Answering top 10 GMO questions

Answering top 10 GMO questions

Experts address consumers' leading questions on GMOs.

Top 10 questions about GMOs respondents want answered

Rank

Question

1

Do GMOs cause cancer?

2

Are GMOs causing an increase in allergies?

3

Are big companies forcing farmers to grow GMOs?

4

Are GMOs increasing the price of food?

5

Are GMOs contaminating organic food crops?

6

Why aren't long-term health studies conducted on GMO plants?

7

Are GMOs causing an increase in the use of pesticides?

8

Why do GMO companies seem like they are so against labeling GMO foods?

9

Are GMOs contributing to the death of bees and butterflies?

10

If livestock eat genetically modified grain, will there be GMOs in my meat?

Source: Ipsos.

A NEW national survey commissioned by GMO Answers and the Council for Biotechnology Information has identified the leading questions consumers have about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and how food is grown.

The survey was conducted in order to identify, for the first time, the top 10 questions consumers have about GMOs and to open up the conversation on biotechnology's role in agriculture.

Over the next several weeks, scientists, farmers, doctors and other experts will answer one of the top 10 questions each week on the GMO Answers website and via Twitter.

Ipsos, a global market research company, conducted a national, random telephone survey of 1,006 American adults ages 18 and older. Participants were given a list of common questions about GMOs and were asked which ones they would be "most interested in having answered."

From the list of 23 environmental, business and health-related questions regarding GMOs, respondents identified the top 10 questions they want answered (Table).

"A national dialogue is taking place about GMOs, and it's important for us to listen to the questions consumers are asking so we can provide the information to help address their concerns," said Dr. Cathleen Enright, spokesperson for GMO Answers. "We are committed to transparency about how our food is grown, including an open discussion about GMOs. This is why we asked independent, third-party experts to answer these questions publicly. Our goal is to ensure that consumers have the information they need to make up their own minds about GMOs."

Since its launch last year, more than 500 questions about GMOs, food and agriculture have been answered by experts on GMO Answers.

 

Cancerous?

Dr. Kevin Folta, interim chair and associate professor at the University of Florida's horticultural sciences department, answered the first question: Do GMOs cause cancer?

"The short answer is no, there is absolutely zero reputable evidence that GMO foods cause cancer. Cancer is a name applied to a spectrum of diseases where cells proliferate abnormally. There is no way that the subtle and well-understood alterations of a plant's genes can cause cancer," Folta explained. "There is nothing about the Bt protein (used in insect resistance and also in organic pest control), the EPSPS enzyme (which confers herbicide resistance simply by substituting for the native enzyme in the plant) or the process itself that would induce the genetic changes in human cells that would lead to cancer. It is just not plausible.

"Some of the confusion comes from reports where the Bt protein or glyphosate (the herbicide used on some biotech crops) is applied to cell lines in a petri dish, and the cells show changes associated with stress and perhaps abnormal proliferation," Folta said. "However, cells in a dish do not behave like cells in the body. Through years of careful evaluation, there is no reliable evidence that GM (genetically modified) foods cause the same changes in a living organism."

In fact, Folta noted, in the future, "plants may be engineered to produce nutrients that fight/prevent cancer or even eliminate compounds that increase cancer risk. One such product is close to commercialization: Potatoes produce a small amount of acrylamide, a potential carcinogen, when heated to high temperatures. A potato has been engineered to not produce that compound, leading to safer food."

Among the questions that did not make the top 10 but have been the focus of conversations on GMO Answers include: if the development of GMOs is unnatural, if GMOs are causing gluten intolerance, if GMOs are contributing to obesity and infertility, if GMO companies are suing farmers and if GMOS are contributing to the growth of super weeds.

"We recognize that consumers have questions about our products, and we need to do a better job explaining our technology, role in agriculture and the safety of our crops," Enright said. "In the coming weeks, we invite consumers to come back and follow the answers to the top 10 questions offered by experts at GMO Answers and become a part of this important conversation."

 

Allergenic?

Lisa Katic, a registered dietician, shared her perspective for the second question: Are GMOs causing an increase in allergies?

"No commercially available crops contain allergens that have been created by genetically engineering a seed/plant, and the rigorous testing process ensures that will never happen," she explained.

According to Katic, food allergies are mainly caused by eight major foods — milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, soy, wheat, fish and shellfish — and account for about 90% of reported food allergies in the U.S.

"First, it is important to note that only one of these eight major allergens listed above is a potential product of biotechnology, and that is soy. Of the remaining seven allergens listed, none is commercially available in genetically modified varieties," Katic explained.

She noted that if a person is allergic to a non-GM plant, he or she will also be allergic to the plant's GMO counterpart, "but GMOs do not introduce any new allergens. In fact, researchers, academics and companies are working on new GMOs that have the potential to help people in this area — for example, peanuts with very low allergen levels that have the potential to eliminate life-threatening allergies to peanuts."

There are thousands of proteins in the diet, and only a small fraction of them cause allergies. With respect to GMOs, Katic pointed out that the Food & Drug Administration has specifically focused on allergy issues and requires companies to analyze the proteins they use in the biotech process to determine if the proteins are allergenic.

"This entire process is well regulated and monitored and takes years to complete," she explained. "The only documented case where an actual allergen was introduced into a plant by genetic engineering occurred during an experiment trying to improve the nutritional quality of the soybean by using a Brazil nut protein." The protein was identified as an allergen, she noted, and the GM soybean "never entered the market."

 

No choice?

The third week showcased the question: Are big companies forcing farmers to grow GMOs? Indiana corn and soybean farmer Brian Scott addressed this question by talking about his own experience purchasing seed for his farm.

"None of the seed companies force farmers like me to buy any particular product. ... Salespeople might push the latest and greatest, but since every farm operates a little bit differently from the next one, seed choice is very important," Scott explained.

He added that seed companies that sell GM seeds also have many non-GMO varieties.

"I can buy any seed from any vendor I choose from one year to the next. Just because I bought Monsanto, Pioneer or Syngenta seeds one year doesn't mean I have to buy seed from any one of them the following year," he explained.

Scott noted that farmers do sign technology use agreements in relation to patented products but said nothing in the contracts sets a requirement for future purchases or even purchases of other products during the growing season.

Jillian Etress, a high school agriculture teacher and family farmer from Alabama, also offered her perspective. She explained that her family makes seed decisions based on the farm's needs at the time.

"GMOs are pretty unique in how they are made but aren't all that uncommon when you think about how nature works," she said. "They are really a method of speeding up what is already naturally occurring in nature over time. Plants and animals have to evolve to overcome obstacles that threaten their livelihood. This could take thousands of years. With GMOs, this process can be sped up as scientists pinpoint specific places in a plant's DNA that can be changed to make that plant have a higher survivability rate."

According to Etress, GMOs make sense for farmers when it comes to sustainability.

"Sustainability is more than just seed availability; it's the preservation of our natural resources and the reduction of waste," she said. "Through the use of some GMOs, we are able to use fewer restricted-use pesticides, instead choosing weaker chemistries that aren't as harmful on the environment."

To follow the dialogue on the other questions or to view more information on GMOs, visit GMOAnswers.com.

Volume:86 Issue:15

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