Ever since genetically modified foods entered the market in 1996, controversy has surrounded them. Genetically modified foods, also called GMOs (genetically modified organism) or genetically engineered foods, are products whose DNA has been altered in a way that would not occur naturally. This is done in order to produce a crop with bigger yields, insect resistance, virus protection, and herbicide tolerance, thus hopefully translating into bigger profits for producers and lower prices for consumers.
Genetically modified foods are a staple in most Americans’ diets whether they know it or not. Genetically modified crops include corn, soybeans, canola, cottonseed, sugar beets, squash, papaya, and a bevy of other foods. Most GM products are made with corn and soybeans, in one of their many forms, and cottonseed and canola oil. Many processed foods contain one or more of these four ingredients. Additionally, many products are manufactured with the help of animals given genetically modified food or growth hormones. This includes dairy products produced by cows given the rBGH hormone as well as egg-producing chickens given GM grains.
So how many food products are on the market containing GM foods? An estimated 85% of corn, 91% of soybeans, 85% of cotton (to produce cottonseed oil), and 95% of sugar beets (to make sucrose) produced in the United States currently are GM. Altogether, up to 70% or more of processed foods in supermarkets contain ingredients that have been genetically engineered. One commonly misunderstood fact about genetic engineering is that very few fresh fruits and vegetables sold in supermarkets today are GM. Most GM foods Americans eat come from processed foods, from crackers and soda to salad dressing.
Opponents have two main criticisms of GM foods:
1) Damage to the environment: Toxins injected into crop species intended to ward off pests can also harm other insects, such as monarch butterflies who unknowingly come in contact with the GM crops. There are also concerns that insects may develop resistance to crops modified with a pesticide in their DNA, as some did to the now-banned DDT. Outcrossing has also been proven to occur in which a GM crop crossbreeds with a traditional crop and thereby affecting food security.
2) Effect on humans: Risks of toxicity, increased allergens, and immune-suppression have all been cited as reasons not to have GM foods in people’s diets. Unfortunately, the long-term effects of eating GM foods is not known. The few laboratory tests that have been conducted are often held up as safe by producers but criticized by food safety groups. Moreover, these tests have all been conducted on animals.
The seed-producing giant Monsanto claims on its website, “There is no need for, or value in, testing the safety of GM foods in humans.” So often, it is a matter of consumer groups accusing crop producers of adverse health affects in humans and then the crop producers denying it. They obviously have the upper hand as the foods have already been approved by the government and been on shelves for more than a decade.
DietsInReview.com’s registered dietitian Mary Hartley, RD, comments on the effects of GM food.
“At this point, GM crops have not produced any noticeable health problems, but there are no long-term epidemiological studies that might find subtle effects. The FDA thinks GM foods are safe but the fact is that no one can say for sure.”
Projects are underway for genetically modified fish and meat to be approved for sale in the United States. Salmon could be grown much bigger and faster than in the wild, with cows modified to be resistant to mad cow disease. Once again, the data on if this is safe is scarce and the unintended negative consequences may be bigger than any of us can forecast.
Maybe the biggest issue here is whether or not the consumer has the right to know what ingredients are in the products they buy. Nearly 50 other countries already require GM foods to be labeled, and a petition is underway for legislation requiring GMO labeling in the United States.