Frequently Asked Questions about Biotech Foods, Safety and Labeling

Since the first biotech crop was commercialized in 1996, questions have been raised about why farmers are adopting biotechnology (it’s more sustainable, more environmentally friendly and less costly) whether or not biotech crops are as safe as conventional crops (they are), and why foods derived from biotech crops don’t require special labels.  

As the use of agricultural biotechnology increases globally, people need information about food production that is truthful, so they can form opinions based on facts, not fear.  Here are some common questions that some people have about foods derived from biotechnology:

1.      Is biotechnology less safe than other plant breeding techniques?

No.  Biotechnology is safe.  It is a refinement of breeding techniques that have been used to improve plants for thousands of years.  Biotechnology is simply a more precise science, so scientists are able to isolate a specific gene to make exact changes to a crop (for example, to make a corn plant resistant to the corn borer insect.)

Scientists around the world agree that the risks associated with crop plants developed using biotechnology are the same as those for similar varieties developed using traditional breeding methods.

2.      Are foods derived from biotechnology as safe to eat as foods produced using conventional crops? 

Yes.  Federal regulatory agencies ensure the safety of biotechnology foods, and biotech plants and foods are among the most tested in history. 

The ultimate scientific authorities recognized in this country, such as the National Research Council of the National Academies of Science[1], the American Dietetic Association[2], the American Medical Association[3], the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization[4] and the World Health Organization[5] have concluded that foods with biotech-derived ingredients pose no more risk to people than any other foods.  

Biotech crops have been cultivated for more than 15 years, and foods derived from agricultural biotechnology have been eaten by billions of people without a single documented health problem.  This is a remarkable food safety record, but not surprising, given the pre-market scrutiny and testing of biotech crops and foods. 

3.      Are crops developed using biotechnology safe for the environment?

Yes.  Extensive scientific evaluation worldwide has not found any examples of ecological damage from biotechnology crops. In fact, the National Research Council[6] has documented that, in addition to their safety, biotech crops contribute positively to farm sustainability in the United States, due to their environmental benefits and economic benefits to farmers. 

Current crops designed to resist pests and tolerate herbicides have already cut chemical usage on farms significantly.  Herbicide-tolerance promotes practices like no-tillage farming that reduce soil erosion, prevent water loss, and even limit release of greenhouse gases.

To ensure that a new plant is safe for the environment, extensive field-testing is conducted under USDA and EPA oversight.

4.      Are the products of agricultural biotechnology regulated?

Yes.  Biotechnology products in the United States are regulated according to the 1986 Coordinated Framework for the Regulation of Biotechnology.  Under the Coordinated Framework, agricultural biotechnology products are regulated by three agencies:

–   U.S. Department of Agriculture oversees the interstate movement and field-testing of biotechnology-derived plants “regulated articles” to ensure that the environment is protected. A petition for “nonregulated status” must be granted by the USDA prior to commercial growth and sale of any bioengineered crop.

–   The Environmental Protection Agency is responsible for ensuring that pest-resistant biotech varieties are safe to grow and consume. It regulates environmental exposure to these crops to ensure there are no adverse effects to the environment or any beneficial, non-targeted insects and other organisms.

–   The Food and Drug Administration imposes on foods developed through biotechnology the same regulatory requirements FDA uses to safeguard all foods in the marketplace. The FDA has both premarket and postmarket authority to regulate the safety and labeling of all foods and animal feed.

5.      Do foods produced using biotechnology require special labeling?

No.  The FDA’s evaluation of a biotechnology food focuses on its characteristics, not the method used to develop it. A new biotechnology food that is “substantially equivalent” (meaning it has the same chemical composition and nutritional value to conventional varieties) does not require a special label.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s regulations state that requiring the labeling of foods that are indistinguishable from foods produced through traditional methods would mislead consumers by falsely implying differences where none exist.  

