The U.S. is fortunate to have the safest food supply in the world. Texas farmers produce a significant amount of that food, leading the nation in the number of farms and ranches, with 248,800 of them covering 130 million acres. But even with our exemplary food safety record, people still have concerns, including about genetically modified, or GMO, crops. With government-mandated GMO food labeling on the horizon, it’s even more of a hot topic these days.
Are GMOs something we really need to worry about? To put it in perspective, GMO is the popular name for agricultural biotechnology. GMOs are not “in your food.” It is just another way to grow crops, along with conventional and organic farming. As a registered dietitian nutritionist, my concern is that people be well-nourished from eating a variety of foods that fit their budget, no matter how they are produced.
So let’s talk about what some of these common terms really mean.
Organic crops are grown from organic seeds without synthetic fertilizers, chemical pesticides, irradiation or genetic engineering. While natural pesticides and fertilizers are primarily used, a limited number of approved synthetic substances are allowed if natural methods are inadequate.
While organic crops are often marketed as being nutritionally superior to conventional or GMO crops, numerous studies have found no significant nutritional advantage over conventionally grown foods.
Conventional farmers use technological innovations and grow a single type of high-yield crop using synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. More food is produced on less land than with organic crops to ensure a more abundant and less expensive food supply.
Finally, GMOs, or agricultural biotechnology, use traditional breeding methods and genetic engineering to make changes to improve plants or animals or to develop microorganisms for specific agricultural uses. It can make insect control and weed management safer and easier, and protect crops against disease.
Despite all the clamor about GMO foods, only 10 GMO crops are commercially approved in the U.S.: field and sweet corn, soybeans, cotton, canola, alfalfa, sugar beets, papaya, squash, potatoes and apples. Yet non-GMO labels are plastered on everything from water to green beans, even though many of these products have no GMO counterparts.
The good news is no matter how a crop is grown, it contributes valuable nutrients to our diets. Corn, soybeans, papaya, squash, potatoes and apples all boost fiber, which helps control cholesterol and blood sugar, and promotes digestive health. Heart-healthy, low-saturated-fat vegetable oils are made from corn, soybeans and canola. Papaya and potatoes also supply vitamin C and potassium, and papaya delivers significant vitamin A.
While skepticism about GMOs reigns in the press and among consumers, 88 percent of U.S. scientists believe genetically modified foods are safe. And 98 percent of farmers say GMOs are the most important factor in their ability to lessen environmental impact on their farms.
The Food and Drug Administration requires foods from genetically engineered plants to meet the same safety requirements as foods derived from traditionally bred plants. Additionally, multiple studies have confirmed the safety of GMOs.
A 2016 National Academy of Sciences report, “Genetically Modified Crops,” examined more than 1,000 research and other publications, and concluded there was no substantiated evidence of a difference in risks to human health between commercially available GMO and conventional crops. And recently, the Board of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the world’s largest organization of food and nutrition professionals, voted to support this report as the most reputable and complete scientific report available to guide policy decisions.
The bottom line: Folks need to quit worrying so much about their food. Instead, they should focus on enjoying a variety of foods in moderation to achieve a healthy diet.