Although we have been ingesting them for the last two decades, foods that are Genetically Modified Organisms, (or GMOs…also referred to as GE, for genetically engineered) are currently the subject of intense scrutiny.
GMOs were introduced 20 years ago as a possible solution to world hunger, by modifying wheat, for example, to withstand drought. The process consists of scientists removing a gene from one food organism and transferring that gene to a different organism. In most cases, this engineered gene produces a new protein that provides a trait such as resistance to pests and viruses.
By 2011, more than 170 million acres of genetically modified crops were grown in the United States. This accounts for almost 90 percent of all field corn, soybeans, sugar beets and cotton, used for everything from canola oil to high fructose corn syrup. Although it appears as if eating foods with GMOs is inescapable, experts at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) contend that the process of producing the oil, sugar and corn syrup from the crops eliminates virtually all of the genetically engineered gene and its protein product, exposing us to very little engineered product.
However, questions around the safety of food made from GM crops continue to grow. At last count, 26 states have bills pending to require GMO labeling of food. While the FDA regulates GMOs, it is a voluntary notification process, and even CSPI admits that “FDA oversight is not as rigorous or independent as it should be, and the FDA often does not get all the data it needs to perform a fully informed safety review.” Further, Dr. Thierry Vrain, former research scientist for Agriculture Canada says scientific studies proving their safety have been done for companies with a vested interest in the products. He also contends that in the 1990s, the FDA warned of indirect effects from eating GM crops, such as toxins, allergens, and nutritional deficiencies.
Like many consumers, you may be concerned. A recent New York Times poll showed 93 percent of respondents favor GMO identification of foods; 61 countries already label. Respected voices for sustainable foods have also voiced concern. Whole Foods will require suppliers to identify products containing GMOs within five years, and last summer, Chipotle became the first restaurant company to voluntarily label GMOs on their menu, and committed to eliminating them completely.
The only certainty is the uncertainty. In the meantime, if you want to avoid GMO foods, buy certified organic products. Federal standards ensure that products from organic crops will contain either no or only inadvertent trace amounts of genetically engineered ingredients.