FDA regulates the safety of food for humans and animals, including foods produced from genetically engineered (GE) plants. Foods from GE plants must meet the same food safety requirements as foods derived from traditionally bred plants.
While genetic engineering is sometimes referred to as “genetic modification” producing “genetically modified organisms (GMOs),” FDA considers “genetic engineering” to be the more precise term.
Crop improvement happens all the time, and genetic engineering is just one form of it. We use the term “genetic engineering” to refer to genetic modification practices that utilize modern biotechnology. In this process, scientists make targeted changes to a plant’s genetic makeup to give the plant a new desirable trait. For example, two new apple varieties have been genetically engineered to resist browning associated with cuts and bruises by reducing levels of enzymes that can cause browning.
Humans have been modifying crops for thousands of years through selective breeding. Early farmers developed cross breeding methods to grow numerous corn varieties with a range of colors, sizes, and uses. For example, the garden strawberries that consumers buy today resulted from a cross between a strawberry species native to North America and a strawberry species native to South America.
Why genetically engineer plants?
Developers genetically engineer plants for many of the same reasons that traditional breeding is used. They may want to create plants with better flavor, higher crop yield (output), greater resistance to insect damage, and immunity to plant diseases.
Traditional breeding involves repeatedly cross-pollinating plants until the breeder identifies offspring with the desired combination of traits. The breeding process introduces a number of genes into the plant. These genes may include the gene responsible for the desired trait, as well as genes responsible for unwanted characteristics.
Genetic engineering isolates the gene for the desired trait, adds it to a single plant cell in a laboratory, and generates a new plant from that cell. By narrowing the introduction to only one desired gene from the donor organism, scientists can eliminate unwanted characteristics from the donor’s other genes.
Genetic engineering is often used in conjunction with traditional breeding to produce the genetically engineered plant varieties on the market today.
Am I eating food from genetically engineered plants?
Foods from GE plants were introduced into our food supply in the 1990s. Cotton, corn and soybeans are the most common GE crops grown in the U.S. In 2012, GE soybeans accounted for 93 percent of all soybeans planted, and GE corn accounted for 88 percent of corn planted.
The majority of GE plants are used to make ingredients that are then used in other food products. Such ingredients include:
- Corn starch in soups and sauces
- Corn syrup used as a sweetener
- Corn oil, canola oil and soybean oil in mayonnaise, salad dressings, breads, and snack foods
- Sugar from sugar beets in various foods
Other major crops with GE varieties include potatoes, squash, apples, and papayas.
Are foods from GE plants safe to eat?
Yes. Credible evidence has demonstrated that foods from the GE plant varieties marketed to date are as safe as comparable, non-GE foods.
Are Foods from GE plants regulated?
Yes. FDA regulates foods from GE crops in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
FDA enforces the U.S. food safety laws that prohibit unsafe food. GE plants must meet the same legal requirements that apply to all food. To help ensure that firms are meeting their obligation to market only safe and lawful foods, FDA encourages developers of GE plants to consult with the agency before marketing their products. For more information about the Plant Biotechnology Consultation Program, see How FDA regulates food from GE plants.
The mission of USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service APHIS is to safeguard the health, welfare and value of American agriculture and natural resources, including regulating the introduction of certain genetically engineered organisms that may pose a risk to plant health. To learn more about APHIS regulation of genetically engineered organisms, visit their website.
EPA regulates pesticides, including those genetically engineered into food crops, to make sure that pesticides are safe for human and animal consumption and won’t harm the environment. For additional information, see the EPA’s Regulating Biopesticides web page.
How Does FDA Evaluate the Safety of GE Plants?
During the FDA consultation process, the food developer conducts a safety assessment. This safety assessment identifies the distinguishing attributes of the new traits in the plant and assesses whether any new material in food made from the GE plant is safe when eaten by humans or animals. As part of this assessment, the developer compares the levels of nutrients and other components in the food to those in food from traditionally bred plants or other comparable foods.
The developer submits a summary of its safety assessment to FDA for FDA’s evaluation. When the safety assessment is received by FDA, our scientists carefully evaluate the data and information. FDA considers the consultation to be complete only when its team of scientists is satisfied that the developer’s safety assessment has adequately addressed all safety and other regulatory issues. To learn more about the consultation process, see How FDA regulates food from GE plants.