Genetically engineered food gets a bad rap, despite its widespread use.

Last year, the town of Montville touched off a firestorm of controversy when it passed an ordinance banning the planting of genetically modified crops, or GMOs. That controversy spilled over onto the pages of newspapers across the state, with letters to the editor and op-eds citing health risks associated with foods containing genetically modified ingredients.

This year in the Legislature, a bill, LD 965, has been introduced to establish a requirement for manufacturers to report the sales of genetically modified seeds in the state. The apparent reason for singling out genetically modified seeds is based on the misperception of health risks. Though claims of health risks are designed to sound convincing, they are scientifically unfounded.

A public hearing on LD 965 is scheduled for this Friday, April 17.

In 2005, Jane Brody, the science writer for The New York Times, stated in an article titled, “Facing Biotech Foods Without the Fear Factor,” that “nearly every food we eat has been genetically modified, through centuries of crosses, both within and between species “

She added, “But alarmist warnings about the possible hazards of gene splicing have made the public extremely wary of this selective form of genetic modification. Such warnings have been groundless.”

The environmental and health safety of biotechnology-enhanced crops are assured by the “Coordinated Framework for the Regulation of Biotechnology,” set up by the federal government in 1986. The framework created a science-based review and oversight process for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration to regulate genetically modified crops and foods containing GMO-derived ingredients. Its purpose is “to ensure new biotechnology products are safe for the environment and human and animal health.”

Several prestigious science organizations and panels have extensively assessed health and safety. In 2000, the Institute of Food Technologists (The Society for Food Science and Technology) issued the “IFT Expert Report on Biotechnology and Foods,” which is available at www.ift.org. The report found that biotech-derived foods have been reviewed by numerous scientific organizations and there is broad scientific consensus regarding their safety.

Science academies from around the world have endorsed and supported food biotechnology, and more than 3,000 scientists – including several Nobel Prize winners – have signed statements in support of biotechnology. Although science and the vast majority of scientists support food biotechnology, consumers still tend to be wary for several reasons.

First, consumer understanding of science, and genetics in general, is quite low. More extensive and effective education is needed. Second, a lot of misinformation tends to confuse consumers. Third, as noted below, consumers have seen few direct benefits from food biotechnology.

To date, food biotechnology has provided significant direct benefits to farmers but only indirect benefits to consumers. However, the next generation of biotech crops will likely benefit consumers with healthier oils, improved nutrition through increases in key nutrients, commercialization in developing countries of “golden rice” with vitamin A to prevent blindness, reduction of allergens and more.

The popularity of biotech-enhanced crops with farmers around the world has led to unprecedented rates of adoption. Farmers elect to pay more for seeds that will produce higher yields, require less chemical inputs, reduce labor and shrink the environmental footprint of agriculture.

Introduced in 1996, GMO varieties now account for 92 percent of the soybeans, 86 percent of the cotton and 80 percent of the corn grown in the U.S. Worldwide in 2007, 12 million farmers planted GMO varieties on 282 million acres in 23 countries. In Maine, the top three genetically modified crops are corn, canola and soybeans. Acreage for these crops continues to increase.

Biotech crops have cut pesticide use by 15 percent and reduced carbon emissions by an amount equal to taking four million cars off the road. In Maine, the Board of Pesticide Control recently approved the registration of several Bt sweet corn varieties, which are biotechnology-modified to contain a naturally occurring pesticide.

There likely will be additional significant benefits to farmers such as drought-tolerant varieties of key crops that can have enormous value in developing – and developed – countries.

Food biotechnology has and will continue to bring significant benefits to agriculture and consumers. It’s a very useful tool, but by no means a magic bullet, for producing increasing quantities of food around the world.

Bruce R. Stillings, Ph.D., is president of Food and Agriculture Consultants Inc. in Falmouth and a past president of the Institute of Food Technologists.


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