Everything You Need To Know About GMOs

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01__MG_7017_r_RubyYehPhotographed by Ruby Yeh.
When we posted our last piece about genetically modified foods, we were floored by the response. So, we asked for your questions on Twitter, and they have now been answered: Kevin Folta, PhD (a government-funded horticulture scientist at the University of Florida who specializes in GMO research), gives us his perspective on the genetically modified food issue.

How influential are Monsanto and other for-profit companies in scientific research on GMOs?
"There are six major companies generating transgenic ag[riculture] crops like corn, soy and cotton. Many smaller companies are trying to play in that space, but the regulatory burdens, the massive required testing, and the incredible costs severely limit competition. The big companies do almost 100% of the research internally, as dictated by requirements from the EPA, FDA and USDA/APHIS.

"Thousands of laboratories in the U.S., and many more worldwide, use transgenic technology to study facets of plant growth and development, food quality, or plant productivity. This research is paid for by the taxpayer through USDA, NSF, DOE, NIH, and other agencies. Large companies fund little, if any, research at most universities. At my school [this funding] might be 1% of the total research budget, and [it] goes to a lab or two for specific research projects that may or may not be GMO-related... Even if they fund the work, big companies have no say in what the results are or how they are interpreted. That’s why they use external experts. Personally speaking, I would never risk my career or reputation to appease some corporate desire. I can’t think of any legitimate scientist who would."

Is there merit to the fears that GMOs will disrupt ecosystems?
"This is a frequent question, I think influenced by the 'frankenfood' label. The bottom line is that these crops are just like any crops, [but] with an added trait or two — typically insect resistance and/or herbicide resistance. These are crop species; they are not from North America, and [they] rely on farmers for water, nutrients, and protection from pests and pathogens. They don’t perform well against native plants out of the bounds of a farm. [So, these] plants creating some sort of ecological disaster is not much more likely.

"That said, there is evidence of 'volunteer' GM canola in the northern U.S. and Canada. It does well in medians and other places where weeds grow. [It's] managed with mowing, just like any other weed."
MG_6424_r_RubyYehPhotographed by Ruby Yeh.


How similar are GMOs to each other? Should we really be talking about them as if they are all the same thing?
"Absolutely not. There are basically three traits in commercialization: herbicide, insect [resistance], and virus resistance... Every plant line has the gene-insertion event in a different place. [Saying all GMOs are bad] is like saying all dogs are bad because someone watched a pit-bull-bashing after-school special... Each crop needs to be considered on its own traits and merits, its own promises and safety precautions.

"The transgenic-plant pipeline is packed with plants that make healthier oils, plants that produce needed nutrients, plants that can survive heat/drought, and plants where naturally allergy-inducing proteins have been turned off. These all stand to have great benefits to farmers and consumers. They come from a dozen different companies and government institutions... To paint all GM products with one brush is completely dishonest. Rather than profile all such crop technologies as 'dangerous' or 'inferior,' maybe we can think of problems to solve, and how technology can help solve them. That's where I want to be."
MG_6417_r_RubyYehPhotographed by Ruby Yeh.


Have studies shown any direct link between GMOs and cancer?
"Any time we introduce a complicated technology, there is concern that it could affect some of our most complicated diseases. For these reasons, new GM crop varieties are first considered for ways the new gene could cause changes that might lead to cancer in organisms consuming [it]. The Bt gene for insect resistance...and the 'roundup ready' gene...have no apparent way that they ever could be remotely carcinogenic. They are proteins, digested by the body like any other protein. These are the main two genes used in GM foods. Furthermore, extensive animal tests are performed long before these products are ever considered for human use.

"Emerging data from 100 billion farm animals that have consumed GM crops since 1996 show no evidence of changes in health. These data reinforce the idea that the products are perfectly safe for consumption."

Are there any significant studies underway to substantiate the dangers of GMOs?
"99.99% of transgenic plants made are generated for research purposes...to understand how genes work and how traits are controlled. In the deepest and most sensitive analyses, no unusual changes that would be considered dangerous have ever been identified. If something were to be uncovered, it would be a huge story. I hope it would come from my lab!

"The fact is that before a gene is ever inserted into a plant, it is well understood and carefully characterized. Once a gene is inserted into a potential crop line by a company, they sequence the entire genome and only keep those [genes] that do not change the molecular landscape beyond the insertion. Of course, research can be done to test any hypotheses of hazards... Seeds can be obtained for research through an Academic Research License from the companies. Transgenic plants can also be custom-made...so if someone feels there is something important to test, it can easily be done."
MG_6426_r_RubyYehPhotographed by Ruby Yeh.


A common criticism of GMOs is that they seem safe now, but the human lifespan is 70+ years. So, how do we know that they will be safe in the long term? Have there been any multi-generational studies?
"We hear this question all the time. Part of it is that 15 years ago, we heard that people would be dropping like flies and everyone would be poisoned [because of GMOs]. It never happened. As the safe use of these products unfolded, critics then had to move the goalpost, and place the danger in a place not as conveniently tested — like somewhere deep in the future. But, science gives us comfort... Is there anything about the Bt protein (providing insect resistance), the bacterial EPSPS enzyme (that provides herbicide resistance), or the sequences that provide virus resistance that we need to be concerned about? Do we see any dangerous patterns computationally? Is there any plausible mechanism of harm? The answer is no.

"Of course, exhaustive testing is performed and [only the] products clearing the gauntlet of tests are commercialized. Lots of testing showing no biological interactions is a good indicator of no biological interactions. And, nobody would expect multi-generational effects. We don't worry about such things with any other traditionally bred or mutation-bred crop, even though [those plants'] genetic arrangements are much more unpredictable and numerous.

"Finally, multi-generational tests have been done in animal models. Of credible tests, there is no evidence that [GMOs are] any different than regular food. A good review is Snell et al., 2011, Food and Chemical Toxicology. Activists tailor messages of reproductive harm especially towards countries with restrictions on child number. In China, activists don't warn of autism, allergies, cancer, obesity, and celiac disease like they do here. Those aren't problems in China. Instead, they customize the message to ensure that [it says] GM foods will cause sterility. It is all about making the fearful message match [the people] they are trying to scare."
MG_6467_r_RubyYehPhotographed by Ruby Yeh.


What's the deal with the "terminator" gene? Was it ever used?
"I think the terminator gene is an awesome idea. Seeds containing this gene can't make viable embryos in the next generation. If someone is worried about transgene contamination, this would solve the problem. Plus, it would also stop the worry stemming from the prevalent myth of being sued for a seed falling off a truck onto a farm. Such things never happen, but they are certainly worries of many who fear a conspiracy between ag companies and clandestine government collusion.

"The truth is, the [terminator gene] technology was developed by the USDA and a company named Delta Pine and Land back in the 1990s. It...was intended for cotton, to protect elite genetics. Later, Monsanto would purchase Delta Pine and Land, creating the perfect conspiratorial seed storm, as the Internet erupted with stories of how Monsanto would use the technology to destroy all seeds and corner the market on food.

"Because of the public outcry, Monsanto...vowed never to use the technology, and — like any 'malevolent monstrosity' — they haven't. The technology was never deployed, and never will be. Unfortunately, it is another useful gene product that, if used properly, could allay many of the criticisms of [GMO] technology."

Another common criticism of GMOs is that, because of the expense involved in purchasing the seeds, they somehow put small or impoverished farms at a disadvantage. How would you respond to this?
"This is not my area of expertise, but I can tell you [that] prices for GM seeds are regionally adjusted and fit local markets. They are sold at a premium, but are subject to market forces. If someone can save or buy non-GM seeds, grow the crop at lower cost, and make more money — GM seeds don't stand a chance. But...the seeds perform well, and in the end make for profitable farming. Less insecticide, better weed control — these are welcome traits anywhere in the world.

"Take cotton. Despite what activists will tell you, GM cotton has been a tremendous benefit to Indian farmers. Kathage and Qaim describe that smallholder farmers in some regions found a 24% increase in yields and lowered pesticide use, leading to a 50% gain in profits from GM cotton. Every case is different, but these traits do help farmers all over the world, in 13 million farms... Sadly, the greatest benefits are not commercialized [and are] stalled in testing here in the U.S. Luckily, other countries have their own rules and will introduce useful crops to their own people."
MG_6996_r_RubyYehPhotographed by Ruby Yeh.


What are U.S. labeling laws for GMOs? Should labels be required? And, why are labeling laws passed by state and not federally?
"Labeling laws in the U.S. are extremely explicit, and [require that manufacturers] clearly label any foods containing compounds that affect the [food's] nutritional content. These items must be clearly stated on the label. That’s the rule. Since GMO products have never been shown to have any quantitative difference from non-GMO, and since there is no credible scientific evidence of any issues with GM ingredients, there is no requirement to label them. Labeling is voluntary.

"While it always is nice to have more information about food, requiring labels based on consumer demand is a dangerous precedent. There is no scientific reason to require a label. To create a new government bureaucracy, spending millions of dollars to label, test, enforce, litigate, and penalize food producers for including a non-dangerous, essentially equivalent product is a tremendous waste of limited government resources. The result will be higher food prices, and it will affect the poor the most. In a time when schools are falling apart and social programs are underfunded, it is hard for a scientist like me to rationalize why we’d build a new arm of government to police food that has no consequence in the diet.

"Those advocating for labeling laws fail to realize that the nation’s elite scientific organizations, like the AAAS, stand strongly against food labeling. Why is this done on the state and even county level? Federal lawmakers have access to scientists and hard information, plus plenty of urging from food- and seed-producing companies to not impose such useless legislation. So, activists push initiatives through at the state and county ballot box. It is easy to use activist websites — pictures of lumpy rats and dead pigs — to scare the wits out of the average voter. It is easy to convince 51% of the population that they need to be afraid of good food.

"Science is not a democracy. Facts are facts, whether people choose to believe them or not."