Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


gmo-protest

(PHOTO: JUSTASC/SHUTTERSTOCK)

The Scientific Debate About GM Foods Is Over: They’re Safe

• September 24, 2013 • 10:00 AM

(PHOTO: JUSTASC/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Now it’s time to have a better public debate.

It’s no secret that people are nervous about foods made from genetically modified organisms. A July Gallup poll found that 48 percent of respondents believed that GM foods “pose a serious health hazard,” compared to 36 percent who didn’t. California voters may have rejected a ballot initiative to require labeling of GM foods last fall, but a New York Times survey found overwhelming support for mandatory labeling on the packaging of GM foods.

Within the scientific community, the debate over the safety of GM foods is over. The overwhelming conclusion is, in the words of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, that “consuming foods containing ingredients derived from GM crops is no riskier than consuming the same foods containing ingredients from crop plants modified by conventional plant improvement techniques.” Major scientific and governmental organizations agree. The U.S. National Academy of Sciences found that “no adverse health effects attributed to genetic engineering have been documented in the human population,” and a report issued by the European Commission made the same claim. The World Health Organization has concluded that GM foods “are not likely, nor have been shown, to present risks for human health.”

What evidence will it take to convince the public that GM foods are as safe as non-GM foods?

The scientific literature backs this up. In February, the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry published a literature review covering 20 years of safety studies. The authors found “overwhelming evidence” that using biotechnology to genetically modify crops “is less disruptive of crop composition compared with traditional breeding, which itself has a tremendous history of safety.” An overview of safety studies appearing this month in Nature Biotechnology noted that, despite disagreement over a need for more long-term safety studies, both critics and proponents of GMOs agree that so far “genetically modified foods have failed to produce any untoward health effects.”

In other words, the scientific consensus is that GMOs do not pose risks to our health or the environment that are any different from the risks posed by the non-GM crops created with modern breeding programs.

The discrepancy between the public debate over GM foods and the debate within the scientific community has left many scientists puzzling over the question: What evidence will it take to convince the public that GM foods are as safe as non-GM foods?

The editors at Nature Biotechnology argue that evidence is not the problem. The issue is that, so far, people have no reason to believe GM foods are being created for their benefit. Changing negative attitudes will “require a concerted and long-term effort to develop GM foods that clearly provide convincing benefits to consumers—something that seed companies have conspicuously failed to do over the past decade.” The question of benefits has been buried because the GMO debate has been framed around the unhelpful distinction between GM and non-GM foods. Instead of asking if GM foods in general are less safe, the editors argue, we should be focused on the specific risks and benefits of individual products, whether they are GM or not.

A focus on the risks and benefits of all new crops could move the debate in a direction that would prompt scientists, companies, and regulators to more clearly justify the role GMOs play in our food supply. To date, consumers nervous about GMOs have been given little reason to think that companies like Monsanto are designing GM crops to solve any problem other than the one of patents and profits. As journalist Mark Lynas put it in his rousing defense of GM foods, for most people GMOs are about a “big American corporation with a nasty track record, putting something new and experimental into our food without telling us.”

But many researchers working on GM crops are in fact trying to solve important problems, such as feeding a growing population, keeping food prices affordable worldwide, making healthier fruits and vegetables widely available, confronting the challenging growing conditions of a changing climate, saving Florida’s oranges or Hawaii’s papaya from pests, and fighting malnourishment in the developing world. For many of these problems, genetic engineering is faster, more cost-effective, and more reliable than conventional breeding methods.

Our society’s unresolved controversy over GMOs is not about safety; it’s about whether we have an acceptable process in place to ensure that our health is not put at risk for the sake of biotech’s bottom line. Researchers, biotech companies, and regulators need to settle on an appropriately rigorous, transparent, and independent safety testing process for all new crops, one whose methods and results are publicly available. Currently, as the Nature Biotechnology review notes, safety assessments in the U.S. are a patchwork affair with weak legal underpinnings. But for GM solutions to our food challenges to be widely accepted, the public needs to know that they are not being coerced into eating something whose risks and benefits are unknown.

