headshot of kathleen merrigan
A call to scrutinize the science behind genetic engineering

Would I feed my young children genetically modified (GM) food? Yes. I'm sure that I already have. Three fourths of all GM crops (crops in which the genetic make-up has been altered in some way) in the world are produced here in the United States, and I have heard estimates that as much as 70 percent of packaged foods now on supermarket shelves contain GM ingredients, largely due to GM corn ingredients such as sweeteners. I don't navigate the supermarket aisles seeking to avoid GM foods, although frankly, if that were my goal, the absence of any meaningful kind of labeling would render my search useless.

In the polarized debate over biotechnology, I find myself in the middle, equally dismayed by biotechnology cheerleaders who overstate its benefits and refuse to acknowledge its risks, and the doomsday activists who decry the technology and irresponsibly counsel African leaders to turn back GM food aid.

I believe four things must happen for biotechnology to fulfill its promise.

We need honest dialogue
Golden rice—rice that is genetically engineered to have beta-carotene—appears on our television screens as if it's already available and improving the diets of malnourished people suffering from vitamin A deficiency. Not true. Although the science is marvelous, and we hope that it does come to fruition, it is still under development. Yet the political debate rages over the value of golden rice long before the kinks are worked out. It is true that golden rice alone will not likely conquer vitamin A deficiency among certain people unless their diets are varied, allowing the beta-carotene from golden rice to be fully absorbed and converted to vitamin A. At Tufts, we understand the need to deal with the whole diet as well as the underlying social causes of hunger. There are no magic bullets.

We need more publicly funded science
We need the kind of research that provides regulators with the knowledge to strengthen risk assessments, not the kind that seeks to produce bullet-proof vests from goat milk (a real endeavor!). A recent report from the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology found that there are almost no available studies examining the allergencity of novel proteins potentially introduced by foods created through biotechnology. Genetically modified livestock, pharmaceutical plants and insects are on the horizon, and the lack of scientific data, regulations and policies to account for them may derail some exciting new products.

We must improve our regulatory system
We have a few regulatory gaps. For example, GM fish are not clearly covered by any agency. Approval of GM products is not always required, although it would strengthen our system and increase public acceptance. The regulatory system is complex and not at all transparent, making it difficult for even the best-informed public interest groups to find out critical information. Finally, there is little post-market oversight of products once they are approved by regulators.

We must facilitate consumer choice
I'm not an advocate of mandatory labels for food containing GM ingredients. But I do see a role for government in establishing clear labeling standards and testing regimens so that "GM-free" label claims are reliable. Policymakers also must devise fair ways to protect organic farmers, seed propagators and others who must produce GM-free crops but worry that the GM crop traits will drift from neighboring farms and contaminate their crops—a sad reality for many organic corn farmers today.

The value of technology depends on society's wise use of it. Biotechnology offers us such hope—golden rice, cancer-curing tomatoes, plants that withstand drought—I'm optimistic about the future. In the meantime, I'll continue to scrutinize the science.

Kathleen Merrigan is the director of the Agriculture, Food and Environment Program at the Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy.