Skip to main content

The Debate Over GMOs Is About to Change

A new generation of biotechnology crops designed to appeal to consumers is likely to radically change the controversy over GMOs.
(Photo: gregcullen/Flickr)

(Photo: gregcullen/Flickr)

Last month, the Food and Drug Administration gave the green light to two new genetically engineered foods, judging them as "not materially different in safety, nutrition, composition, or other relevant characteristics" from other foods that we already eat. This judgment itself isn't particularly remarkable—the FDA has made similar decisions about GMO foods over the past two decades. What is unusual is the type of genetically engineered food at issue. These are not crops modified to be pest or herbicide resistant—traits which benefit farmers but are not big selling points at the grocery store. Instead, the newly approved GMO foods are apples and potatoes that have been genetically modified to have features meant to appeal to the rest of us. The implications of these approvals for the larger debate over genetically modified foods are huge.

The apples, developed under the brand name Arctic Apples and produced by a small Canadian company called Okanagan Specialty Fruits, are engineered to experience no browning after they've been sliced. The potatoes, produced by the large Idaho-based J.R. Simplot Company, have been genetically modified not to produce black spots when peeled or bruised and to reduce the levels of acrylamide, a potential carcinogen, when deep-fried. As GMO foods with benefits aimed at consumers rather than corporate farms, these apples and potatoes have the potential to change our conversation on genetically modified foods. This is because, unlike most GMO foods sold today, they don’t conceal what they are—they deliberately give the power to choose back to the consumer.

Unlike the vast majority of GMOs on the market, Arctic Apples don't conceal their GMO identity from consumers. Their genetically engineered, non-browning trait is intended to be a selling point with those who eat them, not just those who grow or distribute them.

It's a conversation that needs to change. A recent Pew survey found that the largest disagreement between scientists and the public on a scientific issue is over the question of GMO safety. While 88 percent of surveyed scientists agreed that GMOs were safe to eat, only 37 percent of the public agreed. This is substantially lower than the 50 percent of people who accept that humans are contributing to climate change—GMOs are more controversial than global warming.

Why are scientists so convinced that GMO foods are safe to eat? First, the research has not shown any evidence of harmful health effects resulting from the consumption of GMO foods, even after two decades of their presence in the food supply. As a World Health Organization study put it, GMO foods currently on the market "are not likely, nor have been shown, to present risks for human health." Other major scientific, medical, and government organizations have reached the same conclusion. The clean track record of GMO foods stands in contrast to the list of more urgent food-associated threats that we face: food-borne illnesses, which sicken more than 40 million people and cause several thousand deaths in the United States annually, and the enormous public health toll of poor diets dominated by highly processed, low-nutrient, high-calorie foods. If we're concerned about unsafe foods, GMOs are the wrong thing to worry about.

Moreover, there is little reason to believe that GMOs are ever likely to pose a serious health risk, because the scale of the genetic changes made by biotechnology pale in comparison to the changes caused by our continual—and for the most part, blind—tampering with the genetic make-up of our food crops through traditional breeding techniques. This includes major changes just within the past century.

The genetic edits used to create Arctic Apples, which come in Golden Delicious and Granny Smith varieties, illustrate why this is. Apples turn brown when they are sliced or bruised because they express a set of enzymes that convert nutrients called polyphenols into a substance that forms a brown pigment. To create non-browning apples, Okanagan's researchers inserted short snippets of the native apple genes for these enzymes into their cultivars. These snippets trigger a natural cellular process called RNA interference, which dials down the levels of the polyphenol-degrading enzymes and prevents browning.

As Okanagan reported in a study submitted to the FDA, this highly targeted genetic change does little to alter the overall composition of the apple, with the expected exception of higher levels of polyphenols. But these higher levels fall well within the normal range for apples in general—polyphenols vary greatly among apple varieties. In other words, the differences between any two apple varieties—created by traditional hybridization methods—are much greater than any minor changes between the non-browning Arctic Apples and their non-genetically engineered Granny Smith and Golden Delicious counterparts.


It’s tempting to think that, by focusing on the science, we can reconcile the enormous difference of opinion between scientists and the public on the safety of GMO foods. But the debate isn't really about the science. The scientific debate itself is largely over: GMO foods are no less safe than other foods. The real controversy is over whether we should get to make our own decisions about eating these foods. This explains recent efforts to get state governments to require labels on products containing GMOs. Companies that sell GMO foods resist these proposals because, understandably, they see mandatory labels as unjustified fear-mongering that will damage their business. Yet consumers, understandably, want the ability to choose not to eat GMO foods, which is hard to do without clear labels. As a result, we're at an impasse: Corporate lobbying has, so far, been able to block legislation to require labels, but strong public support for labeling means that the issue isn't going away.

This is where Arctic Apples could change the conversation. Unlike the vast majority of GMOs on the market, Arctic Apples don't conceal their GMO identity from consumers. Their genetically engineered, non-browning trait is intended to be a selling point with those who eat them, not just those who grow or distribute them. Though it will be a few more years before these apples come on the market, Okanagan is already showing its marketing strategy. Its website explains why the company made these apples, describes the genetic engineering process, and provides a forum where company employees respond to readers' questions. The company is betting that, when given an opportunity, many people will consciously choose to eat a GMO food that has clear advantages over the non-GMO version.

If Okanagan is right and Arctic Apples succeed as a recognizable GMO that people choose to eat, the result could transform the debate over GMOs. Companies may no longer see GMO labels as fatal to their products. Consumers, after knowingly and safely eating a GMO food, may be more open to discussions about the science, which includes research on their safety as foods as well as their potential role in sustainable agriculture in the face of a changing environment. Neil Carter, the founder of Okanagan, hopes that it will play out this way. He wrote that "the biggest game-changer of all for consumer acceptance [of GMO foods] will be biotech crops with direct consumer benefits." He argues that a second wave of biotech crops is on its way, and it will offer foods that really are an improvement over non-GMO varieties, with healthier fats, more nutrients, or, like the potatoes already approved by the FDA, reduced levels of carcinogens.

Whether the public will actually accept these foods is anybody's guess at this point. But, aided by the increasingly lower costs and wider accessibility of genetic engineering, some companies are ready to test the waters by making GMO foods that benefit the people who eat them. As they do so, we'll have a healthier conversation about GMOs.

Inside the Lab explores the promise and hype of genetics research and advancements in medicine.