Menus Subscribe Search
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

September 2 • 4:00 PM

Professors’ Pet Peeves

Ten things to avoid in your classrooms this year.


September 2 • 2:00 PM

Music Lessons Enhance Brain Function in Disadvantaged Kids

Children from poor neighborhoods in Los Angeles who took regular music lessons for two years were able to distinguish similar speech sounds faster than their peers.


September 2 • 12:00 PM

California Passes a Bill to Protect Workers in the Rapidly Growing Temp Staffing Industry

The bill will hold companies accountable for labor abuses by temp agencies and subcontractors they use.


September 2 • 10:00 AM

SWAT Pranks and SWAT Mistakes

The proliferation of risky police raids over the decades.


September 2 • 9:12 AM

Conference Call: The Graphic Novel


September 2 • 8:00 AM

Why We’re Not Holding State Legislators Accountable

The way we vote means that the political fortunes of state legislators hinge on events outside of their state and their control.


September 2 • 7:00 AM

When Men Who Abstain From Premarital Sex Get Married

Young men who take abstinence pledges have trouble adjusting to sexual norms when they become husbands.


September 2 • 6:00 AM

The Rise of Biblical Counseling

For millions of Christians, biblical counselors have replaced psychologists. Some think it’s time to reverse course.


September 2 • 5:12 AM

No Innovation Without Migration

People bring their ideas with them when they move from place to place.


September 2 • 4:00 AM

Why Middle School Doesn’t Have to Suck

Some people suspect the troubles of middle school are a matter of age. Middle schoolers, they think, are simply too moody, pimply, and cliquish to be easily educable. But these five studies might convince you otherwise.


September 2 • 3:13 AM

Coming Soon: When Robots Lie


September 2 • 2:00 AM

Introducing the New Issue of ‘Pacific Standard’

The science of self-control, the rise of biblical counseling, why middle school doesn’t have to suck, and more in our September/October 2014 print issue.


September 1 • 1:00 PM

Television and Overeating: What We Watch Matters

New research finds fast-moving programming leads to mindless overeating.



September 1 • 6:00 AM

Why Someone Named Monty Iceman Sold Doogie Howser’s Estate

How unusual names, under certain circumstances, can lead to success.



August 29 • 4:00 PM

The Hidden Costs of Tobacco Debt

Even when taxpayers aren’t explicitly on the hook, tobacco bonds can cost states and local governments money. Here’s how.


August 29 • 2:00 PM

Why Don’t Men and Women Wear the Same Gender-Neutral Bathing Suits?

They used to in the 1920s.


August 29 • 11:48 AM

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.


August 29 • 10:00 AM

True Darwinism Is All About Chance

Though the rich sometimes forget, Darwin knew that nature frequently rolls the dice.


August 29 • 8:00 AM

Why Our Molecular Make-Up Can’t Explain Who We Are

Our genes only tell a portion of the story.


August 29 • 6:00 AM

Strange Situations: Attachment Theory and Sexual Assault on College Campuses

When college women leave home, does attachment behavior make them more vulnerable to campus rape?


August 29 • 4:00 AM

Forgive Your Philandering Partner—and Pay the Price

New research finds people who forgive an unfaithful romantic partner are considered weaker and less competent than those who ended the relationship.


August 28 • 4:00 PM

Some Natural-Looking Zoo Exhibits May Be Even Worse Than the Old Concrete Ones

They’re often designed for you, the paying visitor, and not the animals who have to inhabit them.


August 28 • 2:00 PM

What I Learned From Debating Science With Trolls

“Don’t feed the trolls” is sound advice, but occasionally ignoring it can lead to rewards.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

When Men Who Abstain From Premarital Sex Get Married

Young men who take abstinence pledges have trouble adjusting to sexual norms when they become husbands.

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.

The Big One

One third of the United States federal budget for fighting wildfires goes toward one percent of such fires. September/October 2014 big-one-fires-final

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