Agriculture

Scientists: GMOs Safe to Eat, Do Not Cause Environmental Problems

The year 1973 was one marked by strife, misery and uncertainty.

The Vietnam War raged on; the Watergate scandal continued to expand in scope as attention began turning toward the White House; Vice President Spiro Agnew was forced to resign after pleading no contest to charges of income tax evasion; the Yom Kippur War brought further armed conflict and unrest to the Middle East; an OPEC oil embargo brought about a global energy crisis.

However, 1973 was also a year of tremendous innovation and human achievement. It was during this year that two California scientists – Herbert Boyer, of the University of California at San Francisco, and Stanley Cohen, of Stanford University – were able to successfully construct a functional organism that combined and replicated genetic information from two different species. In doing so, they created the first genetically modified organism (GMO), forever changing the pharmaceutical and agricultural industries.

Ever since the first genetically modified food – a delayed-ripening tomato known commercially as the Flavr Savr – entered the marketplace in the early 1990s, segments of society have raised concerns about the safety and environmental impacts of GMOs. As a result, anti-GMO activists began pressing states to adopt specific GMO labeling requirements. In 2014, Vermont became the first state to pass along such a mandate onto food producers.

On Tuesday, a committee of 50 scientists, researchers, and other experts convened by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine published an exhaustive review examining the effects of GMOs on human health and the environment. Significantly, the report finds that genetically engineered crops are no less safe for human consumption than conventionally bred crops and are not responsible for increases in cancer, obesity, diabetes, autism, or any other diseases as has been falsely suggested by anti-GMO activists.

On the environmental front, no conclusive evidence exists to support the idea that GMOs have caused environmental problems. While the report does find that genetically engineered crops have saved farmers money (e.g., by spending less time tilling the land, preventing crop losses, etc.) and reduced pest populations in some areas of the Midwestern U.S., it does not appear that such crops have significantly increased overall yields. Finally, the committee did note that the evolution of resistance in insects and seeds is a growing problem that warrants further attention.

Our modern high-tech and high-yield agriculture system is critical in providing food to billions while minimizing damage to natural habitats and biodiversity. Technological advances in biology, ecology, and chemistry that help to improve farming should be roundly celebrated and not unfairly vilified.


In Depth: Agriculture

In a 1787 letter to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson wrote that “[a]griculture is our wisest pursuit, because it will in the end contribute most to real wealth, good morals and happiness.” Agriculture, perhaps more so than any other vocation or enterprise, is indelibly American. Defined as the cultivation of plants, …

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