Editor’s Note: A Review of the Science and Practices behind Genetically Modified Foods

Genetically modified (GM) products began appearing commercially in the United States in the early 1990s when the FDA approved products such as the Flavr Savr tomato, which boasted a longer shelf life, and Roundup Ready soybeans, which were herbicide resistant. By 2014, the USDA estimated nearly 90 percent of US corn and soybeans were genetically modified. The Grocery Manufacturers Association estimates that 70 percent of all processed foods contain GM ingredients.

While some see GM foods as the only way to feed an increasingly populous world, others are suspicious of their safety and distrustful of the corporations behind GM products. Such disagreement has fueled a decades-long debate over the correct way to regulate a widely misunderstood technology. In 1997, the European Union began requiring that GM foods be labeled, though opponents claimed this practice was based on nothing but distrust of a new technology. Labeling initiatives are now sprouting throughout the United States. Maine and Connecticut recently passed laws that endorse labeling, and Washington and Oregon narrowly rejected labeling in 2014. These were pyrrhic victories for the biotechnology companies, which vastly outspent their opponents and, in Oregon, barely squeaked by with an 837-vote margin. Anti-GM initiatives continue to spread, and there will inevitably be more referendums on labeling in the next election.

With this in mind, the Chicago Policy Review decided to examine peer-reviewed literature in hopes of addressing the most common questions about GM foods. The foremost concerns tend to fall into a few categories: safety of consumption; the potential health and environmental effects of over spraying crops; and the industry practices of multinational corporations, such as the much maligned Monsanto.

Our series begins with perhaps the most pressing question, which is also the question on which the science is most settled: a survey of meta-analyses shows that scientists in study after study believe GM products are safe for human and animal consumption. Next, we review high-level benefits and drawbacks. GM crops require fewer pesticides and can provide desperately needed nutritional fortification to impoverished people around the world. On the other hand, the same crops can contaminate nearby non-GM fields and sometimes lead to an overuse of herbicides.

We also scrutinize the GM industry itself, made up of a few global biotechnology giants such as Monsanto and DuPont. The cost of biotechnology research and development excludes all but the largest companies, which restricts innovation and cedes market control to a small number of producers. We end with an interview in which representatives from DuPont frankly discuss their perspective on the technology, its pros and cons, and the role of regulation in assuring consumer safety.

There are enormous benefits to GM products, as well as irrefutable drawbacks, especially regarding industrial practices. And there is always more to investigate. We do not, for example, discuss the studies that purport to find negative health effects related to eating GM foods. These studies have been emphatically discredited in the news media and scientific literature. For now, we instead focus on subjects that are more opaque in an effort to provide some clarity. We hope this series will be useful to anyone who is interested in the debate about GM foods but who doesn’t know which side to believe or where to begin research.

 

Feature Photo: cc/(Karen Eliot)

Alexander Urquhart
Alexander Urquhart is the Senior Editor of Energy and Environment for the Chicago Policy Review. He is interested in geology, climate change, and skiing.

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