Get the facts before you join this controversial food fight.
News flash: Your food might have been hacked. Back in 1994, the first genetically modified tomato hit supermarkets, and ever since, lab-altered food has been creeping onto America’s plates. We get vegetable oils from plants tailored to produce pest-killing toxins, meat from animals raised on modified feed, and ice cream sweetened with pesticide-proof beet sugar. These days, about 70% of processed food on grocery store shelves contains at least one genetically modified ingredient.
You might or might not have realized you were so exposed to genetically modified organisms (GMOs), as the foods are known. If you haven’t, it isn’t surprising: Until recently, there were no requirements for them to be identified in the U.S. But in 2014, Vermont became the first state to require labeling of GMO foods, and other states have since passed preliminary measures.
Three out of four Americans would like GMO foods to be clearly labeled, reports a Rutgers University survey, even though 54% admit we know little or nothing about the technology. So let’s figure out the real issues surrounding these so-called “Frankenfoods,” and you can decide for yourself.
1.What is a GMO?
Any food that’s been engineered with DNA from another plant, animal, insect, or even bacterium. This can be done to food itself — e.g., corn on the cob — or to an ingredient in food, such as the corn in tortilla chips or cornstarch. Scientists implant useful genes from one living thing into another, usually with the goal of helping it resist threats. Some GMO corn, for example, contains a bacterial toxin that kills a voracious caterpillar known as the European corn borer. Ever heard of the weed spray Roundup? Scientists have created “Roundup Ready” soybeans, sugar beets, corn, cottonseed, alfalfa, and canola: The plants can tolerate high doses of the spray, allowing farmers to control weeds without killing crops.
2. Can GMO foods harm my health?
This is a contentious issue, but so far there’s no conclusive evidence of harm — though there have been few long-term studies on safety. In one high-profile case, a report claimed that GMO foods could lead to sensitivity and intolerance to gluten, but the Celiac Disease Foundation counters that there’s no scientific evidence for a link between GMOs and gluten-related disorders (gluten intolerance is a hallmark of celiac disease). Just this year, a 388-page report reviewing 900 studies published over the past 20 years found “no substantiated evidence of a difference in risks to human health between current commercially available genetically engineered (GE) crops and conventionally bred crops,” according to the National Academy of Science. In reaction to these findings, Jaclyn London, Good Housekeeping’s Nutrition Director, recommends sticking to natural foods as much as possible. She says: “Ultimately, it’s crucial to remember that GE-crops (predominantly soy and corn) in our food supply are found in synthetic form, and are ubiquitous in our food supply for that reason alone. For now, scientific evidence on the whole supports cutting back on sugary, fatty, and salty foods and increasing fruit and veggie consumption to stay healthier for the long-term.”
3. What about food allergies?
Another topic of debate concerns whether or not GMOs will trigger allergies. “There’s not a shred of proof,” says Michael F. Jacobson, Ph.D., executive director of the Washington, DC-based Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a nonprofit independent watchdog that focuses on food safety, health, and nutrition issues. The group, a frequent critic of the food industry, doesn’t see any reason to worry about current GMO foods. “The crops are tested for possible allergenicity before they’re marketed,” explains Jacobson. “The tests are not perfect, but they would identify most allergens.”
4. How do GMOs affect the environment?
There’s ongoing, intense debate over whether GMOs are harmful or helpful. One ominous sign: A recent Washington State University study found that weeds are developing resistance to Roundup, and farmers have had to up their use of weed killers by 25% per year. Meanwhile, Western corn rootworm — a major pest — is becoming resistant to some GMO corn. “With the increased use of pesticides, there’s potential for water contamination and residues on foods,” notes Rebecca Spector, West Coast director of the Center for Food Safety.”GMOs were touted as a way to reduce pesticide use, but they really haven’t.”
5. What should I do?
The most important thing: Eat at least five servings a day of any produce, however it’s been grown — higher intake is linked to lower rates of all chronic diseases. If you really wish to avoid GMOs, nix nonorganic processed food (where GMOs are used most) and, when you can, buy organic versions of papaya, corn, squash, zucchini and soybeans — crops that, grown conventionally, are often GMOS.
Existing data does not definitively show that GMO food is unhealthy or bad for the planet. Still, because GMOs have been around only since the 1990s, research must continue.