Michael White
Michael White is a systems biologist at the Department of Genetics and the Center for Genome Sciences and Systems Biology at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, where he studies how DNA encodes information for gene regulation. He co-founded the online science pub The Finch and Pea. Follow him on Twitter @genologos.

More From Michael White

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

November 26 • 4:00 PM

Turmoil at JPMorgan

Examiners are reportedly blocked from doing their job as “London Whale” trades blow up.


November 26 • 2:00 PM

Rich Kids Are More Likely to Be Working for Dad

Nepotism is alive and well, especially for the well-off.


November 26 • 12:00 PM

How Do You Make a Living, Taxidermist?

Taxidermist Katie Innamorato talks to Noah Davis about learning her craft, seeing it become trendy, and the going-rate for a “Moss Fox.”


November 26 • 10:28 AM

Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals’ actions pile up quickly.


November 26 • 10:13 AM

Honeybees Touring America


November 26 • 10:00 AM

Understanding Money

In How to Speak Money, John Lanchester explains how the monied people talk about their mountains of cash.


November 26 • 8:00 AM

The Exponential Benefits of Eating Less

Eating less food—whole food and junk food, meat and plants, organic and conventional, GMO and non-GMO—would do a lot more than just better our personal health.


November 26 • 6:00 AM

The Incorruptible Bodies of Saints

Their figures were helped along by embalming, but, somehow, everyone forgot that part.


November 26 • 4:00 AM

The Geography of Real Estate Markets Is Shifting Under Our Feet

Policies aimed at unleashing supply in order to make housing more affordable are relying on outdated models.



November 25 • 4:00 PM

Is the Federal Reserve Bank of New York Doing Enough to Monitor Wall Street?

Bank President William Dudley says supervision is stronger than ever, but Democratic senators are unconvinced: “You need to fix it, Mr. Dudley, or we need to get someone who will.”


November 25 • 3:30 PM

Cultural Activities Help Seniors Retain Health Literacy

New research finds a link between the ability to process health-related information and regular attendance at movies, plays, and concerts.


November 25 • 12:00 PM

Why Did Doctors Stop Giving Women Orgasms?

You can thank the rise of the vibrator for that, according to technology historian Rachel Maines.


November 25 • 10:08 AM

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.


November 25 • 10:00 AM

If It’s Yellow, Seriously, Let It Mellow

If you actually care about water and the future of the species, you’ll think twice about flushing.


November 25 • 8:00 AM

Sometimes You Should Just Say No to Surgery

The introduction of national thyroid cancer screening in South Korea led to a 15-fold increase in diagnoses and a corresponding explosion of operations—but no difference in mortality rates. This is a prime example of over-diagnosis that’s contributing to bloated health care costs.



November 25 • 6:00 AM

The Long War Between Highbrow and Lowbrow

Despise The Avengers? Loathe the snobs who despise The Avengers? You’re not the first.


November 25 • 4:00 AM

Are Women More Open to Sex Than They Admit?

New research questions the conventional wisdom that men overestimate women’s level of sexual interest in them.


November 25 • 2:00 AM

The Geography of Innovation, or, Why Almost All Japanese People Hate Root Beer

Innovation is not a product of population density, but of something else entirely.


November 24 • 4:00 PM

Federal Reserve Announces Sweeping Review of Its Big Bank Oversight

The Federal Reserve Board wants to look at whether the views of examiners are being heard by higher-ups.



November 24 • 2:00 PM

That Catcalling Video Is a Reminder of Why Research Methods Are So Important

If your methods aren’t sound then neither are your findings.


November 24 • 12:00 PM

Yes, Republicans Can Still Win the White House

If the economy in 2016 is where it was in 2012 or better, Democrats will likely retain the White House. If not, well….


November 24 • 11:36 AM

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it’s relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.


Follow us


Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals' actions pile up quickly.

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it's relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.