National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine study finds GMOs safe
For producers, genetically modified organisms (GMO) have enabled farmers to safely and efficiently yield more food using fewer natural resources. Farmers try to base their production methods on sound science and ample research; however, despite the success that agriculture has enjoyed using genetically modified (GM) crops in their fields, the industry missed the mark in educating consumers about this emerging food technology, which has created a wide chasm of mistrust, confusion and fear about the “franken-foods” produced by GM-crops.
While negative articles about GMOs are never in short supply on mainstream media sources, a May 17 article written by Elizabeth Weise for USA Today promotes the health benefits of GMOs to animal and human health.
The article cites a 388-page report, “Genetically Engineered Crops: Experiences and Prospects,” which was released by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, which concludes that GM crops are “safe for humans and animals to eat and have not caused increases in cancer, obesity, gastrointestinal illnesses, kidney disease, autism or allergies.” The research examined 900 studies conducted over the last 20 years since GM crops were first introduced into the market place.
According to Weise, the study not only concluded that GM foods are safe for humans, but they also offer economic and ecological effects.
Weise writes, “Overall, the report found that GM-crops save farmers money in terms of time spent tilling and losses to weeds and insects, but can have both positive and negative effects on pests, farming practices and agricultural infrastructure. Pest-resistant crops have resulted in lower pest populations overall in some areas of the midwest, especially European corn borer, the report found. However the use of herbicides on GM-crops in some areas has resulted in the evolution of herbicide-resistant weeds.
“The report specifically addressed a commonly cited link between GM-crops and falling populations of monarch butterflies. As of March 2016, there was no evidence that the suppression of milkweed (the only food of the insect in its caterpillar state) by the use of herbicides caused declines in the monarch population, the committee found. In fact, the monarch population has seen a moderate increase in the past two years.”
However, despite the science-based data released in this report and shared by USA Today, this is an extremely emotionally-charged issue, and food scientists, retailers, and producers have a long road ahead if they want to implement a change in consumer attitudes about GMOs.
Jenny Dewey Rohrich and her husband, Mark, farm row crops near Ashley, North Dakota In her spare time, Rohrich captures her life on the farm through photography and writes on her blog, http://www.prairiecalifornian.com, about the modern agricultural production methods they employ when planting row crops. Little by little, she is changing the way people view food producers.
“Food is something that is so personal to all of us,” she said. “Our holidays, important family events, and even every day family time revolves around our tables and the food on our plates. All of us, even farmers, like to know that what we are feeding to those we love and putting on our own plates is healthy and is safe. There has been such a distrust developed in the past several decades, so it makes it hard to know who to trust and where to go to find information. It also doesn’t help that marketing can be so hard to wade through and sometimes even misleading. I completely understand why we find ourselves in the situation we are in and I recognize the fact that it can be very scary making choices on what to eat. That is why I think transparency from farmers to food companies is so important in this time of uncertainty. Consumers are curious and they are paying attention, so we must have these open and honest conversations.”
Through sharing her story online, Rohrich has been able to engage thousands of readers in discussions about where their food comes from, and her work has been featured in The Huffington Post, Shape Magazine, and Be Magazine, among several others.
“I believe the more I share, the more conversations it will foster in my communities, both online and offline,” she said. “Sometimes wading through all of the emotions and controversy surrounding issues can be exhausting and feel like a one-sided battle, but I always remember that there are so many fear-based misinformation sources out there that having a spot at the table is important. I want people to know there are farmers out there who are willing and ready to discuss what we do on our farms.”
Rohrich said it surprises many people to discover that there are only eight GM crops grown in the U.S.: corn, soybeans, canola, aflalfa, cotton, papaya, squash, and sugar beets. One potato and one apple variety have recently been approved for production; however, she said it’s important to remind consumers that, “All the rest of the crops grown in the U.S. are developed utilizing traditional methods of breeding. Many every day consumer products also utilize genetic engineering, from cosmetics, personal care products, vitamins, paper products, packaging, textiles, rubber, and synthetic films. Many of these products also result in huge reductions in greenhouse gases and non-renewable energy usage thanks to biotechnology.”
Her passion for advocating for the agricultural industry she loves is evident in her writing; however, she has been wildly successful in connecting with consumers because she shares other topics that appeal to a wider audience on her blog including cooking, photography, home decor, gardening, and more.
“Consumers aren’t the ‘ignorant, loud, arrogant’ people that our agricultural community sometimes like to make them out to be,” she said. “We forget that consumers are people, too, and they are passionate about things just like those of us in agriculture are. I think farmers can absolutely do better. Conversations have the power to change people’s lives; conversations have the power to change the way people look at agriculture. There are opportunities everywhere to engage and start building trust. It’s up to you where you want to start.”
David Franzen, North Dakota State University (NDSU) Extension soil specialist, said farmers are becoming increasingly aware of the disconnect between producers and consumers; however, it can be difficult to bridge the gap between emotion and science.
“Part of the problem is that when the companies set out to develop this technology, they focused in on the immediate consumer, which of course, was the farmer,” said Franzen. “There are huge benefits to the farmer in using GMOs; however, there is also a huge discrepancy between the science that has been done and what the consumer is hearing. There is a lot of mistrust, confusion, incorrect information out there.”
Franzen explained the benefits of GM crops have allowed farmers to do less in the fields, applying fewer chemicals, going to no-till, and using fewer resources, which is hugely beneficial to soil health.
“GM crops are really a win for agriculture and food production,” he said. “Before, farmers needed to apply toxic insecticides and herbicides to fields to protect the crop from pests and weeds. Now, thanks to GM seeds, we have eliminated the amount of chemicals we need to add to the environment. The problem isn’t GMOs, it’s the lack of education to consumers about where the genes come from, how the seeds are developed and why GMOs are so beneficial to humans and the environment.”
According to Wiese for USA Today, “A survey conducted by NDP Group found that 57 percent of Americans were concerned that genetically modified foods posed a health hazard.” These concerns have sparked an entire food movement with more retailers offering GMO-free foods and many politicians fighting for GMO-labeling.
“There is always a fear of things you don’t understand,” added Franzen. “Sensational headlines sell newspapers, and anti-GMO articles certainly stir up emotional reactions in people. Food producers need to engage in having conversations with consumers; they can work with their respective commodity groups for resources and opportunities to get involved. There is much work to be done in teaching consumers about how GMOs have benefited soil and human health.”