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The labels of foods you see in grocery stores are getting a facelift. By January 2022, products that have been bioengineered, or contain an ingredient that has been bioengineered, will require a disclosure informing consumers of the presence of GMOs, thanks to a mandate from Congress. You might already see this new label making its way onto some foods and brands starting this year.
The new labeling system might lead people to ask, as they often have done in the past: are GMOs safe?
Here’s where the latest scientific consensus lies.
GMO foods are GM-OK
The good news is that the majority of food safety experts agree that genetically modified organisms, from plants to animals, are generally safe for human consumption.
The National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine found in a 2016 review of more than 1,000 studies that GM crops do not pose a risk to human health.
In a press lease, the committee announced that it “found no substantiated evidence of a difference in risks to human health between genetically modified (GM) crops currently available in commerce and conventional crops.”
The World Health Organization, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the European Commission have come to the same conclusion. The US FDA works closely with the EPA and USDA to assess the safety of new GMO crops and ingredients.
WHO has also partnered with the Food and Agriculture Organization to develop a collection of food standards and best practices that provide guidance for assessing the potential risks of new crops or genetically modified organisms.
[Related: Avoiding GMO food might be tougher than you think]
The main issues that worry consumers are the same ones that experts have been actively investigating over the past two decades, says Richard Goodman, a research professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. These problems include “natural problems with foods that would affect human safety, animal safety, allergies, toxicity”.
Before an organism with a genetically modified trait can enter the market, researchers test it extensively over a few years. They’re checking that the inserted DNA – more on what it is in a moment – is functioning properly and is stable, which means it doesn’t jump into the body’s chromosome. Then, they assess the proteins produced by the body and check whether they match their source genes or match the makeup of known allergens or toxins.
For some products, scientists also perform what is called a rat toxicity test in which a high dose of the protein produced as a result of the genetic insert is administered to a number of rats over a period of time. checked to see if there are any impacts on their health. In addition, researchers are also conducting nutritional studies assessing the protein, carbohydrate and fat levels of the genetically modified product, often compared to a similar product produced by conventional breeding.
So how does genetic modification or bioengineering work?
The FDA has formally defined a genetically modified organism as a plant, animal, or microbe whose genetic material, or DNA, has been specifically altered using technology to introduce a new trait. It also includes the transfer of a section of DNA from one organism to another. One example is when a gene from a soil bacteria (Bt) has been spliced into the DNA of corn to create insect resistant corn.
This is how organisms are generally genetically modified. In the standard method, a piece of DNA is inserted into cells, sometimes with a gene gun, and sometimes via a specialized insect called Agrobacterium tumefaciens. Now, researchers are experimenting with using CRISPR / Cas9, a system that uses RNA guides to target and cut specific parts of the organism’s genome. The DNA added in the process is integrated into the chromosome of the food which is modified. This inserted DNA comes with tools the body can use to turn the simple genetic code (which is essentially an instruction manual) into RNA, and finally, into protein.
Researchers verify that the protein doesn’t look too much like a number of toxic proteins that exist in nature like venoms or ricin, which comes from unprocessed castor beans. They also verify that the new proteins do not contain anything that could trigger an adverse allergic reaction.
Scientists then closely monitor the modified cells to see how they develop. Finally, individual transformed plants are selected for field testing. Goodman estimates that there are over a hundred different genetic modifications that have been approved by regulatory agencies in the United States in crops like rice, corn, soybeans, sugar beets, canola, etc. .
However, some genetically modified plants are exempt from USDA regulations. These include changes at levels too low to be detected, or the removal or slight modification of a gene that is originally part of the plant’s native genome. All crop developers should apply for an exemption from the USDA in these cases.
[Related: GMO Facts: 10 Common GMO Claims Debunked]
Modifying plants is somewhat different from modifying animals. For example, GM Atlantic salmon uses a growth factor from another species of salmon, Goodman says. “It took over 22 years to get approval for this to be used as a food, and they looked at things like what protein is made from the different parts of salmon.”
Different flavors of GM
Goodman compares some GM products, like the virus-resistant papaya developed in Hawaii in the 1990s, to the biomedical industry’s use of gene editing to boost immunity or correct disease-related mutations in it. ‘man. “It worked, and it’s pretty accurate and efficient,” he says. “So there are similar things that people are trying to use on plants that do similar things.”
Many experts argue that even though the first modern techniques for genetic modification were introduced in the 1970s, it’s not much different from the way humans have traditionally cultivated plants and animals. In fact, this method could be considered an accelerated and more precise version of it.
[Related: There’s No Need To Fear Gene-Edited Food]
“Everything is genetically modified,” says Goodman. Also, the foreign DNA in our body is nothing to worry about, he adds. For example: When you are infected with viruses or the bacterial organisms in your gut die and break down, foreign DNA can escape, “and your immune system takes care of it,” he says.
Some genetic changes can extend the shelf life of foods or make them taste better, but others can create nutritional benefits. One example is golden rice, which was produced by inserting two different plant genes that enabled rice to make the precursor of vitamin A, beta-carotene.
“People who mainly eat rice, especially in countries where they don’t have a lot of money or eat a lot of vegetables, may have vitamin A deficiency, which causes immune defects,” [and] vision problems, ”says Goodman. “If you try to supplement people who are vitamin A deficient by giving them vitamin A, you could cause toxicity unless you really limit it. Beta-carotene, if you eat too much of it, it comes out in your urine. In other words, golden rice is a better solution than vitamins alone.
More importantly, Goodman says some GMOs have reduced the amount of pesticides and herbicides applied to plants. “Some of these chemical pesticides end up in groundwater and so on,” he adds. “So where are we better?”
Correction September 17, 2021: The article previously incorrectly stated that certain foods made from modified plants are exempt from FDA regulation. It is the USDA which grants certain exemptions for certain published factories. Plant-based foods are regulated by the FDA regardless of how they are produced.