We all have different attitudes when it comes to what we put in our bodies, ranging from “I don’t care what’s in it, as long as it tastes good” all the way to “I keep detailed track of my intake and know what I’m eating at all times.”
While we mostly keep track of ingredients and measurements, there may be categories many of us haven’t considered yet: genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and gene-edited crops (GECs). While GMO foods might not be anything new, GECs are a different approach to modifying our food, and will be in stores sooner than you think.
But, how exactly do the two differ?
GMO products have been on the market for decades and have included crossbreeding species, chemical enhancements, gene mutations in crops, and animals consuming modified feed. So far, studies have stated that no evidence has shown negative health effects and scientists from organizations like the American Medical Association (AMA) and World Health Organization (WHO) believe GMOs can be trusted. While scientists can’t claim that GMO products are safe, scientists can say the track record is clean and GMO products haven’t proven to be unsafe. However, there has been controversy surrounding the reliability and independence of the studies’ and scientist’s findings, so many still remain skeptical of its safety.
4 out of 10 American consumers feel that GMOs can lead to consequences in their health according to a 2016 Pew Research Center report. GMO products are heavily regulated and include extensive research, scientific trials, and regulatory review just to get approved, and it can take over 10 years for a GMO product to go from a thought in a lab to a reality on store shelves.
GEC products, however, are working their way into stores possibly as early as next year. The Washington Post reports that GEC engineering methods are “precise, fast and inexpensive.” Through GEC engineering, DNA is tweaked without bringing in foreign, and sometimes unnatural, products like GMOs do. This form of genetic modification is much like a “cut and paste” of the DNA, creating crops that resist drought, disease, and insects, as well as being able to grow bigger and last longer. Because of this new approach, companies hope it’ll be easier to get consumers onboard, but it isn’t clear at this point what the response will be.
In March, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue released a statement that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has no intention of overseeing or assigning regulations specifically to GEC’s since these crops could have been bred traditionally. This means that GEC food may potentially be sold unmarked in grocery stores, without any clear way to tell whether or not the food is gene-edited.
One food and agriculture-based company, Calyxt, has been working on 23 GECs including soybeans and wheat. The company’s mission is to help change what they call a “global epidemic of food-related health issues,” citing rising numbers in obesity, type 2 diabetes, and food allergies.
As always with technology and, in this case, biotechnology, there is concern on both sides of the issue. Consumer and environmental groups are worried the technology involved hasn’t been properly tested, while food and agricultural companies are looking for ways to increase profit, precision, and speed. Once released, only time will tell how these new methods of food modification will fare in our grocery aisles.
by Aura Altamiranda