In August 2016 President Barack Obama signed into law a bill requiring manufacturers to label genetically modified ingredients in packaged foods. The discussion around GM (genetically modified) foods or GMOs (genetically modified organism) has long seen both sides passionately debating the “Is it safe?” question.
Many health and nutrition experts believe that the key to settling the debate is to disseminate science-based information to the consumer, so that we can make informed decisions regarding food choices. Most importantly, there has to be a willingness to engage in dialog and learn more about GM foods.
I reached out to Connie Diekman, M.Ed, RD, LD, FADA, a Nutrition Communications Consultant and Director of University Nutrition at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. She is also the former president of the American Dietetic Association (ADA), now the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
I asked Connie how prevalent GM foods are and she highlighted the nine crops that are currently GM here in the U.S.: Afalfa, canola, cotton, potato, papaya, soy, summer squash, maize and rapeseed. Of course, any number of today's processed foods have long contained genetically modified ingredients, like soy. Connie pointed out that genetic modifications have allowed the survival of papaya by helping it to resist major insect devastation. In fact, GM technology has allowed crops and plants to resist pesticides, reducing the need for pesticide-control chemicals. That can result in a smaller environmental impact and, frankly, a decreased exposure to farmers.
Some consumers, meanwhile, who feel strongly about GMOs might get all of their information on the topic from one very vocal celebrity, or perhaps they've been told by close friends or family members that GM foods are dangerous. Rarely is the discussion around the issue based in science.
I asked Connie where we’ve gone wrong with the dialog on GM foods and she suggested that, in terms of communicating with consumers, "[we] need a partnership with experts and journalists so that consumers can access better science-based information.”
She also stated unequivocally that “GM foods are safe. There is no difference in nutrition between a GM food and a non-GM food.”
In the spring of 2016 the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine released a review of 900 studies on genetically engineered foods that found “no evidence of human health effects from the embrace of genetically-modified crops.”
Still, NASEM experts agreed that some issues needed further evaluation, e.g.:
- Whether the herbicide glyphosate, often sold with genetically modified seeds, might cause cancer;
- How genetically engineered (GE) fields might be impacting weed growth, pest growth and crop yields.
Some other GM facts:
- The National Academies are private, nonprofit organizations set up by Congress. The purpose of the group is to provide advice on science, technology and medicine.
- The report that they issued on GM foods also highlighted environmental and economic benefits from genetic engineering to American agriculture.
- Currently there are more than 85 genetically modified products in the pipeline, including water-efficient maize for Africa awaiting FDA approval.
- On July 1, 2016, the state of Vermont began imposing stiff fines on food companies that do not disclose GM ingredients on labels.
- Jackson, Oregon, is currently the only region in the U.S. where famers have been banned from growing GM crops.
The National Academies also agreed that, when it comes to food labeling, transparency is a positive step. More information helps consumers make informed decisions. But the tendency of some anti-GMO advocates to sow fear rather than furthering science-based discussion is extremely troubling to registered dieticians like Connie. She is now asking consumers to "trust the experts, and when it comes to food and nutrition, registered dieticians are experts. If you want more detailed information regarding farming practices, talk to the farmers. We dieticians and food experts need to make the information more exciting and comprehensive so it appeals and rings true to consumers. As a registered dietician, mom and grandmother of two, I too am concerned about food safety, but I feel very comfortable feeding my family GM foods. They are safe. “Consumers need to recognize that there are a lot of food myths percolating. Registered dieticians like Connie Diekman can help navigate the conversation so consumers get to the truth.
Where and from whom should consumers get the latest nutrition information? Connie noted that there’s there's a website, GMOanswers.com, where people can post a question and get an answer from a dietician. All experts on the site volunteer their time. With a large body of volunteer experts, consumers will be able to get a diversity of answers on a particular topic.
You can also check out eatright.org if you would like to find a dietician in your neighborhood for one-on-one counseling and support. If GM foods worry you, then the best thing you can do, according to Connie, is to “be willing to ask questions, be open to discussion, and source your information from experts who are trained to have these conversations.”