According to the 2010 Consumer Survey by the International Food Information Council (IFIC), consumer satisfaction with current information on food labels remains high.  Only 18 percent of consumers supported additional info on food labels, with only three percent supporting the labeling of biotech foods[7]

6.      Do most foods contain biotech ingredients? 

 More and more farmers in the United States and around the world are turning to biotechnology so they can grow plants that yield more per acre and are resistant to diseases and insect pests while reducing production costs and contributing to more environmentally friendly farming practices. 

–   In the United States, the majority of all the corn (86 percent), soybeans (93 percent) and cotton (93 percent) are grown using biotechnology[8]

   In 2010, biotech crop area globally grew ten percent to reach 366 million acres[9].

–   In the United States, more than 165 million acres of biotech crops were planted in 2010, up from 158 million acres in 2009[10].  The primary biotech crops grown in the United States are corn, cotton, and soybeans, but also canola, squash, papaya, alfalfa, and sugarbeet. 

–   A record 15.4 million farmers in 29 countries are using agricultural biotechnology.  Ninety percent (14.4 million) of these are resource-poor farmers in developing countries[11].

7.      Do biotech foods cause allergies?  

 To date, no allergic reactions have been attributed to any food product of biotechnology.  Every crop produced through biotechnology is screened in advance for its potential to cause allergic reactions, and none have demonstrated any potential to be allergenic.

In fact, advanced techniques are being used to remove allergens from certain foods. Hypoallergenic rice and soybeans have already been developed, and researchers are at work on wheat. The removal of allergens from foods will open up a broader range of products for those with food allergies to enjoy.

8.      Do farmers use more pesticides when they grow biotech crops? 

No.  In fact, biotech crops have helped reduce pesticide spraying (1996-2008) by 352 million kg (a decrease of 8.4 percent), and as a result, decreased the environmental impact associated with herbicide and insecticide use on the area planted of biotech crops by 16.3 percent[12]

In addition, herbicide tolerant biotech crops have led to the adoption of no/reduced tillage production systems.  This has reduced soil erosion and improved soil moisture levels.

9.      Do biotech crops “contaminate” other crops? 

No.  The fact is, nature has used pollen to carry genes between plants for hundreds of millions of years. 

In recent years, some growers (usually of organic crops) have sought to distinguish their produce from conventional agricultural harvests by claiming there are no biotech derived materials present, even though the USDA organic standard allows for substantial material of biotech or conventional origin to be present in organic harvests as long as the organic grower did not knowingly plant biotech derived seed:

“As long as an organic operation has not used excluded methods and takes reasonable  steps to avoid contact with the products of excluded methods as detailed in their  approved organic system plan, the unintentional presence of the products of excluded methods will not affect the status of the organic operation.”[13]

Not one organically certified farm has lost its USDA certification due to the presence of unintended plant DNA (from either conventional or biotech varieties) since the beginning of the Federal National Organic Program.  

10.  Can agriculture biotechnology help feed a growing global population?

Yes. Agricultural biotechnology can be a key element in the fight against hunger and malnutrition in the developing world.

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, feeding a world population of 9.1 billion in 2050 will require raising overall food production by 70 percent (nearly 100 percent in developing countries)[14]. To meet this challenge, farmers will need to find ways to grow more food more sustainably.

The U.S. National Academy of Sciences, along with the Royal Society of London, the Brazilian Academy of Sciences, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the Indian National Science Academy, the Mexican Academy of Sciences and the Third World Academy of Sciences issued a report discussing the role of biotechnology in meeting global food needs. It concluded: 

“GM technology, coupled with important developments in other areas, should be used to increase the production of main food staples, improve the efficiency of production, reduce the environmental impact of agriculture, and provide access to food for small-scale farmers.”[15]

Biotechnology has already helped increase food and feed production.  For example, biotechnology traits have added 74 million tonnes and 79.7 million tonnes respectively to global production of soybeans and corn since its introduction in 1996.[16] 

In the United States alone, corn yield has increased 36 percent, soybean yield has increased
12 percent, and cotton yield has increased about 31 percent since 1995, in part due to biotechnology.[17]

