July 17, 2000 - Genetically Modified Organisms

In recent months public understanding of biotechnology has been challenged by controversy concerning genetically modified organisms. The public has been confronted with charges and counter charges regarding the risks and benefits associated with using biotechnology to produce quality food in quantity. Since biotechnology enables well characterized genes to be transferred from one organism to another with greater precision and predictability than is possible using traditional breeding procedures, the American Society for Microbiology (ASM) is sufficiently convinced to assure the public that plant varieties and products created with biotechnology have the potential of improved nutrition, better taste and longer shelf-life.

Nothing in life is totally free of risk. However, to minimize risk it is important to rely on fact rather than on fear, and the ASM is not aware of any acceptable evidence that food produced with biotechnology and subject to FDA oversight constitutes high risk or is unsafe. Rather, plant varieties created with biotechnology are grown more efficiently and economically than traditional crops. This eventually should result in a more nutritious product at less cost to the consumer as well as to reduced pesticide use and greater environmental protection. Those who resist the advance of biotechnology must address how otherwise to feed and care for the health of a rapidly growing global population forecast to increase at a rate of nearly 90 million people per year. However, a continued expression of public concern at the current level should be understood by federal agencies as reason to support more research, and to improve the quality and public accessibility of information on the regulation of products of biotechnology.

The ASM, which represents over 42,000 microbiologists worldwide, has special interest in issues and policies related to biotechnology research and development. The ASM includes scientists working in academic, governmental and industrial institutions with expertise in medical microbiology and infectious diseases, molecular biology and genetics, environmental microbiology, agricultural and industrial microbiology, including the microbiology of food. ASM members pioneered molecular genetics and were principals in the discovery and application of recombinant DNA procedures which have advanced biotechnology's prominence. Moreover, ASM members have for several decades participated in discussions concerning biotechnology before federal agencies and Congress.

The ASM methodically reviews safety issues associated with biotechnology and its applications to assure that oversight and regulation are consistent with current scientific principles and practices. The ASM has long held the position that oversight and regulation should be based on the risk associated with products of biotechnology, and not on the processes used to create or produce these products. This is necessary not only to protect public health and the environment, but also to encourage continued biotechnological research and development which is in the national interest, and in the interests of the health and welfare of people worldwide. Indeed, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is to be commended for constructing a framework for safety evaluation that is product based, and for taking the position "that the critical consideration in evaluating the safety of (bioengineered) foods should be the objective characteristics of the food product or its components rather than the fact that new development methods were used."

Although the public appears to recognize a direct personal benefit from applications of biotechnology in medicine, it remains skeptical that similar benefit will result from applications of biotechnology in agriculture and the environment. It is imperative that an understanding of the rigor of oversight of the science-based regulatory systems used by the FDA, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to manage biotechnology is shared with consumers in this country. A greater public awareness of our regulatory process is needed. Nevertheless, the ASM recognizes that for the public to feel secure, mandatory FDA assessment of the safety of genetically modified foods is warranted. Scientifically based regulatory systems to identify and monitor potential adverse effects on human health and the environment need to be established in every country to ensure and promote public confidence in biotechnical advances.

Fear of the unfamiliar has created a clamor for labeling of genetically modified products. The ASM believes that labeling on the basis of process is not scientifically warranted. Genetic modification has long been used to enhance the production of plants and animals for food. Indeed it is doubtful that there exists any agriculturally important product that can be labeled as not genetically modified by traditional breeding procedures or otherwise. Biotechnology as practiced in agriculture today is part of a continuum of ever more refined attempts to breed better plants and animals for food or show. Plant and animal genomic research are legitimate areas for public funding, and they deserve increased attention and support from federal and state funding agencies. Because of the improved precision and predictability of biotechnology, it can be anticipated that in the future food will be more, rather than less, safe.

Food labeling is justified if it identifies real risk and provides information for the safety of consumers. To label a product only because it is genetically modified would be punitive. Moreover, labeling will probably impose significant costs to farmers and others who would have to separate genetically modified from non-genetically modified products in the field, during processing and in the marketplace. This increased cost ultimately would be borne by the consumer. Since there are no simple, inexpensive procedures to differentiate genetically modified from non-genetically modified products, a requirement to label would invite deception, and be exceedingly difficult and costly to regulate.

The ASM is strongly involved in programs of science education for the public, and encourages its membership to strive collectively and individually to increase public understanding of biotechnology. It is important for the public to comprehend just what biotechnology and genetic modification entail as well as their history and various applications in agriculture, the environment and medicine. Familiarity will diminish fear, and reliable and responsible knowledge will result in informed choice.