America is currently in the midst of a non-GMO craze. Genetically modified organisms—known as GMOs—attracted little public attention when they were first introduced into the U.S. commercial food supply in the mid-1990s. This changed in 2003, when a California natural food store launched a grassroots campaign to persuade natural food companies to reveal whether their products contain GMOs. This campaign led many organic food proponents to decry GMOs as impure, unnatural, and a threat to “the organic food supply.” To date, there is little to no evidence that genetically modified foods pose any significant health risks to humans. However, despite the fact that GMOs are generally recognized as safe, and despite the fact that most Americans have almost no understanding of what GMOs are, American consumers are increasingly calling for the government to require mandatory labeling of food products that contain GMOs.
But as public resistance to genetically modified crops increases, so does the world’s demand for food. According to a recent World Bank study, the world will need to produce at least 50% more food by 2050 to feed its projected population of 9 billion. But climate change and the depletion of natural resources could reduce crop yields by 25% or more. Many argue that GMOs are crucial to solving the global hunger crisis. Crops can be genetically modified to produce greater yields and contain more micronutrients, which allows farmers in developing countries to produce more nutritious food while using less resources.
Despite the many advantages of genetically modified crops, the U.S. government’s extensive and complex regulation of GMOs deters many agribusinesses from developing new GMOs. Genetically modified foods are regulated by a combination of at least ten different statutes and numerous federal regulations and guidelines. Three federal agencies – the Food & Drug Administration (the FDA), the Environmental Protection Agency (the EPA), and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (the USDA) – have overlapping jurisdiction over the regulation of genetically modified foods. The FDA has determined that most foods containing GMOs are “substantially equivalent” to non-modified foods and are therefore “generally recognized as safe.” But despite this determination, developers of genetically modified food products are still required to consult with the FDA and obtain approval from the USDA (through either a notification or permitting process) before making their products commercially available. In some instances, developers are also required to perform a detailed inquiry into their product’s environmental impact and to register their product with the EPA. The regulatory review process can cost developers up to $35 million and take over 5 years. In addition to deterring companies from developing new genetically modified foods, the extensive federal regulation of such foods likely contributes to the American public’s mistaken belief that GMOs are unsafe for human consumption.
Some researchers have found ways to bypass federal regulation. The latest gene-editing technology, dubbed CRISPR (short for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeat”), allows scientists to add, remove, or modify parts of a plant’s genome. Like older genetic modification technologies, CRISPR gene-editing technology can be used to make crops pest-resistant, drought-resistant, and longer-lasting. But unlike previous technologies, CRISPR has escaped USDA regulation. The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) has determined that CRISPR-edited plants are not technically “genetically modified organisms,” because they do not contain DNA from other species. The use of CRISPR technology therefore does not trigger USDA oversight. This determination is a boon for agribusinesses, because they can develop new crops using CRISPR technology without submitting to time-consuming and expensive USDA regulatory review. However, it remains to be seen whether the American public will accept CRISPR-edited foods or mentally lump them with now-suspect GMO products.