High-level government officials and ag policy experts agree on agricultural biotechnology’s contribution to increasing agricultural productivity:

 We need to do a better job of working with scientists and farmers and political leaders to make sure there is a consistent message that comes from this country about the importance of biotechnology as a strategy for meeting world demand.”
– U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, February 24, 2011

 “We believe that biotechnology has a critical role to play in increasing agricultural productivity, particularly in light of climate change. We also believe it can help to improve the nutritional value of staple foods.”
– U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, October 16, 2009

“I became a scientist because one of my goals was to develop disease-resistant crops that require fewer chemical inputs than non-resistant crops – disease-resistance that didn’t need a chemical treatment.  When that solution came through biotechnology, I considered it a sustainable outcome.  Others define ‘sustainability’ as not involving biotechnology.  We disagree.” 
Dr. Roger Beachy, NIFA Director and USDA Chief Scientist, February 18, 2010

“New technologies – like biotechnology, conservation tillage, drip irrigation, integrated pest management, and new multiple-cropping practices – have improved the efficiency and productivity of agricultural resources over the last decade. Around the world some 14 million small and resource poor farmers in the developing world have already benefited from biotechnology crops.”
Jose Fernandez, Assistant Secretary, U.S. Department of State, January 21, 2011

“Biotech is going to be absolutely critical…what we haven’t done is shown people how different modern biotechnology can make farming.”
– Nina Fedoroff, Science and Technology Advisor to the Secretary of State and to the Administrator of USAID, February 12, 2010


[1] Safety of Genetically Engineered Foods: Approaches to Assessing Unintended Health Effects, National Academies Press (2004), wherein the National Research Council of the National Academies concluded that genetic engineering “…poses no unique health risks that cannot also arise from conventional breeding and other genetic alteration methods…” http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=10977

[2] J.Am.Diet Assoc. 2006; 106:285-293.

[5] FAO/WHO 2000.  Safety aspects of genetically modified foods of plant origin; http://www.who.int/foodsafety/publications/biotech/ec_june2000/en/index.html

[6] Impact of Genetically Engineered Crops on Farm Sustainability in the United States, National Academies Press (2010), wherein the National Research Council of the National Academies concluded that “…crops with traits that provide resistance to some herbicides and to specific insect pests have benefited adopting farmers by reducing crop losses to insect damage, by increasing flexibility in time management, and by facilitating the use of more environmentally friendly pesticides and tillage practices.”  http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=12804

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

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PepsiCo and Naked Juice: Confused About GM Labeling

Marc Gunther is a contributing editor at Fortune magazine, a senior writer at Greenbiz.com and a lead blogger at The Energy Collective. On his blog, The Business of Sustainability, Gunther delves into the much-debated issue of food labeling.

I’m a fan of Naked Juice. The Protein Zone and Protein Zone Mango smoothies are great ways to refresh and rebuild tired muscles after a long run.  I’m not a fan of sanctimonious b.s., though, and Naked Juice is peddling that along with its juices and smoothies.

Here’s what I’m talking about. The other day, I noticed this message on a Naked Juice bottle:  “We use only the freshest, purest stuff in the world and leave out everything else. * no added sugar * no preservatives *non-GMO**   *gluten free”

The double asterisk next to non-GMO led me to this:  “While many ingredients do not exist in bioengineering varieties, Naked Juice does not use ingredients that were produced using biotechnology as a matter of principle.”

It was the last five words that caught my attention.  “As a matter of principle.”  The phrase also is used on Naked’s website.  Not as a matter of marketing. Not because the consumers of Naked Juice just might happen to be the kinds of people who would feel good about avoiding GMOs. But as a matter of principle.

Hmm. There’s an implicit moral judgment there, no?  What, I wondered, might the principle be?  That GMOs make people sick? That they are bad for the environment?  Not likely, I thought, because PepsiCo, which owns Naked Juice, uses GMOs.  PepsiCo wouldn’t sell products that are unhealthy or bad for the environment, would it?

Certainly not, the company said in response to a shareholder resolution about GMOs in 2009. On page 66, PepsiCo says that the U.S. FDA has concluded that genetically engineered foods are “as safe for consumption as traditionally developed foods” and that “this finding is supported by significant scientific consensus.”

The company even goes on to say nice things about genetic engineering:  “We believe that genetically engineered products can play a role in generating positive economic, social and environmental contributions to societies around the world, particularly in times of food shortages.”

That’s because farmers believe that GMOs make them more productive. GMO use is growing worldwide, particularly in China and India.  Scientists I respect like Pamela Ronald tell me that GMOs have the potential to save the lives of millions of poor people, the kinds of people who cannot afford to spend $3.19 for a 15.2-ounce bottle of juice.

There’s lots to like about Naked Juice. The flavor, the nutrition, the innovative reNEWabottle that’s made from recycled bottles and is itself recyclable. Some consumers, I’m sure, like the fact that there are no GMOs inside. Put that on the label if you like. I’m all for transparency.  But please…spare me the moralizing unless you can back it up with science.

Uganda Sets Aside GM Ban to Save Banana Crops

Excerpted from The Guardian, March 9, 2011:

A typical adult in Uganda eats at least three times his or her body weight in bananas each year, more than anywhere else on Earth. Different varieties are steamed, boiled, roasted, turned into gin and beer, or simply peeled and eaten raw, such as the tiny sukali ndizi, considered by some experts to be finest banana in the world.

But in recent years a devastating bacterial disease has swept across Uganda and, to a lesser extent, neighboring countries, causing annual banana crop losses to the region of more than $500m. The rapid spread of banana Xanthomonas wilt, or BXW, which destroys the entire plant and contaminates the soil, “has endangered the livelihoods of millions of farmers who rely on banana for staple food and income”, according to an article in the journal Molecular Plant Biology last year.

On a sprawling campus outside Kampala, Wilberforce Tushemereirwe and his colleagues at the National Banana Research Program have been on a quest to defeat the disease by building a better banana. This has involved adding to the fruit a sweet pepper gene that has already improved disease resistance in several vegetables.

Laboratory tests on the genetically modified bananas have been highly promising, with six out of eight strains proving 100 percent resistant to BXW. Field tests have now started in a fenced-off, guarded plot on the edge of the campus.

Results from the trials, expected later this year, could have a strong bearing on the country’s future food security – and indeed its entire policy on agriculture. GM crops are still banned in Uganda, and the scientists had to get special permission just to conduct their tests. While acknowledging that it is a highly controversial topic, Tushemereirwe says the risk of doing nothing is too great.

If we just leave this, bananas will slowly disappear from Uganda,” he said.

Leena Tripathi, a plant biotechnologist at IITA who helped steer the project, said introducing the gene did not affect the quality of the banana and presented no health risks.

The beauty of the genetic engineering is that you can be very precise,” she said.

Other GM banana experiments are under way in Uganda, including one to fortify the fruit with iron and vitamin A.

A study by Enoch Kikulwe, a Ugandan assistant professor of international food economics at the University of Gottingen, Germany, revealed more opposition to GM crops among the elite than those in poorer villages. Most studies show that better education led to more acceptance of GM foods, he said.

But for Kamenya the farmer, the anti-GM stance was hypocritical.

Most of the people against this have choices,” he said. “Somebody who is hungry does not have a choice. GM, organic or whatever – you have to feed the people.”

The Biotech Labeling Debate

What’s in a Label?

Responding to a poorly-worded and obviously biased MSNBC Reader Survey about the labeling of foods derived from agricultural biotechnology, the Illinois Farm Bureau posted on its blog an editorial with its own ideas about how to deal with the labeling dilemma.

A rose, by any other name, smells just as sweet.  Unless it’s genetically modified, if you listen to some of the arguments out there.

