Thursday, February 18, 2016

GMOs, food safety, and what we need to be concerned about

Weber and Ginny Stibolt probably discussing food or farming
at Thanksgiving in 2015. (Much of the feast was vegan!)
By Weber Stibolt
Food Science and chemistry major at University of Delaware

For seasoned veterans of this blog, you will remember my guest posts from back when I worked on a farm in 2014 in southern Delaware helping with food safety. Down on the Farm and Harvesting Corn. In brief, I helped this farm through an advanced USDA produce audit for the first time. It was the first time that I had done something like that, so it certainly was a learning experience for us both. Since that internship, I have continued my studies in food science and will be graduating from the University of Delaware in May.

Recognition of work

Recently, I was awarded a scholarship from the Food Marketing Institute Foundation for my work in the past with food safety and for aspiring to go into this field when I graduate. As an extra bonus to the scholarship, I was able to get to go to the annual Safe Quality Food Institute Conference in Indianapolis. While I was there, I learned so much about the hidden world of food safety and met many people who specialize in this type of work.
What has prompted this post in particular was a comment that I made on Facebook regarding the Chipotle outbreak following my attendance at this conference:

Crazy idea. How about instead of pushing for GMO labeling - which is inherently pointless considering that GMOs are ubiquitous - we instead push for labeling of food safety certifications of manufacturers. Something like "SQF Level 3 Certified" or "USDA GAP & GHP Certified Produce" would be much more beneficial to consumers than GMO labeling.

Chipotle has had many outbreaks - 2009 outbreak of E. coli. O157:H7 in Colorado, 2015 Salmonella outbreak in Minnesota, a 2015 norovirus outbreak in California, and now this O26 outbreak across Seattle and Portland. So think about that.

People are listening to peers rather than trying to understand the science

When it comes to talking about GMOs and food safety, I could honestly talk for hours. What bothers me the most about the complex nature of America’s food supply and the public that consumes it is that people will turn to peers rather than understand the science behind what is truly happening. This results in a public that is largely misinformed about GMOs and an unnecessary fear around food.

But let’s break it down. To start, there is no real definition for a genetically modified organism. We have been genetically modifying crops since the agriculture revolution began some 10,000 years ago. Choosing the best two plants for their desirable traits for next year’s crop is genetic modification. The crops from that time are, of course, going to look much different than their modern counterparts today. Take peaches, for an example...

The peach in its native state is not delicious.
In addition, paintings of watermelons from hundreds of years ago look nothing like what we know as watermelons today.

Detail of Giovanni Stanchi’s “Watermelons, peaches, pears and other fruit in a landscape” (1645–72), oil on canvas

So let’s bring it up to speed on the modern-day GMO crops. They essentially take the same process that previously has taken many, many, many generations and replicating it in a laboratory setting. This modern-day species are called “transgenic organisms.” It’s a very scary name, but in reality isn’t so scary. Gene insertion is a better name, in my opinion, for what GMOs are; scientists are adding a trait from a different organism into the DNA of an original crop to make it more tolerant of environmental pressures. <

What makes GMOs so exciting is that it makes seed that is more reliable for farmers. This means a more reliable income and less worry about environmental pressures like drought and weeds. One of the more exciting applications of GMOs for me personally is golden rice – rice that is fortified with Vitamin A for at risk youth in poorer countries. The possibilities on what we can create with GMOs are endless – it’s just a matter of finding the right organisms with the traits we want like drought tolerance, and herbicide resistance.

As promising as this technology is, it does pose some risks. Surprisingly, the risk is NOT to your health. Rather, it’s the overuse of them. Roundup-Ready corn is a great example of this issue–if it is planted on the same field, and the wrong amounts of pesticide are used, then new variants of weeds will pop up creating an even bigger issue than the farmer already has. Over time, this will create a cycle of using more and more potent chemicals which are extremely damaging to the environment.

More information on this issue can be found on this fantastic write-up of GMOs

As a soon-to-be food scientist, I am really excited about the notion that people are becoming more engaged with the food they eat.  However, the people campaigning against GMOs are doing it for all the wrong reasons. GMOs are safe to eat, and if used properly are safe for the environment – they don’t go through years and years of testing for nothing! If people are truly concerned about what they eat, we should be focusing more about the science of what is happening behind-the-scenes.

Or better yet–let’s talk more about food safety (looking at you Chipotle!).

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Thanks Weber for the view from academia. Quite enlightening.

Green Gardening Matters,
Ginny Stibolt


  1. Very interesting piece. I'm more concerned about the affect GMO crops have on insects, such as pollinators, than on humans.

  2. What about the amount of Round-up that is applied to the crops. If they're safe, why are many countries banning them?

  3. Susan, I totally agree with you on the amount of Round-up used on Round-up ready crops. It's not an easy topic. There is no one "correct" answer to everything.