HealthLawProf Blog

Editor: Katharine Van Tassel
Case Western Reserve University School of Law

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Guest Blogger Associate Dean and Associate Professor Joanna K. Sax: What are GM Foods?

SaxI read a lot of press and listen to the politics surrounding genetically modified (GM) foods; but it appears that there is a lack of understanding that almost all of our food supply is integrated with GM crops. I imagine that many readers of this blog already know this, so this may simply be background for some of you.

The focus of the debate appears to be on GM foods that contain some sort of exogenous genetic modification that allows them to be pest or insect resistant, either through DNA or RNAi. That is, a specific DNA or RNAi sequence is inserted into the seed that is known to interfere with a biochemical reaction that allows, for example, the crop to be resistant to a specific type of pest.

But, the reality is that almost all of our crops are genetically modified, if not through the insertion of exogenous DNA or RNAi, then through various husbandry techniques. For example, seeds may be hit with UV radiation, which causes double stranded DNA breaks and subsequent mutations. These seeds are then selected for desired traits, such as pest resistance or other hardy characteristics. So, then through husbandry techniques, the seeds are grown into crops with mutations to the endogenous DNA. For these crops, we know that they demonstrate some sort of feature that is desirable to the farmer (or consumer), but we have little idea about what other mutations they may carry.

For some reason, folks appeared to be much more concerned about the GM crops with exogenous DNA, but not GM crops with mutations to endogenous DNA. Or, at least, the labeling debate appears focused on the crops with exogenous DNA or RNAi. From a scientific perspective, however, that doesn’t really make sense. It’s unclear to me why a known sequence of exogenous DNA or RNAi can’t more easily be tested for health and safety effects than crops that may contain many unknown mutations from husbandry techniques.

In any event, the scientific research is clear that GM crops on the market – whether they have genetic changes to endogenous DNA or insertion of exogenous DNA or RNAi – are safe for consumption.

The cry about the safety of GM crops is reminiscent of the public health concerns regarding fluorinated water. It will take education to promote the scientific consensus.

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t REAL concerns about GM crops (and, now, by the way, I am lumping together both endogenous and exogenous). For example, farming techniques have serious consequences on the environment. And, if farmers are not incentivized to practice eco-friendly techniques, such as crop rotation, we may experience severe environmental and health consequences. I’ll be talking about my research on the issues that need to be considered about the future of GM foods at an upcoming conference: Emerging Issues and New Frontiers for FDA Regulation on October 20 in Washington, D.C.

-Associate Dean and Associate Professor Joanna K. Sax

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