Last week, MSNBC ran a story about GMO foods and included a poll at the bottom of the story.  Predictably, 95 percent of the respondents answered the question “Do you believe genetically modified foods should be labeled?” by clicking “Yes.  It’s an ethical issue – consumers should be informed so they can make a choice.”

Believe it or not, we would agree, to a certain extent. The proponents of GMO labeling believe the labels should be negative – for example: “This product contains NO GMOs.”

It’s reminiscent of the negative labeling of High Fructose Corn Syrup, which companies are using as a marketing tool, by making the implication that their competitors’ products with HFCS are inferior and/or unhealthy.

Here is what we propose:  if you’re going to use negative labeling, make sure you give consumers all the facts.  Perhaps something like:

“CONTAINS NO GMO though it’s been shown that organic foods are no safer or healthier than conventionally produced foods, and nothing has been shown to indicate that GMOs are unhealthy, we thought we’d indicate that our product is somehow superior by implying that GMOs are bad.  After all, they’re going to help feed a growing world by ensuring consistent production through drought and disease.”

Now that’s truth in labeling.

World’s Farmers Favor Biotech Crops

Because of its contribution to agricultural productivity and sustainable farming, growers around the world continue to choose biotech crop varieties according to a report released today by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA). 

The ISAAA report, Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops: 2010, says a record 15.4 million farmers in 29 countries are growing biotech crops on 366 million acres.  

According to the report’s executive summary,

a record 87-fold increase in hectarage between 1996 and 2010 makes biotech crops the fastest adopted crop technology in the history of modern agriculture.” 

Sharon Bomer Lauritsen, Executive Vice President, Food and Agriculture for the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), issued the following statement in response to the report’s findings:  

“The 2010 ISAAA report proves once again that the global adoption of biotech crops – especially corn, soybeans and cotton – is on the rise as more and more farmers gain access to this beneficial technology.  The productivity gains from biotechnology, for example, is enabling our world’s farmers to better feed a global population. 

“Agricultural biotechnology provides solutions for today’s growers in the form of plants that are more environmentally friendly while yielding more per acre, resisting diseases and insect pests and reducing farmers’ production costs. 

“When you look at the rising number of acres of biotech crops planted each year (366 million in 2010 compared with 330 million in 2009), and the increasing number of farmers who have chosen this technology (15.4 million in 2010 compared with 14 million in 2009), it’s obvious that biotech crops are delivering value to more and more growers around the world. 

“Ninety percent (14.4 million) of these are resource-poor farmers in developing countries.  In fact, developing countries grew 48 percent of global biotech crops in 2010.  Because of agricultural biotechnology’s contribution to combating food insecurity and problems associated with poor nutrition, it is predicted that developing countries will exceed industrialized nations in their plantings of biotech crops by 2015. 

“In the United States more than 165 million acres of biotech crops were planted in 2010, and the United States remains the top country in terms of biotech acreage.  The primary biotech crops grown in the United States are corn, cotton and soybeans, but also canola, squash, papaya, alfalfa, and sugar beet. 

“The benefits provided by agricultural biotechnology allow growers to produce more food, feed and fiber on less land, often with significant environmental benefits.  Biotechnology can help crops thrive in drought-prone areas, can improve the nutrition content of foods, can grow alternative energy sources and can improve the lives of farmers and rural communities around the globe.  

“In order to fully realize these promises for a better tomorrow, we need tocontinue to embrace scientific innovation.”  

* The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA) report, Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops: 2010and accompanying materials are posted at www.isaaa.org.

Don’t Panic Over Biotech Alfalfa

The Atlantic published a piece authored by James McWilliams, Associate Professor of history at Texas State University and author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly.

The USDA’s recent decision to (re)deregulate genetically modified (GM) alfalfa has sent a shock wave of panic through the organic foods industry because organic farmers (who produce between .5 and 1 percent of the nation’s alfalfa) believe their product could be contaminated by gene flow from GM seed.

