteristics such as browning resistance and increased nutritional content.
How do GE foods get approved for sale? Genetically engineered foods are subject to the same regulations as any food product. This largely occurs through oversight from the FDA and USDA. The FDA has a voluntary Food Biotechnology Consultation Program that evaluates crops before they enter the market. A list of consultations and notes can be found here. It is voluntary and not required, but it is widely used.
Additionally, the USDA has the Animal and Health Plant Inspection Service (APHIS) which regulates the import, handling, movement, and release of biotech products. The Biotechnology Regulatory Services (BRS) implements these regulations. Once a developer has enough evidence that a GE organism poses no more risk than the non-GE version, APHIS can be petitioned to give non-regulated status. This means it can be distributed just like any other crop.
As usual in the food industry, there are exceptions. In an effort to write thoughtful and complete information, the exceptions are something I will go into next week in Part 2, which will also cover labeling and consumer acceptance. Have a great week, and I hope you enjoy the reading!
Update: You can read Part 2 on GMOs here.