In 1994 the first genetically modified food (a tomato) joined other foods sold in supermarkets. I’ve been reading about the risks of eating so much genetically modified food over the years, but nothing to make me sit up and take notice. Until recently, there haven’t been any requirements in the U.S. for genetically modified food to be identified. Last May, Vermont became the first state to require labeling of GMO foods, which will take effect in 2016, and several other states are in the process of passing the same measures. You might be interested to learn that GMO labeling is required in 64 countries, but not the U.S.
A Rutgers survey showed that 3 out of 4 Americans would like GMO foods to be clearly labeled even though 54% admitted knowing very little about the GMO technology. At this stage GMO technology is primarily used in plants and crops. It is not yet used in animals, although the animals might be eating genetically modified feed.
What is a GMO?
Scientists take the strongest, hardiest, disease resistant plants and cross-pollinate them with similarly strong plants and the result is healthier, stronger and more productive plants like corn, wheat and soybeans. Another way of putting it is that scientists implant useful genes from one living thing into another usually to help it resist threats. For example, some GMO corn has a toxin that kills a particular invasive caterpillar. Over 70% of all corn found in U.S. grocery stores has been genetically modified in the form of herbicide-tolerant, or insect-resistant corn.
Should we be worried?
Basically, the safety of GMOs has not been proven, nor is there any conclusive evidence of harm. One debate is whether GMOs can trigger food allergies. An independent food-safety watchdog, Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) admits that there is no proof currently.
Many scientists feel that since the safety of GMO has not been proven, large-scale, long-term human research studies need to be done. Until there is better labeling, however, research is almost impossible to conduct since participants won’t really know what they are eating, so there is no way to track adverse effects.
On the other hand…
There is currently no proof that genetically modified food is harmful. John Parker, an agricultural writer, reports that up to 80% of the food from the U.S is from genetically modified ingredients and government agencies, including the FDA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the National Academy of Sciences and the World Health Organization have found no negative health effects from eating genetically modified foods. Before genetically modified seeds can be planted, the FDA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the EPA must check them out to be sure they are safe for the environment, humans and animals.
Other advantages are resistance to insect damage and the resulting decrease in the use of pesticides, disease resistance, cold tolerance and drought tolerance. If crops could be modified to contain additional nutrients, much malnutrition could be prevented. Scientists are working on developing edible vaccines in tomatoes and potatoes.
Using genetically modified seeds help farmers by producing higher crop yields, and allow the farmers to reduce their use of pesticides. It is expected that by 2050 the world’s population will have increased from the current 7 billion to over 9 billion. Without genetically modified crops with high yields, the experts are worried that there will not be enough food to go around. We are already in a food crisis with the escalating cost of food. There are food riots in developing countries and how to best help the poor and starving are questions of immediate importance.
Better safe than sorry?
It is evident that this is a thorny issue with two very strong opposing sides. One way to avoid potential GMO risks, should any be discovered, is to consume only certified organic food, since GMO modifications are not allowed in certified organic food. There is a non-profit group called the Non-GMO Project and you will find some foods with their “Verified’ seal. Whole Foods has announced that it will label GMO products. Chipotle and Ben & Jerry’s are in the process of eliminating GMOs from all of their products.
At the end of the day, I don’t favor one side or the other. While I am cautious about ingesting dangerous substances (the occasional box of Good and Plenty excepted), I understand the advantages for the world at large of GMO.