Science backs the safety of genetically modified foods

04/19/2014 6:44 PM

04/19/2014 6:44 PM

A high school friend recently contacted me, concerned that genetically modified food isn’t safe for her family, and wondered whether the premium she was paying for organic food was worth the cost.

I answered her as best I could, assuring her that genetic engineering is just one more tool to improve plants. Farmers and scientists have been changing plants to benefit humans for 10,000 years, and genetic engineering, while more precise and predictable than other techniques, is just the latest advancement in mankind's struggle to improve diets. I haven’t heard back, but I’m fairly confident that she’s still avoiding genetically modified food because to ask the question is to signal a refusal to be convinced by the facts.

An Internet search would show thousands of breathless posts damning genetically modified food for all kinds of ills, but the search would fail to find actual scientific proof that the tens of billions of servings of genetically modified food consumed over the past two decades has caused so much as a tummy ache. An Italian scientific journal recently listed more than 1,700 studies done in the last decade on genetically modified food, concluding that the technology is safe.

Look at it this way: the National Academy of Sciences, the American Medical Association, and the World Health Organization all vouch for the safety. But Dr. Oz still has his doubts. To paraphrase Ring Lardner, the race may not go to the most widely respected scientific and medical organizations in the world, but that’s the way to bet.

It’s a common trope that big corporate agriculture opposes research, and we have to wait for more study before we move forward. The first is simply untrue — buy some seed from any seed dealer, and conduct any study you’d like.

If you find some harm from this technology, you won’t find your work ignored or buried. Instead, you’ll be a lock for the Nobel Prize. Secondly, to wait until everything is known and we can be absolutely sure of any technology’s safety is to preclude progress.

I’m pretty sure my friend can afford to buy whatever food she thinks is best, and it’s a testament to a successful food system that she has choices. Her personal decisions aren’t important to the rest of us, but people are suffering and dying today because of unfounded fears about genetic modification.

Fourteen years ago, Time magazine headlined a story about golden rice, a genetically modified seed that could, according to the story, save a million lives a year and help solve the leading cause of childhood blindness. The technology has been on the shelf since the turn of the century because of opposition from anti-genetically modified organism groups.

On my farm, genetically modified seeds have cut my use of insecticides and herbicides, saved fuel, saved labor and drastically reduced soil erosion. Those successes have been repeated all across the Corn Belt.

We can all be thankful we live in a free society, a place where any view can get a hearing.

The back and forth that goes along with change is how we discover the truth. But participants in any debate have to be held responsible for their positions.

Like actresses who convince young mothers to avoid safe and life-saving vaccinations, the opponents of genetic modification have a lot of explaining to do.

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