Genetically modified crops have become so ubiquitous, many consumers don’t give them a second thought. But recent developments have put the technology on the front burner.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has issued a decree to phase out the use and importation of GMO corn and other products by 2024. That has triggered a backlash among U.S. trade representatives who believe such a stance may be in violation
of the United States-Mexico- Canada Agreement, the trilateral pact signed during the Trump administration.
“It’s our position that it flies in the face of USMCA,” said
Nathan Fields, vice president of production and sustainability with the National Corn Growers Association. “We’re pretty vocal about asking the administration to support that position. That is a violation.”
Genetic plant development has revolutionized agriculture, especially in the Midwest, where the production of plants resistant to insects, diseases and herbicides is commonplace. And despite the lack of evidence of harmful effects from consumption of foods containing genetically modified organisms, there is still some opposition.
The Non-GMO Project, a nonprofit organization that advocates identification of products containing genetically modified components, opposes the practice despite lack of evidence of negative effects.
The organization’s official position is that, “In the absence of credible, independent, long-term feeding studies, the safety of GMOs is uncertain.” The association did not respond to requests by IFT for an interview.
Fields said that “well over” 90% of corn grown in the United States is genetically modified, with most hybrids including Bt types and those resistant to glyphosate and other herbicides. More than 80% of soybeans are also GMO varieties, also commonly having glyphosate resistance.
He said the general public has become used to genetically modified foods, including meat from livestock fed GMO grains. He doesn’t believe that consumers who eschew non-GMO products are necessarily opposed to the science involved, but instead are seeking more natural food choices.
“There seems to be more comfort with some of these technologies used in food production,” he said. “There is still a contingency of folks who want to have a connection on the supply side and production of food. It’s not necessarily centered on GMO, but what the supply chain looks like, whether it’s organic, free-range or other things.”
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Indeed, GMO acceptance may be expanding. Norfolk Plant Sciences recently received approval by USDA to market a new tomato variety modified to alter its color and enhance its nutritional quality. The purple tomato has been engineered for enhanced anthocyanins, and has been modified with genes from the snapdragon flower.
While USDA has no objections to marketing of the product, the company is awaiting official confirmation from the federal Food and Drug Administration.
“We are still engaged with FDA on their pre-market consultation, and we anticipate completion in 2023,” said Nathan Pumplin, chief executive officer of Norfolk Healthy Produce, an arm of Norfolk Plant Sciences based in Davis, Calif.
“Our purple tomatoes make the same nutrients and pigments as conventional purple-skinned tomatoes on the market, but they accumulate these antioxidants throughout the fruit rather than just in the skin.”
Pumplin said acceptance of genetically modified food products is growing. He referred to products such as golden rice, a variety with enhanced levels of Vitamin A, which has been credited with reducing blindness among children in Third World Countries. Other examples include the arctic apple, which resists browning through bruising, the pinkglow pineapple with increased lycopene and the virus-resistant rainbow papaya.
“Consumer acceptance of GMOs appears to be increasing,” he said.
“We see a number of factors increasing acceptance, including the availability of consumer- benefit-focused products.”
Fields believes the recent controversy with Mexico may not have as much to do with genetic engineering than other issues, including the country’s connection to teosinte, the native grass from which maize, or today’s corn, was developed.
“Mexico has always been a bit cautious when it comes to corn cultivation and GMOs,” he said. “That’s based in fact that they have a cultural tie to the crop itself. But the announcement was a bit of a surprise to us.”
He added that the controversy has abated in part because of the public’s realization that the technology was here to stay, and that alternatives remain.
“The GMO debate that occurred was quite active in the early 2000s and even in the teens, but the conversation has subsided quite a bit with the general public,” Fields said. “They have found a robust alternative supply chain strategy for avoiding those foods. In general, the consumer is focusing on food availability and supply chain disruptions.”
He believes much of the opposition by the European Union and in Asian nations is more a negotiating tool in trade talks than concern about the science involved.
“They’ll accept GMO crops, especially when there’s a need,” Fields said. “There have been times when certain governments have used GMO or unapproved GMO traits as means to create trade disruptions. We saw that with China in the mid-2000s. Right now, China is in a strong importation cycle. We haven’t seen GMOs used when there’s strong demand.”