If you were fed infant formula as a baby, or have eaten fast food, breakfast cereal, margarine, frozen yogurt or artificial sweetener, chances are that you've consumed genetically modified organisms (GMOs.) GMOs are ubiquitous in the food supply -- present in 75 to 80 percent of processed foods in the U.S., according to the Grocery Manufacturer's Association.
Most recently, GMOs received national attention after the defeat of California's Proposition 37 (California's Right to Know Genetically Engineered Foods Act), which would have required labeling for all foods containing GMO ingredients. As it remains, GMOs are not required to be listed on food labels in the U.S. and Canada, yet many consumers, health advocates and environmentalists have raised concerns over their use in the food supply.
What are GMOs?
A GMO is an organism that has been genetically altered using a laboratory process, also referred to as biotechnology or genetic engineering (GE), in which genes from the DNA of one species are extracted and artificially placed into the genes of another organism to produce a desired trait in the plant. Genes may come from other plants, bacteria, viruses, insects, animals or even humans.
Which foods contain GMOs?
First introduced in the mid-1990s, the primary sources of GMO foods are in industrial crops, including soybeans, corn/maize, rapeseed (canola oil), cotton, and sugar beets. Predominantly, these crops are transformed into food ingredients used in processed foods (see "Common GMO Ingredients in Foods"). Additionally, due to the low cost of production, many of these crops are also used as animal feed for agricultural animals in feed lots raised for meat. The produce department is the only other location in the supermarket where you may find GMOs today -- for example, in Hawaiian-grown papaya and some varieties of zucchini and summer squash.
What are the benefits of GMOs?
Traditional cross-breeding to create desirable traits in a plant, a form of agricultural technology that has been used by farmers for centuries, is considered "natural." In fact, many of the plant foods that you find in the produce department of your local grocery store are a product of traditional plant breeding. Just consider the multitude of apples on the market today, each variety having its own desired characteristics for a multitude of use and taste preferences. However, scientists using traditional cross-breeding, could take years to create such desired characteristics in plants.
Modern agricultural advances have led scientists to develop more time-efficient techniques, including genetic engineering, which can offer greater precision in isolating specific genes for important traits that have the potential to offer benefits. Historically, agricultural biotechnology has been driven by the demand to improve agricultural efficiency, including increasing production yields by protecting plants from natural pests, reducing water and maximizing land usage.
More recently, attention has focused on improving nutritional quality, food production functionality (appearance and durability), and environmental sustainability. Some plants have been genetically modified to help them survive -- in the mid-1990s, genetic engineering saved the Hawaiian papaya from extinction. The papaya ring-spot virus had previously wiped out crops in the '60s and '70s and when traditional plant-breeding failed, researchers turned to genetic engineering and successfully saved the papaya.
What are the risks to the environment?
Many experts raise concerns about the potential effects of GMOs on the environment. Plants have been genetically engineered to have built-in herbicide resistance, so that herbicides can be applied to the GMO crops without harming them. Eventually, new, stronger weeds will evolve requiring even higher doses of herbicide application to combat them. According to a study published in Environmental Sciences Europe by Charles Benbrook, Ph.D., research professor at the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources at Washington State University, evidence indicates that GE crops have increased the use of harmful herbicides, thus creating a net overall negative impact on the environment.
GE crops may also lead to other negative environmental effects, ultimately damaging the natural balance of nature's ecosystems. Insecticide-resistant crops may also increase the use of chemical pesticides that ultimately may wipe out beneficial insects, such as bees, that play an important role in pollination. Furthermore, there is concern regarding the reduction in crop diversity as a result of the mass cultivation of single GE plant varieties, which could threaten the long-term viability of our global food supply.
Are GMOs safe?
According to Martina Newell-McGloughlin, D.Sc., director of international biotechnology at the University of California, "GMO crops are more highly regulated and tested for safety than any other crops grown in the U.S. They are regulated by three different agencies from farm to table: The United States Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration." However, the FDA's policy for regulating GMO foods does not require additional testing to prove safety, unless a GMO food is significantly different -- nutritionally or otherwise -- compared to its non-GMO food-equivalent.
A large question mark remains on the long-term consequences of GMO intake on human health -- much skepticism remains concerning their relationship to cancer risk, allergies, and digestive disorders. Recently, a highly publicized research paper, published in the September 2012 issue of Food and Chemical Toxicology, indicated an increased cancer risk in lab rats fed pesticide-tolerant GM maize. However, many experts believe the study was poorly designed and the results are not transferable to human health. The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a non-profit public health advocacy group, coordinates The Biotechnology Project, which provides on-going, detailed information on the risks and benefits of agricultural biotechnology. It reports that Americans have been consuming GE crops with no apparent ill effects for the past 16 years, and that there is no evidence that current GE foods pose any risk to humans. Additional research is needed to understand the long-term health risks of GMO foods.
How are GMOs labeled?
Outside of the U.S., much of the world, including Australia, Japan, the European Union, and nearly 30 other countries, requires GMO foods to be labeled. And many countries have imposed significant restrictions on GMOs, citing a lack of research on the long-term human health effects of consuming these foods. If you want to avoid GMOs, one option is to choose foods labeled "USDA Organic," which prohibits products from containing GE ingredients or animals fed GE crops. If you want more options to find GMO-free products, the Non-GMO Project, a non-profit organization, offers shoppers a third-party verification and labeling for non-GMO food and products. Their "Non-GMO Project Verified" seal on food labels shows that the food product has gone through their verification process.
(Environmental Nutrition is the award-winning independent newsletter written by nutrition experts dedicated to providing readers up-to-date, accurate information about health and nutrition in clear, concise English. For more information, visit http://www.environmentalnutrition.com.)