Whenever an innovation is brought to life, it is important that people who will use it are informed about it, to prevent misunderstanding and confusion. Since the 1990s, genetic modified organisms (GMOs) have been available for commercial use in USA, and more and more GMO-derived food has been populating the shelves of supermarkets. But what do people know about GMO? In this post I want to highlight some strongholds of this topic, to clarify some issues.
First of all, everyone wants to know what they are eating: where the food comes from, the ingredients, and so on. Instead, food containing GMO ingredients started being commercialized without proper information, leaving people with doubts and skepticism. Really a bad start. During the following years, people’s doubts were not unraveled, and instead more and more GMO were accepted by Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the USA.
So, are people right being worried about GMO-containing food?
I wouldn’t say so, because FDA in USA and EFSA in Europe adopt strict rules to evaluate GMOs that are submitted for evaluation prior to being commercialized (in this meaning, Europe is much more strict than USA, see further). This cancels the possibility that some shameless company sells unsafe GMO. This doesn’t mean that scientific community should not monitor the short- and long-term effects of GMO commercialization. It cannot be excluded that, for example, on the long run GMO in our diet could increase the probability to develop food allergies or resistance to antibiotics.
Now let’s take a step at the time. What are GMOs?
GMO are organisms whose DNA has been genetically modified. Usually a new gene is inserted in the genome to give the organism some specific feature. GMO can be classified into three generations, depending on the modification introduced: the first generation provided tolerance to herbicides, resistance to pesticides and environmental conditions; the second generation improved nutritional quality; the third generation provided qualities beyond those of traditional food items and are used for pharmaceuticals and similar products.
How widespread are GMO in everyday food?
The first year to remember is 1994, when in USA Flavr Savr tomato started being sold. This tomato was modified with an enzyme that prevents the vegetable to soften, providing a longer shelf life than conventional tomatoes. In 1996, herbicide-resistant soybeans started being commercialized. The majority of GMO in USA are first-generation, and the features that are most frequently modified are herbicide tolerance, agronomic properties, improved product quality and insect resistance. Corn, soybeans and cotton are the most frequently modified crops. The United States Department of Agriculture provides interesting statistics about the spreading of GMO crops. The graph below displays how quickly GMO crops expanded in USA from 1994 to 2018.
The graphs below show instead how corn and cotton crops modified to receive both herbicide-tolerant and insect-resistance became widespread.
As you can see, the majority of corn and cotton crops are GMO in USA, but Europe developed differently. Europe is more skeptical about GMO. Wikipedia reports: “Countries such as the United States, Canada, Lebanon and Egypt use substantial equivalence as the starting point when assessing safety, while many countries such as those in the European Union, Brazil and China authorize GMO cultivation on a case-by-case basis. Many countries allow the import of GM food with authorization, but either do not allow its cultivation (Russia, Norway, Israel) or have provisions for cultivation, but no GM products are yet produced (Japan, South Korea). Most countries that do not allow for GMO cultivation do permit research.” Moreover, in Europe, the presence of GMO needs to be declared on the tag of the product, differently from USA.
What do people know about GMO?
Just a little. Studies conducted in several countries demonstrated a poor knowledge about GMO by people who were interviewed (US consumers, Latvian consumers, Polish students, Turkish nursing students, Italian, Japanese and US food shoppers). Most people had negative opinion about GMO, several people never heard of it (or knew very little about), and only a few considered themselves well informed about the topic.
From where the information about GMO comes from?
Mostly from internet and television, many from people they know (relatives, friends), and only between 10-20% relies on scientific papers. This data explains why so many people have negative opinion about GMO. Usually scary and dramatic information are more attractive and consequently become more relevant to people. Of course, this process does not take into account one important aspect: are those information true? We know how widespread are fake news nowadays, so obviously the source of information needs to be validated before relying on it. I feel mandatory to remind that only scientific papers represent a reliable source of information about science- and health-related issues. Are blogs like mine and others’ reliable? Yes, if they provide references, as you can see at the bottom of this post. References are mandatory to make something reliable in the field that I write about. So everyone can go back and see the original data from which a statement is based on.
What is the legislation about GMO?
There are some differences between USA and Europe, being USA more permissive about GMO than Europe. I will not enter the topic further than what I wrote at the beginning of the post: there is a strict legislation to prevent potentially-toxic GMO to be commercialized. I will just provide links for those who are interested in the legislation in detail.
European Union legislation: https://ec.europa.eu/food/plant/gmo/authorisation_en
USA legislation: https://www.fda.gov/Food/IngredientsPackagingLabeling/GEPlants/default.htm
If it is unsure if something could be dangerous, it is wise to drop it and forget about it. This would be the safest choice. Why instead GMO are not dropped? Because advantages could be massive. An Italian study demonstrated that GMO-maize provides significantly higher yields compared to the natural version. GMO-crops and the foods derived from them are considered the best solution to fight global hunger and malnutrition. The benefits of GMO crops include greater yields, reduced need for pesticides and herbicides, possibility to cultivate crops in areas not suitable for the natural relatives (desert, for example) and increased economic benefits for large and small farmers.
Unfortunately it is not possible to draw a definitive conclusion for the topic. Countries that decide to introduce GMO-derived food are responsible to inform exhaustively the population about the benefits and risks, because everyone has the right to know what, how and why something has to change in their life. Scientific community should continue monitoring the situation and halt the commercialization of a GMO-containing product as soon as something is noted to create problems (i.e.: food allergies or antibiotic resistance). At last, people should continue looking for information, ensuring that their sources are fully reliable and free from any conflict of interest.