Pursuing Truth and Transparency in America's Food System

There are nearly no consumer benefits of GMOs

The following is an excerpt from Chapter 13, “Seedy Business: What Big Food is hiding with its slick PR campaign on GMOs,” by Gary Ruskin, co-director of the public watchdog group US Right to Know.

Of the approximately 30 traits that are genetically engineered into crops for commercial use, they fall into two distinct classes. Many are either pesticide- or herbicide-resistant (or both), to withstand dousings of potent chemicals, such as glyphosate. Some have a pesticide, called Bt toxin, incorporated into them, to withstand pest infestations. Some have both.[1]

To be generous to the agrichemical industry, of all these genetically engineered crops that have been brought to market, only three may have actually provided any benefits to consumers. These are the Flavr Savr tomato, the “Rainbow” papaya and the “Innate” potato.[2] In 1994, the company Calgene, marketed the first genetically engineered product, a tomato called the Flavr Savr that was intended to have a longer shelf life.[3] It was withdrawn from the market in 1997, after the company was purchased by Monsanto, which stopped selling the seeds.[4] Then there is the Rainbow papaya, which was genetically engineered to withstand the ringspot virus. It is now the most prevalent papaya grown in Hawaii. Finally, there is a new genetically engineered “Innate” potato that may produce less of the toxic chemical acrylamide when fried.[5]

That’s it. One hasn’t been cultivated in the 21st century, another preserved the cultivation of papayas in Hawaii, and another is entirely new.

Now, let’s examine the rest of the genetically engineered foods and products – that most Americans eat in large amounts. These are corn, soybeans, sugar beets, canola and cotton (think cottonseed oil).

The genetically engineered foods that Americans eat are not healthier, safer or more nutritious than conventional foods. They do not look better, nor do they taste better. They do not have a longer shelf life. Using any measure that consumers actually care about, they are not in any way an improvement over conventional products.

They do, however, confer risks to consumers. There are studies that link genetically engineered foods to allergies, liver and kidney disease and other illnesses.[6]

Well then, who benefits from genetically engineered food and crops? The agrichemical companies do: they sell the seeds and the pesticides that often go with them. Perhaps some farmers do as well. Consumers do not benefit.

In other words, the agrichemical industry is selling consumers a basket of products in which there appears to be risk but no benefits.

That raises an important question: If there are no benefits to consumers, why should we bear any health risks of genetically engineered food and its pesticides?

Footnotes

[1]GM Crops: A Story in Numbers.” Nature, May 2, 2013. 497, 22-23. doi:10.1038/497022a

[2] Though the agrichemical industry touts “golden rice” – GMO rice enriched with beta-carotene – it still hasn’t been commercially produced, and appears to be more of a PR stunt than a real way to deliver beta carotene to those who need it. See, for example, Michael Pollan, “The Great Yellow Hype.” New York Times, March 4, 2001.

[3] Warren E. Leary, “F.D.A. Approves Altered Tomato That Will Remain Fresh Longer.” New York Times, May 19, 1994. Belinda Martineau, First Fruit: The Creation of the Flavr SavrTM Tomato and the Birth of Biotech Food. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2001.)

[4]What Happened to the Flavr Savr?Chemical and Engineering News, April 19, 1999. Kenneth Chang, “Building a Better Mass-Market Tomato.” New York Times, August 26, 2013.

[5] Andrew Pollack, “U.S.D.A. Approves Modified Potato. Next Up: French Fry Fans.” New York Times, November 7, 2014.

[6] See, for example, Gilles-Eric Séralini et al., “Genetically Modified Crops Safety Assessments: Present Limits And Possible Improvements.” Environmental Sciences Europe, 2011. 23:10. Memorandum from Michael Hansen PhD, senior scientist, Consumer Reports, to the American Medical Association Council on Science and Public Health, “Reasons for Labeling Genetically Engineered Food.” March 19, 2012. “Statement: No Scientific Consensus on GMO Safety.” European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility. October 21, 2013. John Fagan, Michael Antoniou and Claire Robinson, “GMO Myths and Truths.” 2014. Chapter 3.