Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)
The introduction of foods derived from genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in 1996 ignited much debate about their use. All foods created from GMOs and the potential environmental impacts of GMO crops are intensively assessed by regulatory agencies before each is approved. These assessments are readily available. Links to them are provided below.
Some groups say GMOs have not been studied much. This isn’t correct. A search of Scholar.google.com of “genetically modified organisms” finds almost 10,000 articles. Other searches of the scientific literature find even more. Because of the large number of publications and the complexity of the issues, the best way to develop an understanding of the potential health and environmental risks of GMOs is to rely on the assessments by credible science-based organizations, such as those provided below.
Foods from GMOs are reviewed on a case-by-case basis. If you are concerned about a specific food made from a GMO, it’s best to look at its specific evaluation at the US Food & Drug Administration or the European Food Safety Agency rather than a general review of GMOs (links provided below).
Many groups that are against GMOs cite very credible references in documents they write, but they typically fail to tell the reader the actual conclusions of the articles they cite. The following references are provided so that you can read them yourself.
A very readable website that provides discussions on both environmental and human concerns from GMOs is: http://www.gmo-compass.org/eng/safety/environmental_safety/ Creation of the site was supported by the European Union, which is notable considering much of the EU public is not supportive of GMOs.
European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) conducts very detailed health and environmental assessments of each specific GMO food. They assess potential risks, including theoretical ones. See: www.efsa.europa.eu/en/panels/gmo.htm
A good example of a specific assessment by EFSA is soybean 305423. EFSA concluded:
- They identified no concerns regarding potential toxicity and allergenicity and there was no indication that the overall allergenicity of soybean 305423 has changed.
- Their nutritional assessment on soybean 305423 oil and derived food products found no concerns regarding human health and nutrition and none regarding the use of feeding stuffs derived from soybean 305423.
- They also found no indications of an increased likelihood of establishment and spread of feral GM soybean plants.
- They even assessed the risks associated the unlikely, but theoretically possible, horizontal gene transfer from soybean 305423 to bacteria and found no concern.
Their overall conclusion was: “Soybean 305423 is as safe as its conventional counterpart and is unlikely to have adverse effects on human and animal health and the environment.” This is a very strong conclusion on the safety of this GMO food and its lack of risk to the environment. You can see the full report at: www.efsa.europa.eu/en/efsajournal/pub/3499.htm
The World Health Organization (WHO) offers a well-developed & highly credible “Frequently Asked Questions” on GMOs. They note that foods from GMOs undergo more scrutiny and assessment than foods from traditional breeding methods. Most importantly they conclude: “GM foods currently available on the international market have passed safety assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health. In addition, no effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved.” www.who.int/foodsafety/publications/biotech/20questions/en/
Similar to the World Health Organization, the Society of Toxicology concludes that the safety of food produced by GMOs is equivalent to that produced from traditional breeding practices. They note that the term genetically modified foods is misleading, since conventional methods of microbial, crop, and animal improvement also produce genetic modifications. See: Society of Toxicology Position Paper on: The Safety of Genetically Modified Foods Produced through Biotechnology. TOXICOLOGICAL SCIENCES 71: 2–8 (2003) and www.toxicology.org/ai/gm/GM_Food.asp
The US Food and Drug Administration also conducts detailed evaluations of the potential health risks of food from GMOs. They evaluate each specific GMO. A list of their assessment is available at: www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/fdcc/?set=Biocon and as of 11/2014, they reviewed 140.
An insightful article from National Geographic is available from:
For those looking for a more in-depth assessment, the National Academy of Science (NAS) also has excellent publications on the potential health effects of foods from GMO crops as well as the potential impact on farm sustainability.
NAS found that “no adverse health effects attributed to genetic engineering have been documented in the human population.” See: Safety of Genetically Engineered Foods: Approaches to Assessing Unintended Health Effects (2004) www.nap.edu/catalog/10977/safety-of-genetically-engineered-foods-approaches-to-assessing-unintended-health
For farm sustainability, NAS assessed the environmental, economic, and social impacts of GMO crops. They found:
- Contrary to popular belief, GMO crops generally have fewer adverse effects on the environment than non-GMO crops.
- The use of herbicide resistant GMO crops promotes soil conservation efforts and reduces impacts of farming on water quality.
- Use of GMO crops with the natural insecticide BT (Bacillus thuringiensis) results in lower usage of insecticides and less impact to non-target insects. This is because the only insects that are affected by GMO BT crops are those that eat the crop. Beneficial insects and non-target species such as spiders and butterflies are not affected. In contrast, the use of insecticides in both organic and conventional farming will affect any insects in the area that is treated.
- Improvements in water quality were likely the largest single benefit of GMO crops.
See: Impact of Genetically Engineered Crops on Farm Sustainability in the United States (2010) www.nap.edu/catalog/12804/impact-of-genetically-engineered-crops-on-farm-sustainability-in-the-united-states
Related topic: All Natural! All Safe? Everything is a Chemical