GMOs: Great modern opportunities (commentary)

*Dr. Richard Raymond is a former U.S. Department of Agriculture undersecretary for food safety.

I THINK the obsession with knowing how our food is raised, manufactured and processed dates back to 1906, when Upton Sinclair penned The Jungle, a look at the dark side of the meat industry, and caused the Pure Food & Drug Act to be passed.

I don't think the majority of consumers actually read the labels at the supermarkets, as they make their choices based on taste, cost, quality, appearance and maybe what is on sale that day.

Certainly, I did not know that almost all milk containers have a disclaimer on the bottom of the front label saying the cows were not injected with any artificial hormones — that is, until I did some work with Elanco on the product, which, by the way, is a genetically modified (GM) product and IS used extensively in the cheese and yogurt making process.

Many advocacy groups and consumers, it seems, are asking for all food products containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to be labeled as such.

The great state of Vermont — home of Ben & Jerry's "no recombinant bovine somatotropin used in our cows" ice cream and the only state without a McDonald's in its capitol city — passed a law a couple years back requiring GMO labeling.

Others have tried and failed, including my adopted state of Colorado — a state that asked voters this year to decide on physician-assisted suicide and a 10% tax hike for universal health care.

I think we leave too much up to Joe Six Pack to decide, and that is scary.

Jason Lusk, an agricultural economist at Oklahoma State University, does a lot of polling of consumers. A while back, he asked respondents if they would support "mandatory labels on foods containing GMOs," and 82% said yes.

He then asked if they would support "mandatory labels on foods containing DNA," and 80% said yes.

That's very scary.

I think the readers of Feedstuffs know that a GMO is a genetically engineered product created by mutation, insertion or deletion of genes contained in a living organism's DNA.

I think a precursor of GMOs was the selective breeding of animals raised for food, where the genetics of a top-producing animal were introduced into another animal to produce larger, stronger, healthier offspring. The animal agriculture folks were manipulating genetics; they just weren't splicing and dicing genes.

The first true GM organism was a mouse in 1973.

The first GM plant was tobacco in 1983 that was modified to resist a certain bacteria.

Genetically engineered insulin, called Humulin, was Food & Drug Administration approved in 1982. Prior to then, diabetics had to inject themselves with porcine insulin, which was the closest insulin in structure to human insulin but often caused allergic reactions.

When insulin is genetically engineered, it is called "recombinant" insulin. Maybe we should call products in the field "recombinant" beans, cotton and corn? It doesn't sound as scary as "genetically modified," does it?

In 1987, a genetically engineered medical product called Tissue Plasminogen Activase (TPA) was FDA approved to dissolve the clots that cause heart attacks and strokes. That recombinant TPA made my life as a small-town country doctor a whole lot easier.

An experimental, genetically engineered vaccine was used in the recent fight against Ebola virus, and cows in China now are producing milk that very closely mimics human mothers' milk, which is great for the babies whose moms can't nurse.

My point in writing this from a medical perspective is that, if doctors and patients are injecting or infusing these GM products into their bodies daily, do we really need to be stressing out over GM foods that get broken down by the digestive process before they ever even enter our bloodstream?

Now, more about GM foods:

* From 1996 to 2013, the amount of land being used to raise GM products increased 100-fold, growing from 432 acres to 4 million acres.

* In 2010, 10% of cropland in the U.S. was planted with GM crops.

* In 2014, 94% of soybeans, 96% of cotton and 93% of corn planted in the U.S. were GMOs.

These products — and the animals that consume them — have never, ever been shown to cause even one human side effect or health issue. Leading scientists from around the world have echoed that statement time and time again, and that includes the U.N. World Health Organization.

These products that resist drought, have increased nutrient value, have increased resistance to pests like bacteria, herbicides and viruses and also reduce shelf spoilage are helping feed a very hungry world and using less land than would otherwise be necessary.

There are potential risks, such as introducing a peanut gene into a food that could cause anaphylaxis for those with allergies, but it is FDA's job to be certain that does not happen. So far, it has done its job very well.

Volume:88 Issue:12

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