Getting the Science Right on GMOs

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have been hotly disputed since their inception over thirty years ago. Food altered by agricultural biotechnology has been approached with suspicion by groups who disregard legitimate scientific assurances to the safety of genetically modified foods. Mandatory labelling on GMOs would only serve to brand healthy food options as unsafe to those who do not understand the difference but fear the implication of danger. In fact, scientific research conducted on GMOs over the past decade has concluded that there is no credible evidence that GMOs pose any unique threat to the environment or the public’s health. Despite the presence of controversial and discredited anti-GMO studies, such as the one conducted by Gilles-Éric Séralini, the safety of genetically modified crops is still assured by the scientific community. Attacking the development of GM technology, would only limit the benefits such advances could offer to humanity: namely, an end to world hunger.

It is estimated that upwards of 70% of processed foods on U.S. grocery store shelves have genetically modified ingredients. To mandate the labelling of all these foods would do little to educate people on what they are eating, as the majority of Americans are unaware of what GMOs actually are. Anti-GMO activists lobbying for labelling cite a New York Times poll that shows 93 percent of Americans support 

it. Whether those polled know what GMOs are or realize the amount of processed foods containing genetically modified ingredients remains to be seen. GMO skeptics say labelling would alert those who may oppose consuming GM foods, but mandatory labelling would contribute to the stigmatization of food that is perfectly healthy. A simple solution would be to allow organic farmers to label their foods as “100% organic,” which most do already. This way, skeptical consumers could still make the choice of purchasing unmodified foods without mandating discriminatory policies on GMOs and the farmers that grow them.

No credible scientific studies in top-flight journals support the claim that the consumption of GMOs is unhealthy and unsafe. A popular critique used by critics of agricultural biotechnology claims that there has been little to no evaluation of the safety of GM crops and there is no scientific consensus on this issue. Such claims are simply false. Recently, a team of independent Italian scientists produced an overview of the last ten years of genetically engineered crop safety research, analyzing the research of 1,783 studies. The scientists researched a staggering number of independent research papers, reviews, relevant opinions and reports, addressing all the major issues that emerged in the debate on GE crops. They concluded, “the scientific research conducted so far has not detected any significant hazards directly connected with the use of genetically engineered crops.” Despite the persistent accusations levelled against agricultural biotechnology by anti-GMO NGOs they seem to ignore the consensus formed by experts in the scientific community.

An oft cited study used to condemn GMOs, conducted by anti-GMO activist Gilles-Éric Séralini, has been hailed as proof of the dangers of genetically modified crops in spite of the study’s scientific deficiencies. The controversial study reported spontaneous tumor growth in rats undergoing a GM feeding test. Séralini’s study was first published in Food and Chemical Toxicology—a reputable peer-reviewed scientific journal—but was later retracted because of the experiment’s poor design, the use of tumor-prone rodents, the lack of standard controls, the small sample size and the selective presentation of data. The report has recently been republished in Environmental Sciences Europe—a “pay for play” journal—without further peer review. Despite being discredited by the scientific community, the infamous study is still cited by GMO opposition as groundbreaking proof of the dangers of agricultural biotechnological practices.

Anti-GMO NGOs, such as the Non-GMO Project, hope to stop the consumption of GMOs by raising public awareness, believing that “[i]f people stop buying GMOs, companies will stop using them and farmers will stop growing them.” Not only have GMOs been proven to be safe for human consumption, but by attacking their development their opponents reject the impressive innovations that agricultural biotechnology offers. Advances in GM technology will result in more nutrition-enhanced and disease resistant crops produced in much higher yields than ever before. If anti-GMO groups evaluate the facts and respect the expertise of the scientific community, they may find that the development of genetically modified food is a proven way to effectively confront world hunger and malnourishment.