What to know about GMOs

More than 60 countries currently mandate specific labeling for genetically modified foods, Just Label It says.
Credit: Digital Vision

It’s difficult to get 91 percent of Americans to agree on anything, but one thing we do agree on is that genetically modified foods should be labeled as such.

Genetically modified foods are crops made with DNA from foreign species: think taking DNA from an eel and inserting it into salmon to make it larger (which, by the way, has been done). Proponents of genetic modification — also referred to as genetic engineering, with resulting products called GMOs (genetically modified organisms) — argue that these practices make more crops available to a wider audience, helping to reduce poverty and hunger around the world. But not everyone’s convinced they’re beneficial to society.

Genetically engineered crops have been in the U.S. since the mid-1990s, says Britt Lundgren, director of organic and sustainable agriculture at Stonyfield Farm, which is behind the Just Label It movement to create a label similar to the organic label for genetically engineered products. What started as a means of enhancing crops like corn, cotton, soy and canola in the U.S. has transitioned into the majority of that crop type being a product of genetic modification. For example, 93 percent of the soy that we grow now is genetically engineered, as is 90 percent of our corn. “We’re really heavily investing in this without letting folks know that this is a part of their diets, without giving them the opportunity to decide whether or not they want to eat these genetically engineered foods, which have never been fully tested for their health or safety for consumption,” Lundgren says.

Indeed, detractors of GMOs argue that their possible health risks are not known. “If you’re allergic to eel and you eat this [genetically modified] salmon, are you going to react?” asks Lundgren. Though the FDA argues that genetically modified products are safe to eat, others beg to differ. BT toxin, an insecticide in some GMO corn, has shown up in the bloodstreams of 93 percent of pregnant women and 80 percent of their fetuses, according to GMO-Free NY.

Opponents are also concerned about potential environmental effects of genetic modification, like cross-contamination between organic and GMO crops, the creation of pest-resistant superbugs and the prevalence of superweeds that necessitates higher-toxicity herbicides.

But some think GMOs aren’t as bad as everyone is making them out to be. The biotech industry claims that genetically engineered foods help feed the world and reduce hunger. And some scientists aren’t convinced that the process is all that radical.

“Genetic engineering is not all that different from conventional plant breeding,” says Dr. Walter De Jong, an associate professor of plant breeding and genetics at Cornell University. He says that when crops are conventionally bred, they undergo a great deal of change anyways. “There is this widespread concern that [adding] a gene by genetic engineering is really messing with nature,” he adds. “I can understand that sentiment, but in terms of the scale of what’s happened, the amount of change that we’ve introduced, it’s quite small.”

And in terms of health risks, he says that “the biotech industry is well aware” about allergen concerns, and that safety testing is done to determine potential allergen introductions. “After that,” he adds “the concerns about safety are almost for the most part not supported by mainstream science.”

Some retailers are starting to make changes so their consumers can make more informed choices. Whole Foods recently announced that by 2018 they will require labeling for all foods in their stores — so whether or not a product has been genetically modified, you’ll know. Trader Joe’s does not use GMO ingredients in its private-label products. And Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and Wegmans have all pledged to not carry the aforementioned genetically engineered salmon.

Don’t want ‘em? Sign the petition

The Just Label It petition launched in 2011 to push the FDA to identify GMOs like they already do organic products. Since its creation, more than one million Americans have signed the petition urging leaders to make a change. You can learn more about why celebs like Michael J. Fox and Chevy Chase are involved in the cause, and sign the petition for yourself, at www.justlabelit.org.

How to spot a GMO

Check the label
The organic regulations prohibit the use of GMOs, so anything with an organic label will have been produced without GMOs,” Lundgren says.

Check the number
Is your produce’s sticker a five-digit number starting with eight? It’s a GMO. Four-digit numbers mean a product was conventionally made. Five-digit numbers beginning with nine mean it’s organic.

Check the logo
Look for a little butterfly symbol on packaged foods — it’s the mark of the Non-GMO Project, a third-party verification system.


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