What are Genetically Engineered (GE) Crops and is Food From These Crops Safe?

Answers to Questions from a Journalist

The rate of adoption of genetically engineered crops by farmers once approved by the federal government has been as fast or faster than the rate of adoption of new smartphones, apps, and GPS by the general public, and for the same reasons: these modern technologies bring value and convenience to the user.

However, whereas the public and even children understand and are comfortable using the new communication technologies, a general lack of public understanding of the new biotechnologies applied to our food and feed crops has fostered suspicion and even fear of potential unknown effects on our health and the environment.

Below are five questions asked of me by a journalist (verbatim), questions that seem fairly representative of what people are asking about genetically engineered crops and the food that comes from these crops. Hopefully, my answers will shed some light on the changes taking place on American farms, 95% of which are family farms. 

1.      What are genetically modified (GM) organisms and GM foods?

Genetically modified foods, also known as genetically engineered (GE) and genetically modified organisms (GMOs), are foods from crops with traits added by the “cut-and-splice” transfer of DNA from another organism. The means to add traits by this method of DNA transfer dates back to the early 1970’s discovery of enzymes that can cut and splice DNA.

Government-approved GE crops grown in the U.S. today are corn, soybeans, canola, sugar beets, cotton, alfalfa, papaya, and squash. GE varieties of corn, canola, and alfalfa are currently grown in Washington State.

2.      Why did GMOs arise and what is their purpose?

All GE crops grown today in the U.S. and Canada were developed to provide a safer, more effective, or more economical means to control weeds, insect pests, and diseases. Keeping crops healthy and weed-free is the biggest challenge farmers face year after year.

In each case, a single gene has been added to the genetic code of the crop plant to produce a protein that, in effect, immunizes that crop to attack by an insect pest or infection by a plant virus, or allows the crop to be sprayed with an herbicide such as glyphosate (Round-up) that kills weeds but not the crop. This “immunization” is different than the immunization we receive when vaccinated, but the effect for the crop plant is the same.

GE soybeans, sugar beets, canola, and alfalfa have immunity to an herbicide, of which 80% is to Round-up. Round-up is one of the few herbicides safe enough to be approved for home use. Non-GE varieties of these crops require several different herbicides to control the same weeds, still leaving some weeds uncontrolled.

GE cotton and corn produce a protein known as Bt that, when ingested by the insect pest, causes the insect to stop eating and starve. In spite of extensive testing, this protein has been shown to have no effect on laboratory animals, when consumed as part of their food. The same protein sprayed on plants for insect control is approved for organic certification.

Use of “Bt-cotton” has reduced the number of insecticide applications needed to control the insect pests of cotton from 12 to 14 on non-GE cotton to only one or two applications annually on GE cotton—in the U.S., China, India, Australia, and South Africa.

Some common reports with the adoption of corn with the Bt protein to control the European corn borer were: “for the first time I saw what healthy corn looks like,” and “my corn was not laying on the ground because of the corn borer, making harvest so much easier,” and “I sleep better at night knowing that my corn will not require an insecticide.”

An earlier report that Monarch butterflies were harmed by eating corn pollen containing the Bt protein were disproved after extensive research.

When the USDA approved commercial production of herbicide-resistant sugar beets in 2010, 95% of the sugar beet acres in the U.S were planted to seed genetically engineered for resistance to an herbicide that same year. This amazing rate of adoption of a new technology speaks volumes about the advantages to farmers of the GE seeds compared to the traditional non-GE seeds of sugar beets. About 50% of domestic production of sugar in the U.S. is from sugar beets.

3.      What potential health effects do GMOs present?

Based on extensive testing as required by U.S. regulatory agencies, varieties of crop plants with traits added by genetic engineering are just as safe when used for food or feed as varieties of the same crop plants not genetically engineered.

Further, GE technologies that use the plant’s own defense system for control of insect pests—for example, by not relying on traditional insecticides—are safer for farmers, their families (and the rest of us), and are more convenient and more reliable than the methods and products still used for insect pest control on non-GE crops.

The next generation of GE crops will have traits with more tangible benefits to people in the same way that traditional methods used to genetically modify crops have given us super sweet corn and seedless grapes.

Examples in the research-and-development pipeline include wheat with gluten safe for people intolerant of gluten, potatoes free of black spot, and improved nutrient availability. Moreover, the FDA will require that these foods be tested and proven as safe or safer than the same food produced by that same crop not genetically engineered.

The American Phytopathological Society (in which we plant pathologists have membership), has this tagline: Healthy Plants Healthy People.

4.      From a parent’s perspective, what are the concerns associated with GMOs?

The concerns about foods from GE crops, such as food allergies, are no different than the concerns about food from the same crops not genetically engineered. This is because proteins added to the metabolites of these crop plants have been extensively tested in accordance with requirements and standards of the FDA.

Consider further that ingredients from GE corn and soybeans have grown to 75 to 80% of the foods on our grocery store shelves since first grown commercially in 1996, without a single example of proven risk to human health—or a single recall.

5.      What is the argument for GMOs and what do you think people should know about them?

In addition to the information provided above, people might be interested to know that, according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotec Applications http://www.isaaa.org/, 433 million acres were planted to biotech crops world-wide in 2012, in 28 countries—20 of which are developing countries. As in the U.S. and Canada, these crops have the traits for resistance to an herbicide, one or more insect pests, and/or a virus disease.

People should also be aware that separating GE and non-GE varieties of crops intended for food would be no small matter, especially if non-GE crops means zero presence of GE ingredients. For example, a farmer that rotates an herbicide-resistant variety of GE corn with non-GE corn for weed management, which is a good farming practice, would need to dedicate a harvester (combine) for the non-GE corn. And this corn would need to be stored and handled separately all the way to the food manufacturer or processor. Even if this could be done, apart from serving the current, voluntary “No-GMO” market—for which there is no monitoring or enforcement of zero presence of GE—there is no useful purpose in keeping the products of these crops separate.

People should also realize that the cost of keeping GE harvests separate from non-GE crop harvests all the way through the supply chain to the grocery store will add to the cost of food that will be passed on to the consumer. And if required by law, it will require funding of a government agency to monitor and enforce a zero presence of GE ingredients in foods not labeled GE.