Everyone’s got to eat. So in agriculture, we are always planning for tomorrow. Not only does our livelihood depend on it, millions of Americans rely on access to affordable and safe produce to feed their families. However, most people don’t think too much about how their meal made it to their plate.
A poll conducted earlier this year by the Pew Research Center surveyed the gap between public perception and scientific consensus on issues such as climate change, vaccinations and evolution.
The issue that showed the single largest gap between the public and scientists? Whether genetically modified (GM) foods were safe to eat.
While 88 percent of scientists polled believed there was no danger in consuming GM foods, only 37 percent of American adults shared that same opinion.
To get to the bottom of this puzzling disparity, I recently led a bipartisan roundtable in the House Science Committee to discuss the science behind GMOs. A genetically modified organism, or GMO is essentially the result of transferring a desirable trait from one plant or organism to another. The goal of this process is to strengthen an existing crop, thereby increasing its yield, durability or even nutritional value.
This technology has existed for many years. The scientific concept and practice of crossbreeding plants for stronger traits has been around since the dawn of agriculture.
But as the term ‘GMO’ appears on more and more packaging in our grocery stores, it’s reasonable for people to have honest questions about them.
At our roundtable discussion, Dr. Kevin Folta, chair of the Horticulture Sciences Department at the University of Florida, addressed many of the misconceptions and challenges facing the public perception of GMOs. Dr. Folta contended that common health concerns surrounding GMOs are simply unscientific, and that the nutritional value and safety of these foods is no different than traditional crops.
There has been no single case of a person developing any illness, sickness or disease from GM food.
GMOs are actually well researched and stringent academic and industry studies continue to take place, even before the products go to market. From seed to grocery store aisle, there is an exhaustive process a GM product must first undergo. Seed varieties are tested by the USDA, FDA and EPA, not to mention the businesses and organizations whose success relies on sound scientific research.
Biotechnology has also made great strides in sustainability for both our environment and food supply. Land is a finite resource but the demand for food follows a forever upward trend. GM crops offer an innovative solution to this escalating issue.
A GM seed can grow in a wider variety of soils. It can withstand harsher conditions. It can require less pesticides or herbicides. Research today even suggests we can augment the nutritional value of certain produce through biotechnology.
In fact, we have already begun to see this through Golden Rice, which was developed to address malnutrition in developing countries that lack access to certain vitamin-rich foods.
The bottom line is GM crops are better suited to grow in their environment.
For farmers, this means a measurably lower rate of crop failure, with less time and money spent on pesticide application. For the everyday consumer, it means cheaper trips to the grocery store. And for those in developing countries, this technology means food is on their plates rather than rotting in fields from drought or pests.
While some local communities have hastily banned or issued restrictions on GM products, federal policy must remain grounded in science. That’s why I believe we should have a uniform national policy on labeling. We can achieve this by taking advantage of existing resources within the USDA and strengthening the FDA’s role in certifying the safety of GM products.
Consumers should have access to the same information about GM products that they have for organic foods today. These steps would uphold our commitment to food safety and meet consumers’ demand for diverse and affordable foods.
The journey from the farm to your table ought to be a transparent one. And whether you’re a farmer, rancher or concerned parent, it’s important we have an open and honest conversation about the merits of using biotechnology.