Food products which are developed via Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are widely distributed in the U.S. food supply. In addition, new products are being approved for use as techniques are developed and new uses for GMOs are considered. Biotech/GMO derived foods currently in use include corn used in milled corn products; soy used in milled soy products such as soybean oil and textured soy protein; animal feeds; and sugar beets. In addition, the Arctic apple (resists browning) and GMO Salmon have been recently approved as “safe” by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
The safety of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) has been debated almost since the phrase was attributed to the development of antibiotic resistant tobacco in 1983. Consumers continue to be concerned about both the food safety and the nutritional equivalence of GMO foods. In a 2015 Pew Research Center survey of consumers, 57% of adults believe that eating GMO foods is unsafe, while 37% say they believe it is generally safe.
Yet, science continues to suggest that there is no substantiated evidence that GMO foods are less safe than non-GMO derived food products. A 2016 report from the National Academies of Science, Genetically Engineered Crops: Experiences and Prospects discusses effects on human health. Claims regarding human health and safety of GMO foods included increased risks from cancers, kidney disease, obesity, celiac disease, diabetes and allergies. When comparing rates of these conditions in the United States, where GMOs are ubiquitous in the food supply to the United Kingdom, where essentially no GMOs are consumed, there were no significant differences.
That said, it must be emphasized that science is ever changing, the science of genetic engineering is relatively young, and there is still uncertainty around long term effects. Absolute safety cannot be guaranteed for any specific food. However, companies do withdraw products from consideration that are determined to be unsafe. In 1996, researchers found that an allergen from Brazil nuts continued to be allergenic when transferred into a GMO soybean. That soybean was never approved. This experience resulted in policies that proteins that have ever been suspected of being or shown to be an allergen should never be introduced in GMO crops.
The FDA developed its Plant Biotechnology Consultation Program in the 1990’s to cooperatively work with GE (genetically engineered) plant developers to help make sure that foods made from their new GE plant varieties are safe and meet all regulations. FDA evaluates the safety of food produced by new GE crops before it enters the market. This is a voluntary program and FDA has evaluated 150 genetically engineered foods since the program began. These evaluations are publicly available on the FDA website, www.fda.gov.
By Diane Hirsch, Extension Educator, UConn Extension