The GMO debate

August 15, 2018

The issue of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) as they relate to the food supply is an ongoing, nuanced and highly contentious issue.

Individuals from the scientific and medical fields fall on both sides of the argument, some claiming that genetically modified crops are helping to solve issues concerning hunger, environmental sustainability and an increasing global population, while others believe they’re doing more harm than good.

With studies supporting both sides, many wonder: Who should we believe? To give a clearer sense of the issues and arguments that surround GMOs, Dr. Sarah Evanega, a plant biologist, and Dr. David Perlmutter, a neurologist, weigh in from opposing sides. Here’s what they had to say:

What’s your stance on GMO food?

Dr. Sarah Evanega:Genetically modified organism (GMO) food is safe. In that respect, my stance mirrors the position taken by the National Academies of Sciences and the majority of the world’s scientific community.

I eat GMO foods, as do my three young children, because I’m confident in the safety of these products. I support GMO food because I’m convinced that GMO crops can help reduce poverty and hunger among smallholder farmers in developing nations. They can also lessen the environmental impact of agriculture in general.

Genetic engineering is a tool that can help us breed crops that resist drought, diseases, and insect pests, which means farmers achieve higher yields from the crops they grow to feed their families and generate extra income. We have seen, time and again, that farmers who grow GMO crops in Africa, and South and East Asia earn extra money that helps them do things we Westerners take for granted — like send their children to school and buy a propane stove so they no longer have to cook over fires fueled by cow dung.

In developing nations, much of the weeding is done by women and children. By growing crops that can tolerate herbicide applications, the children are freed up to attend school and the women have time to earn income to help support their families.

I know many of the scientists who are using genetic engineering to breed improved crops, and I’ve witnessed their dedication to making the world a better place. I support GMO food because I’ve seen first-hand how it can improve people’s lives. For farmers, access to GMOs is a matter of social and environmental justice.

Dr. David Perlmutter: Genetic modification of agricultural seeds isn’t in the interest of the planet or its inhabitants. Genetically modified (GM) crops are associated with an increased use of chemicals, like glyphosate, that are toxic to the environment and to humans. These chemicals not only contaminate our food and water supplies, but they also compromise soil quality and are actually associated with increased disease susceptibility in crops.

This ultimately leads to an increase in the use of pesticides and further disrupts ecosystems. And yet, despite these drawbacks, we haven’t seen increased yield potential of GM crops, although that has always been one of the promises of GM seeds.

Fortunately, there are innovative alternatives to the issue of food insecurity that are not dependent on using GM crops.

Is GMO really less healthy than non-GMO food? Why or why not?

SE:From a health perspective, GMO food is no different than non-GMO food. In fact, they can even be healthier. Imagine peanuts that can be genetically engineered to reduce levels of aflatoxin, and gluten-free wheat, which would give those with celiac disease a healthy and tasty bread option. GM corn has cut levels of naturally-occurring mycotoxin— a toxin that causes both health problems and economic losses — by a third.

Other GMO foods, such as vitamin A-enriched Golden Rice, has been fortified with vitamins and minerals to create healthier staple foods and help prevent malnutrition.

In general, though, the process of engineering crops to contain a certain trait, such as pest-resistance or drought-tolerance, does nothing to affect the nutrient quality of food. Insect-resistant Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) crops actually reduce or eliminate the need for pesticide applications, which further improves their healthfulness and safety.

We have seen this in Bangladesh, where farmers would spray their traditional eggplant crops with pesticides right up until the time of harvest — which meant farmers were getting a lot of pesticide exposure and consumers were getting a lot of pesticide residue. Since growing pest-resistant Bt eggplant, however, they’ve been able to greatly reduce their pesticide applications. And that means GMO crops are healthier not only for the farmer, but the consumer.

Similarly, studies have shown a new disease-resistant GMO potato could reduce fungicide use by up to 90 percent. Again, this would certainly result in a healthier potato — especially since even organic farmers use pesticides.

I understand that people have legitimate concerns about highly processed foods, such as baked goods, breakfast cereals, chips, and other snacks and convenience foods, which are often made from corn, soy, sugar beets, and other crops that are genetically engineered. It’s the manufacturing process, however, that makes these items less healthy than whole foods, like fruits, vegetables, and grains. The origin of the ingredients is irrelevant.