Dr. Dan Putnam, a forage expert at UC-Davis, explores rates of contamination based on alfalfa crop distance, types of pollinators, and adjacent systems of production (i.e., seed-to-seed, hay-to-seed, and hay-to-hay). In a 2008 study evaluating the chances of a Roundup Ready alfalfa seed crop contaminating a non-Roundup Ready hay crop (the seed-to-hay scenario), Putnam found that when the crops are a modest 160 feet apart the rate of successful gene flow from GM seed crop to non-GM hay crop was a mere 0.25 percent. (Hay-to hay, rather than seed-to-hay, is the most common situation – but the chances of contamination in that scenario appear to be even lower.)

Even if one-fourth of 1 percent seems too much, Putnam notes that the figure is an overstatement. In his study he purposefully allowed the non-GM hay crop to go to seed – something that must happen in order for pollinators (bees or leafcutters) to cross-pollinate from the GM seed crop. In the real agricultural world, however, a farmer growing alfalfa hay would almost never allow this to happen, thereby radically reducing the chance of contamination. Writing in The Progressive Farmer, agriculture reporter Chris Clayton notes, “Hay is often cut multiple times each year before flowering occurs.” So the GM seed pollen, should it wander into a neighboring field, would have nothing to grab onto.

There’s more. Let’s say that the non-GM hay did flower and produce seeds. Two more unlikely events would also have to happen in order for successful contamination to occur. 1) There would have to be simultaneous flowering between seed crop and hay crop in order for cross pollination between GM and non-GM to happen. And 2) If that rare coincidence took place, the seeds in the hay field contaminated with GM pollen would have to fall and germinate on-site rather than being carried afield by a puff of wind.

Purists will argue that a “low level of risk is not enough.” But seeking a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to contamination denies the reality of floral life. Pollen moves.

With a contamination possibility that’s less than 1 percent, we are not looking at a scenario in which GM alfalfa is going to overtake its organic counterpart.  I think it’s perfectly reasonable for organic alfalfa farmers to accept the extremely low chance of GM contamination as the cost of doing business in the modern world.

AAAS Meeting to Feature Session on GM Crop Regulations

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) will hold its annual meeting in Washington, D.C. this week, February 17-21, hosting nearly 8,000 attendees for symposia, lectures, seminars, workshops, and poster sessions that cover every area of science, technology, and education.

A symposium titled GM Crop Regulations: Safety Net or Insurmountable Obstacle?will be presented on Friday, February 18.

This session will address the two prime reasons why fresh market and specialty GM foodstuffs are not on grocers’ shelves:

First, the regulatory system in place is not sufficiently science-based and is too costly to be justified for small-market crops. Two speakers will discuss success in bringing safe and highly productive transgenic crops to farmers, whereas others will highlight research presently under way to provide fruits, vegetables, and other foods that benefit consumers by being more environmentally friendly, healthier, and more enjoyable to eat.

Finally, the obstacles to commercialization of such foods under the present array of complex and costly regulatory hurdles at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will be presented, along with suggestions for using scientific principles to streamline current regulatory systems while providing ample assurances to consumers regarding the safety of new GM foods.

Scheduled speakers include:

  • Nina Fedoroff, Pennsylvania State University
    Why We Need to Craft Science-Based Regulations for GM Crops and Animals in the United States
  • Roger Beachy, U.S. Department of Agriculture
    The Success and Safety of Transgenic Crops and Foods
  • Drew L. Kershen, University of Oklahoma
    The Present Regulatory Systems, Their Complexity, and Costs
  • Hector Quemada, The Donald Danforth Plant Science Center
    Challenges in the Development of Transgenic Crops by the Public Sector
  • Alan McHughen, University of California
    Whither “Orphan” GM Specialty and Small Market Crops?
  • Elizabeth A. Grabau, Virginia Tech, Department of Plant Pathology, Physiology and Weed Science;
  • Ralph Scorza, USDA-ARS-AFRS
    A view from the trenches: Challenges in bringing GM crops to the market place