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 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 & Agriculture Consultants, Inc. in Falmouth and a past
president of the Institute of Food Technologists.


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