About half of Americans think genetically modified foods (GMOs) are neither better for your health nor worse, according to a 2016 Pew Research Center survey. About 39 percent of those surveyed said they believed GMOs are worse for your health, but they had differing views about severity. Broken down, 20 percent believe the health risk of GMOs is high, 15 percent believe it is medium and 4 percent believe the risk is low. (Of the remaining responders, 10 percent said GMOs are better for your health and 3 percent didn’t answer.)
These are opinions based on what the respondents know about GMOs, which isn’t always a lot. In this case, 29 percent said they had heard “a lot” about GMOs, 52 percent said they had heard “a little,” and 19 percent said they had heard “nothing at all.”
That’s also very relevant to the scientific survey I’m about to dive into. Those who look at this type of data say that because Americans have limited knowledge about GMOs, the public opinions revealed in this survey are “soft,” meaning they’re more likely to change over time. I can say the same about myself. Although my knowledge may be more in-depth than the average person, I’m neither a scientist nor a farmer. What I know comes from studies and writings from sources that I consider trusted. Because of this, my opinions have changed over time.
Call me GMO-curious
I was completely anti-GMO a decade ago, based on what I knew at the time. I wouldn’t say I’m pro-GMO now, so let’s call me GMO-curious. I definitely have my concerns, but I can’t ignore science. There is scientific evidence that GMOs offer some advantages, including findings from a recent study from researchers at the Institute of Life Sciences in Pisa, Italy and the University of Pisa that mined through 21 years of field data on genetically engineered GE corn.
(GMO seems to be the acronym that the public is most familiar with, but GE seems to be the acronym that scientists work with. They can be used interchangeably.)
Published in Scientific Reports, the study analyzed 76 pieces of peer-reviewed literature from 1996 to 2016 that looked at yield, grain quality, non-target organisms (NTOs), target organisms (TOs), and soil biomass decomposition of GE corn crops. The conclusion? There is “strong evidence that GE maize performed better than its near isogenic line.” Grain yields for the GE corn was 5.6 to 24.5 percent higher than the non-GE corn. There were also lower concentrations of mycotoxins (−28.8 percent), fumonisin (−30.6 percent) and thricotecens (−36.5 percent), which are contaminating toxins produced by fungi.
There are other findings from the review of the studies that spanned 21 years that contribute to my GMO-curiosity. The research found that GMO corn also had protein, lipid and fiber concentrations that “resembled” that of non-GMO corn. And, when it came to TOs and NTOs — basically the insects that the GMOs were supposed target verses the insects they weren’t supposed to target — the research suggested that “GE crops had little to no effects on insect populations not targeted by the genetic alterations, suggesting no substantial effect on insect community diversity,” according to Journalist’s Resource.
The researchers did find that insects may develop resistance to GE crops, and therein lies one of the biggest concerns I still have about these crops — the use of pesticides, particularly those that contain glyphosate, a chemical found in pesticides that is believed to be a carcinogen. Many GMO crops are engineered to resist glyphosate, and since 1996 when GMO crops were introduced, the amount of glyphosate used on crops has grown 15-fold.
We still have the right to know
This recent study of the 76 peer-reviewed pieces didn’t touch upon the amount of glyphosate residue found on these GMO crops. In 2016, the FDA said it was going to test foods for glyphosate residue, which is so prevalent that it’s showing up in the eggs of chickens raised organically (glyphosate can’t be used on USDA organic foods). It will be interesting to see what the findings of those tests are and if the FDA makes any recommendations to decrease usage based on those results.
In the meantime, glypohaste has been linked to cancer, diabetes, autism, obesity, heart disease and more, and because of this, the public has the right to know if the food they’re eating contains GMO ingredients so they can decide for themselves.
In 2016, then President Obama signed a law that required GMO ingredients to be labeled — sort of. Instead of clear labeling on food packaging, the law allows for an electronic or digital link disclosure, a scannable QR code or a URL leading to a website that would take consumers to digital information about a product’s ingredients. This law has not been implemented yet and may never be.
At the time of signing, the Secretary of Agriculture was given two years to come up with the rules, regulations and standards for the link disclosure. Since then, there has been a change in administration, and the entire GMO labeling could be dead under the current administration, according to Trace Gains. The Right to Know fight is far from over.
The debate about the health benefits of GMOs is far from over, too. We have only 21 years of data, and there are still many unknowns, partly because there has not been enough time to see what the long-term effects are on people’s health or the planet’s health.
I have a feeling I’m going to be GMO-curious for a while.