DP:Without question, the various toxic herbicides that are liberally applied to GM crops are having a devastating effect. In terms of the nutritional quality of conventional versus GM food, it’s important to understand that mineral content is, to a significant degree, dependent on the various soil-based microorganisms. When the soil is treated with glyphosate, as is so often the case with GM crops, it basically causes sterilization and deprives the plant of its mineral absorption ability.

But to be fair, the scientific literature doesn’t indicate a dramatic difference in the nutritional quality comparing conventional and GM agricultural products in terms of vitamins and minerals.

It is now, however, well-substantiated that there are health risks associated with exposure to glyphosate. The World Health Organization has characterized glyphosate as a “probable human carcinogen.” This is the dirty truth that large agribusiness doesn’t want us to understand or even be aware of. Meanwhile, it’s been estimated that over 1.6 billion kilograms of this highly toxic chemical have been applied to crops around the world. And to be clear, GM herbicide-resistant crops now account for more than 50 percent of the global glyphosate usage.

The connection between GM crops and use of chemicals poses a significant threat to the health of humans and our environment.

Does GMO food affect the health of the environment? Why or why not?

SE: GMOs have a positive impact on the health of the environment. Recently, a meta-analysis of 20 years of data found that growing genetically modified insect-resistant corn in the United States has dramatically reduced insecticide use. By suppressing the population of damaging insect pests, it’s also created a “halo effect” that benefits farmers raising non-GM and organic vegetable crops, allowing them to reduce their use of pesticides, too.

We’re also seeing the use of genetic engineering to breed crops that can produce their own nitrogen, thrive in dry conditions, and resist pests. These crops will directly benefit environmental healthby cutting the use of fertilizers, pesticides, and water. Other researchers are working to accelerate the rate of photosynthesis, which means crops can reach maturity quicker, thus improving yields, reducing the need to farm new land, and sparing that land for conservation or other purposes.

Genetic engineering can also be used to reduce food waste and its associated environmental impact. Examples include non-browning mushrooms, apples, and potatoes, but could also be expanded to include more perishable fruits. There’s also tremendous potential in regard to genetically engineered animals, such as pigs that produce less phosphorus material.

In summary, GMO crops can have remarkable environmental benefits. They allow farmers to produce more food with fewer inputs. They help us spare land, reduce deforestation, and promote and reduce chemical use.

DP:No doubt. Our ecosystems have evolved to work in balance. Whenever harmful chemicals like glyphosate are introduced into an ecosystem, this disrupts the natural processes that keep our environment healthy.

The USDA Pesticide Data Program reported in 2015 that 85 percent of crops had pesticide residue. Other studies that have looked at the pesticide levels in groundwaters reported that 53 percent of their sampling sites contained one or more pesticides. These chemicals are not only contaminating our water and food supplies, they’re also contaminating the supplies for other organisms in the surrounding environment. So the fact that GM seeds now account for more than 50 percent of global glyphosate usage is certainly concerning.

Perhaps even more importantly, though, is that these chemicals are harming the soil microbiome. We are just now beginning to recognize that the various organisms living in the soil act to protect plants and make them more disease resistant. Destroying these protective organisms with the use of these chemicals weaken plants’ natural defense mechanisms and, therefore, will require the use of even more pesticides and other chemicals.

We now recognize that plants, like animals, are not autonomous, but rather exist in a symbiotic relationship with diverse microorganisms. Plants are vitally dependent upon soil microbes for their health and disease resistance.

To summarize, the use of pesticides for GM crops is disrupting ecosystems, contaminating the water and food supplies for the environment’s organisms, and harming the soil microbiome.

Is GMO food necessary to feed the entire world population? Why or why not?

SE: With the world’s population expected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050, farmers are now being asked to produce more food than they’ve produced in the entire 10,000-year history of agriculture. At the same time, we’re facing extreme climate change events, such as prolonged droughts and severe storms, that greatly impact agricultural production.

Meanwhile, we need to reduce the carbon emissions, water pollution, erosion, and other environmental impacts associated with agriculture, and avoid expanding food production into wild areas that other species need for habitat.

We can’t expect to meet these enormous challenges using the same old crop breeding methods. Genetic engineering offers us one tool for increasing yields and reducing agriculture’s environmental footprint. It’s not a silver bullet — but it’s an important tool in the plant breeder’s toolbox because it allows us to develop improved crops more quickly than we could through conventional methods. It also helps us work with important food crops like bananas, which are very difficult to improve through conventional breeding methods.

