This is the second post covering GMOs. The first one gave background on the subject, while this post will be more in-depth.
Lets dive right into the exceptions to USDA regulation that I wrote about in the last post. APHIS has determined that crops do not trigger oversight if they use newer techniques like CRISPR that don’t contain pest DNA. They are legally considered the same as traditional breeding techniques. Why pest DNA? Because the USDA was granted authority to regulate GE crops from the Plant Protection Act to protect agricultural pest risks. Not human health risks. That last link is to a list of plant pests held by APHIS. Yes, there is a list for just about everything.
So how do I know if my food is genetically modified? It’s a lot easier to know if a product is free from GMOs rather than if it has GMO ingredients. That’s because the U.S. doesn’t mandate labeling for GMO ingredients. You can take a look at the list of approved GMO crops and get a sense of what is likely to be genetically modified. However, with the exception I mentioned above, there’s not a really good way to know for sure. If you are looking for food without GMO ingredients, you can buy USDA organic or Non-GMO Project verified. Both seals are shown below.
What are the risks of GMOs? 1) Allergens. The transfer of genes can cause a transfer of protein products that are allergenic. 2) Gene transfer. It’s possible that new genetic material can have adverse health effects, especially with things like antibiotic resistance. 3) Outcrossing. This refers to gene migration into conventional or wild species. Nature does not recognize property lines, so it’s possible that crops intended for animal use will mix with crops intended for human consumption. 4) Increased use of herbicides. The widespread use of herbicide resistant crops, particularly Roundup or glyphosate resistant crops, may encourage the use of higher amounts of herbicides. This could be detrimental to health as well as the environment. 5) Market consolidation. Since GE seeds became commercially available, the price of seeds has increased and the seed market has consolidated into six large companies. This makes it more difficult for small, family farms to survive, especially because contracts required to use GMO seeds are disadvantageous to farmers.
Do these pose different risks than traditional breeding? Health risks, not so much. We have already seen cases of dangerous crops, the Lenape potato as an example, that have come about from techniques that are widely accepted. Environmental and economic concerns, on the other hand, are unique to GMOs.
Where are GMO crops grown? Brazil, the U.S, and Canada are the largest growers. About 26 countries have bans or partial bans on GMO cultivation including Switzerland, Australia, and Austria.
Are GMOs accepted by consumers worldwide? Consumer acceptance is something really difficult to measure, because survey data will show a difference compared to buying behavior. GMOs are no exception. What we do know is that positive information about GE foods increases the willingness to pay, while negative information decreases it. We also see that consumers in developed countries, especially in Europe, are willing to pay a premium for non-GE foods.
How are GMOs labeled worldwide? The U.S, Canada, and Mexico do not require any labeling of GMO products. Australia, New Zealand, and most EU countries mandate labeling at 1% of GMO content. Japan also requires labeling, but at 5% GMO content.
So where does this leave me on the GMO debate? Unfortunately, there’s no simple answer. As with most new technologies, there are concerns and risks, though much of the anti-GMO movement is based on fear-marketing. The U.S. is behind other developed countries in labeling and transparency laws, which is unfortunate because survey data shows that consumers want to know whether products contain GMO ingredients. There is also little oversight into health and general risk assessments prior to the use of these crops and their seeds. If you find these two facts concerning, I would suggest writing to your senators and representatives, as it is federal regulations that cover these issues, and I would also suggest contacting the FDA, USDA, and EPA. When these agencies have open comment periods, I will post them on this site under the Important Dates section.