I am continually asked questions concerning the safety of genetically modified foods and the (perceived) lack of studies indicating their safe use in our daily lives. To hear such questions reminds me of our continued duty and commitment as scientists to better inform everyone as to what we do and why we do it.
I view GM technology as an extension of plant improvement practices that have been ongoing since the dawn of agriculture, about 10,000 years ago. Such crops as corn (Zea mays) are an excellent example. Corn, as you know it today, would not exist without the inventive nature of the native peoples who domesticated it from teosinte and the subsequent work of breeders in the past decades who improved it through thousands of selection cycles.
Likewise, wheat (Triticum aestivum) was domesticated from wild relatives by “early plant breeders” in the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East long before the advent of modern plant breeding. The essence of plant breeding — i.e., combining advantageous genes by crossing different varieties to improve traits such as yield, resistance to pest and disease or tolerance to environmental stresses such as drought and cold — is the same today as it was at the beginning of civilization. Even without modern tools, early farmers utilized natural variation to develop varieties with new traits and superior performance to improve their lives. Yet, even if we have made tremendous progress in improving our crops and lives within the past century, we are still facing the challenge of feeding a growing population and cultivating our crops in a sustainable manner that protects our environment and biodiversity. GM technology pursues these same objectives: producing more food to feed people without extending cultivated, arable lands and allowing for the maintenance of a safe environment that preserves biodiversity. It is just another approach, another possibility, offered to us to achieve these goals. Further, the use of genetically modified foods as a means of sustainably feeding a growing population has also been endorsed by numerous scientific groups and public health organizations.
As with every new technology, GM technology raises questions, and it is our duty, in both public and private research, to answer and address them. Various initiatives have been launched to address questions and concerns about GM crops, and I fully support such initiatives to help us, as scientists and concerned citizens interact with each other, share knowledge and search for common paths forward. Agriculture has been instrumental in the foundation of our civilization, and food is something that brings us all together. Concerns about food are, rightly, a major concern, both in quantity for the more than 900 million people who are starving every day and in quality for everyone.
All scientists and breeders involved in crop improvement and biotechnology are motivated to contribute to the challenge of producing a sufficient supply of high-quality, safe food in an environmentally friendly manner. In the nearly 20 years of planting GM crops, the vast majority of scientific and economic research has shown significant and consistent positive contributions of GM crops.
Moreover, it is important to realize that all of the GM products that are commercialized are the results of a very long, expensive and thorough scientifically based evaluation by several independent and governmental regulatory agencies. Thus, all of the GM products that you encounter on a daily basis have been approved not only by regulatory agencies within any single country but by others around the world. In the United States, all GM crops on the market have undergone the scrutiny of the USDA, the EPA and the FDA. These agencies require a showing that such crops are safe for both human consumption and the environment. In Europe, the European Food Safety Authority oversees approval of any and all GM products and analyzes both environmental and food safety risks prior to approval. Other countries throughout the world have similar regulatory agencies that scrutinize GM crop safety, notable examples being Australia, Brazil, Japan, Korea and China. In addition, the health and safety of such crops has been endorsed by such societies as the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Medical Association, the International Society of African Scientists, the Royal Society of Medicine (UK) and the World Health Organization, to name a few.
Finally, research studies and scientific investigations are essential to help the regulators take scientifically based decisions and to ensure transparency. A 2013 review analyzing the safety of GM crops over the past 10 years demonstrated not only the large amount of studies that have been done on GM crops, but also the lack of detectable hazards directly connected to their use. The Italian authors from the University of Perugia and from the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Forestry Policies, concluded that GM crops “should be considered important options in the efforts toward sustainable agricultural production.”
It is important to debate, ask questions, become informed by reading various sources and critically evaluate the information coming from all sources. I encourage you to continue asking questions and hope that I have been able to address your concerns.