From buying “organic” to “gluten-free,” consumers seem to be more interested than ever in the ways their food is produced. This spring, legislators in more than 20 states will consider proposals to mandate special labeling of genetically modified foods, to give shoppers one more bit of information.
Critics say genetically modified foods might be unsafe, but even if they are not, consumers have a right to know what is in what they eat. So why not tell people if the ingredients in their cupcakes and cereal have been engineered, and let them decide what to buy?
This may sound reasonable and seem to reflect how our choice-driven marketplace works. But it reflects a deep misunderstanding about what genetic engineering actually is and how it compares to the changes we have been making to crop plants for thousands of years.
For starters, nearly every food on grocery store shelves has been modified by human hands at the genetic level. In the agriculture world, it's called breeding. And as many of us learned in high school biology class, breeding alters a plant's genes so it expresses new traits. This may be as simple as a new color or flavor, or even resistance to pests and plant diseases. And whether we use genetic engineering or more conventional techniques, breeding can mean just tweaking the genes already inside a plant or introducing entirely new ones.
The primary thing that makes genetic engineering unique is the power and precision it gives us to make those changes and then test for safety afterward. It has also given us food that is both safer for our families and better for the environment. Plants with a built-in resistance to chewing insects, for example, have allowed farmers to use millions of gallons less pesticide every year.
Dozens of the world’s most prestigious scientific bodies, including the National Academies of Science, the American Medical Association and the World Health Organization, have studied genetic engineering for more than 30 years and concluded that such foods are at least as safe as, and often safer than, conventionally bred ones.
The other thing that makes genetically modified plants different is they are subject to intense scrutiny by three different regulatory agencies in the U.S. alone. It takes an average of five to 10 years to develop and test a crop for consumer and environmental safety. This is followed by an additional two to four years of review by the Food and Drug Administration, Department of Agriculture and Environmental Protection Agency. And because most American farmers will not plant genetically modified crops they cannot export to global markets in Europe, Asia and South America, the wait is even longer in order to secure approval overseas.
The regulatory costs alone for testing and getting approval for a genetically modified plant variety average more than $35 million. By the time a new crop makes it to market, its safety has been confirmed by regulators in dozens of countries.
In 30 years of testing and commercial use in more than two dozen countries, genetically modified foods have caused not a single sniffle, sneeze or bellyache. This outstanding safety record is why the FDA does not require blanket labeling of such foods. It does, however, require labeling any time a food differs from its conventional counterpart in a meaningful way - such as a reduction in nutrients, the introduction of an allergen, or even a change in taste or smell.
In fact, if consumers want to know what is “in their food,” the FDA’s policy is a far better way to supply that information than simply labeling a product as “genetically modified.” That tells consumers nothing useful, because genetic engineering is not “in food,” it is simply one of many tools we can use to raise crop yields, increase their nutritional value or protect them from pests or disease. To really know what’s in your food, you need to know what change was made, not how, and that's exactly what the FDA already requires.
Consumers, of course, are free to be skeptical. And for those who are, there are tens of thousands of affirmatively labeled, non-genetically modified foods available in stores from Whole Foods to Walmart. But there is no denying that genetically modified plants are among the most extensively tested products in history and have an exceptional record of producing safe, wholesome and nutritional foods.