Among the many questions surrounding the genetically modified food debate: Are they safe? And, should we label them?
Those are the sorts of questions Ruth MacDonald hears a lot of. MacDonald holds a Ph.D. in human nutrition and is the professor and chair of the Iowa State University Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition. Much of her work centers on the areas of diet and cancer research, and she is often called on to discuss the safety and nutritional components of GMOs in the food system.
Her conclusion: there's no evidence that GMOs are harmful.
"There's never been any illness associated, and there's no evidence of long-term effects on human health," MacDonald says. "Consumption of foods with GMO technology are as safe as those grown without. There's no nutritional difference and no risk in genes expressed."
She says the majority of science and health societies all agree GMOs are safe, both in Europe and the U.S. "Even the Center for Science in the Public Interest has said there's no evidence of risk to human health," MacDonald adds.
Those who argue against GMOs, or in favor of a GM food label in the U.S., often point to the European Union as an example of a labeling model. But MacDonald maintains their studies concur with U.S. food safety research.
"The European Union commission has done even more extensive research on GMO safety and has always concluded they're safe. It's not a question of safety there, it's a question of politics," she adds.
Back in the U.S., agricultural communications groups like the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance have studied consumer purchasing trends and food safety concerns. Among the most prevalent consumer concern: that there's some sort of long-term "what if" regarding health effects.
MacDonald understands those concerns, and says when she talks to consumers, she breaks it down:
• What's your fear?
• What's a GMO?
• What's in it?
"I try to help them understand that all food has DNA in it," she says. "You're consuming it all the time!"
She says if a person is afraid of consuming DNA, they should be afraid of everything. But she also helps them understand how digestion works and that you don't absorb DNA into your body.
In terms of long-term health effects, MacDonald points to livestock, who've been eating GM feed crops for generations. "They're probably the most well-studied animals on the planet. Farmers know their exact feed efficiency, reproduction, everything. If we were to see something go awry, we would've seen it by now.
"There's no logical reason why you'd think there would be a long-term implication, and there's no logical reason sterility would happen from eating a GMO crop."
For MacDonald, the question of labeling comes down to the information shared and the protection it would – or wouldn't – provide.
"The cost of doing mandatory labeling for GM ingredients in food is not worth the cost," she adds. "The societal need to know is not as strong as the complications it will put into the food system."
Interested in the GMO discussion? Farm Progress Special Projects Editor Holly Spangler is exploring GMO foods, GMO labeling and the general genetically modified food debate in an exclusive series. Follow along with @HollySpangler on Twitter and using the links below: