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Genetically Modified Crops Are Safe

But will that be enough to convince any of the foods’ critics to take a bite?

By Kate Wheeling


A container is loaded with GMO corn on a farm in Rockton, Illinois. (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

An extensive report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released today found that genetically modified (GM) crops are safe for human consumption. The review, which looked at hundreds of studies conducted since GM crops were first introduced in the 1990s in the United States, found no direct relationship between GM foods and health problems such as obesity, diabetes, cancer, or Celiac disease.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that the science was already settled on GM crops. “Within the scientific community, the debate over the safety of GM foods is over,” Michael White wrote for Pacific Standard back in 2013. He went on:

The overwhelming conclusion is, in the words of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, that “consuming foods containing ingredients derived from GM crops is no riskier than consuming the same foods containing ingredients from crop plants modified by conventional plant improvement techniques.” Major scientific and governmental organizations agree. The U.S. National Academy of Sciences found that “no adverse health effects attributed to genetic engineering have been documented in the human population,” and a report issued by the European Commission made the same claim. The World Health Organization has concluded that GM foods “are not likely, nor have been shown, to present risks for human health.”

But the public debate over genetically modified organisms has raged on. In 2015, 57 percent of Americans still believed GM foods were unsafe to eat, according to the Pew Research Center. The problem is not necessarily that the majority of Americans aren’t aware of the scientific consensus, but rather that they just don’t trust it: The Pew survey also found that 67 percent of adults in the U.S. didn’t believe scientists have a full understanding of the potential health effects of GM crops.

Our anti-GM sentiments may be rooted in our psychological biases, Francie Diep reported for Pacific Standard last year, which helps to explain why they are so hard to shake:

Genetically engineered crops violate people’s expectations that species are unchangeable, so they seem weird, unnatural, and monstrous. That also means scientists who work on altering organisms’ DNA seem, to many, to be altering something that ought to be unalterable. For religious folks, that translates into “playing God.” Yet even those who don’t believe in intelligent design are inclined to think, consciously or unconsciously, of natural phenomena as being shaped for a purpose. One recent study found that when physics professors are forced to answer questions under a time crunch, even they fall back on design-based explanations. The professors’ scientific training may teach them that such explanations aren’t true, but their human tendency is to believe them, especially when they aren’t given time to think.

James McWilliams also points out how our unease about GM foods is fueled by an innate drive to avoid ingesting unfamiliar, and therefore potentially dangerous, substances. “Unseen, rumored to be dangerous irrespective of dose, and often ingested unknowingly (without labels), the mere idea of these ingredients may very well tap our instinct-driven disgust response,” McWilliams wrote, “and, in turn, explain the unusually vitriolic reaction we have to a technology that (ironically) accounts for ingredients in 70 percent of the processed foods we eat.”

The latest proclamation of GM crops’ safety is unlikely to sway public opinion any more than the last several scientific reports. GM crops are still often portrayed as dangerous and unregulated substances dropped into our food supply by evil companies concerned only with profits. But many GM crops are engineered to fulfill human needs, such as “golden rice,” which was made to help counter a chronic vitamin A deficiency in children in some regions of the world.

However, researchers suggest that focusing on the benefits of GM crops — like the new report’s finding that GM crops can save farmers money — coupled with an increasing awareness of their safety, could change how consumers view GM products.