A sweeping new study of genetically engineered crops released this week has found no evidence that they are unsafe for human consumption. They don't cause diabetes, cancer, obesity or food allergies, and are safe for livestock as well, researchers for the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine concluded.
That should offer some relief to Americans, since an estimated 70% of packaged food contains some genetically modified organisms. The findings from the venerable National Academies also should put a damper on the growing efforts to force foodmakers to slap labels on food containing GMOs. Beginning this summer, Vermont will be the first state to require labels; other states are considering similar measures.
The National Academies study is not the first to conclude that bioengineered food is not harmful, and probably won't be the last. But don't expect the debate over so-called "Frankenfood" to end. As with climate change, there will always be some people won't be persuaded by the new scientific data. Indeed, even as the researchers unveiled their conclusions Tuesday, they were under attack by critics committed to the belief that GMO food is intrinsically harmful to humans and an affront to the natural order of things. "Do you think you can be God?" one skeptic asked.
That's the primal fear that informs so much of the rhetoric: that messing with nature is sure to have dire consequences. Just look what happened when we split the atom! Yet humans have been tinkering with the genetic structure of plants — through cross-breeding and hybridization — for as long as we have been planting them, and without catastrophe. Much of the produce in the grocery store would be unrecognizable in its pre-cultivation form.
Critics are right that the genetic engineering of food crops needs continued scrutiny. Just because GMO food isn't inherently unhealthy doesn't mean it has no adverse consequences. As monoculture — huge crops of just one plant — has replaced crop diversity over the past century, it has fed an unhealthy dependence on insecticides and herbicides. Indeed, most of the crop bioengineering going on over the last two decades has been designed to develop strains that resist insects and herbicides so that growers can use more of them without hurting the crops themselves.
But overuse of herbicides such as glyphosate has led to herbicide-resistant weeds. In response, stronger herbicides are developed, as are crops that can withstand them, and then, more resistance. It's a vicious and unsustainable cycle.
There's plenty to worry about when it comes to relying on technology rather than sustainable farming methods. But it won't be a healthy debate until we separate the wheat from the chaff.