We certainly can feed more people by reducing food waste and improving food distribution and storage systems worldwide. But we can’t afford to ignore important tools like genetic engineering, which can do a lot to improve the productivity and quality of both crops and livestock.

The social and environmental problems that we face today are unprecedented in scale and scope. We must use all the tools available to address the challenge of feeding the world while taking care of the environment. GMOs can play a part.

DP: The argument that we need GMO food to feed the entire world population is absurd. The reality of the situation is that GM crops have actually not increased the yield of any major commercialized food source. In fact, soy — the most widely grown genetically modified crop — is actually experiencing reduced yields. The promise of increased yield potentials with GM crops is one that we have not realized.

Another important consideration in terms of food security is the reduction of waste. It’s estimated that in the United States, food waste approaches an astounding 40 percent. Leading health commentators, like Dr. Sanjay Gupta, have been vocal on this issue and highlighted food waste as a key component of addressing the issue of food insecurity. So there’s definitely a big opportunity to reduce the amount of food that needs to be produced overall by cutting waste out of the supply chain.

Is there a viable alternative to GMO food? If so, what is it?

SE: There’s no reason to seek an alternative to GMO foods, from a scientific, environmental, or health perspective. But if people wish to avoid GMO food they can purchase organic products. Organic certification does not allow the use of genetic engineering. However, consumers need to be aware that organic food does carry a rather hefty environmental and economic cost.

A recent study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that organic food costs at least 20 percent more than nonorganic food — a figure that can be even higher with certain products and in various geographic regions. That’s a significant difference for families living within a budget, especially when you consider that organic food is not any healthier than nonorganic foods, and both types of food typically have pesticide residues that fall well below federal safety guidelines.

Organic crops also have an environmental cost because they’re generally less productive and require more tilling than conventional and GM crops. They also use fertilizers from animals, which consume feed and water and produce methane gas in their waste. In some cases, take apples for example, the “natural” pesticides that organic growers use are far more toxic to humans and the environment than what conventional growers use.

In terms of plant breeding, some of the improvements that are possible with genetic engineering simply couldn’t be accomplished through traditional methods. Again, genetic engineering offers plant breeders an important tool that can result in a healthy, eco-friendly approach to agriculture. There’s simply no scientific reason to avoid this technology in producing food for the world’s growing population.

DP: Absolutely. There are many innovators working on solutions to sustainably solve the issue of food insecurity. One area of focus has been reducing the waste across the supply chain. For example, Apeel Sciences, a company that has raised funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, developed a natural coating that’s made of leftover plant skins and stems. It can be sprayed on produce to slow the ripening process and extend shelf life, which helps consumers and supermarkets alike reduce food waste.

In addition to this, forward-thinking researchers are now deeply involved in studying the microorganisms that live on and near plants in terms of how they function to enhance not only the health of plants, but the quality and quantity of nutrients that they produce. According to British agricultural researcher Davide Bulgarelli, in a recent article published by The Scientist, “Scientists are looking to manipulate soil microbes to sustainably increase crop production — and novel insights into the plant microbiome are now facilitating the development of such agricultural tactics.”

The research that looks at how microbes benefit plants is consistent with similar research relating microorganisms to human health. So another alternative is to harness and take full advantage of the beneficial interaction between microorganisms and plants to create a healthier and more productive agricultural experience.

Dr. Sarah Evanega is a plant biologist who earned her doctorate degree from Cornell University, where she also helped lead a global project to help protect the world’s wheat from wheat stem rust. She’s currently the director of the Cornell Alliance for Science, a global communications initiative that’s seeking to restore science to the policies and discussions around genetically engineered crops.

Dr. Perlmutter is a board-certified neurologist and four-time New York Timesbest-selling author. He received his MD from the University of Miami School of Medicine where he was awarded the Leonard G. Rowntree Research Award. Dr. Perlmutter is a frequent lecturer at symposia sponsored by institutions such as the World Bank and IMF, Yale University, Columbia University, Scripps Institute, New York University, and Harvard University, and serves as an Associate Professor at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. He also serves on the board of directors and is a fellow of the American College of Nutrition.

This article first appeared on Healthline.