Op-Ed

Genetic engineering can help improve food safety, human nutrition

Mullins
Mullins

Many Kentuckians want to know more about genetic engineering of crops and genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

A widely used genetic engineering trait in certain crops is tolerance to the weed-killer glyphosate. Glyphosate tolerance allows a crop to be safely treated with this herbicide.

Glyphosate-tolerant crops offer certain benefits for weed control. However, they generate controversy, including questions about the safety of glyphosate.

First, we emphasize that we have no conflicts of interest in any aspect of genetic engineering of crops. Second, we have no particular interest in defending glyphosate. We are always open to credible research that raises concerns. However, genetic engineering is much more than glyphosate tolerance.

From our perspective, the wise use of genetic engineering can help address pressing challenges of food security, food sovereignty and environmental protection.

A complete description of the potential benefits from genetic engineering would greatly exceed the space available for this column. To mention a few, research is creating crops that will improve human health and nutrition, by addressing food allergies, deficiencies of vitamins, micronutrients and natural toxins in our food.

Genetic engineering has already helped improve food safety compared to conventional crops, by lowering the risk of fungal-produced toxins in food. This trend of improved food safety and human nutrition through genetic engineering is expected to continue.

Pesticide use can be substantially reduced by engineering plants with resistance to destructive insects and diseases. Less pesticide helps protect farm workers, consumers and the environment. These benefits are observed both in developing countries and in developed countries. More such reductions in pesticide use are expected.

Other research projects hold promise for reducing the environmental impact of farming, including reduced greenhouse gas emissions and more efficient use of fertilizer and water. Genetic engineering will likely help crops adapt to our rapidly changing climate.

Several research programs have identified genetic engineering traits that may help to save Florida's orange juice industry from citrus greening, an extremely destructive disease that first appeared in Florida in 2005. Genetic engineering may help restore the American chestnut to its native range.

Technologies of genetic engineering are very important in the medical world, too. Insulin for diabetics has been produced by genetically engineered bacteria since 1982. The recent, promising Ebola vaccine is genetically engineered. Using the same cutting-edge genetic engineering techniques as agricultural scientists, medical researchers are exploring advanced new gene therapies for many important human diseases.

Engineered crops are as safe as any other crop. As noted above, certain genetic engineering traits can actually improve the safety of food. Furthermore, three federal agencies provide oversight for genetically engineered products.

Our National Academy of Sciences concluded, "Genetic engineering ...poses no health risks that cannot also arise from conventional breeding and other methods used to create new foods." Even in Europe, where many are uneasy about genetically engineered crops, the European scientific community's position seems rather similar to our own.

For example, the European Union's lead scientific body reported, "There is no validated evidence that GM crops have greater adverse impact on health and the environment than any other technology used in plant breeding."

Genetic engineering is simply a set of tools in the crop-improvement "toolbox." Plant breeders know best how to meet the particular goals of their crop-improvement program. Sometimes, traditional breeding methods are suitable. Other times, not. In those instances, more sophisticated approaches are needed.

We respect the need for continuing dialogue on genetically engineered crops, informed by diverse perspectives, including social and cultural dimensions. However, we see value in informing that dialogue with an understanding of why so many biologists worldwide appreciate genetic engineering technologies.

Americans commonly welcome technologies that can help improve quality of life and environmental stewardship. We hope Americans will continue to extend this welcome to the wise use of genetic engineering in both agriculture and in human health care.

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