In a recent study by the Environmental Working Group, it's estimated that on average, Americans consume around 193 pounds of genetically modified foods each year. Although there have been no major long term scientific studies on the effects of consuming these foods, the question remains: are these foods safe?
Genetically Modified Organisms, often referred to as GMO, are organisms in which the genetic material has been changed in a way that does not occur naturally.
In agriculture, the DNA of seeds are often altered for the purpose of being able to withstand large doses of herbicides, repel pests, increase yields, and improve shelf life. Livestock are given hormones to enhance growth, including dairy cows which are injected with recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) to increase milk production. This practice is banned in several countries, but not in the United States.
According to the Center For Food Safety, a national non-profit public interest and environmental advocacy group, 75 percent of all processed foods contain genetically modified ingredients. This includes soup, crackers, sodas, sauces, and many other products that are consumed by millions on a daily basis. Among the most common genetically modified foods are corn and soybeans.
Then there are the more extreme examples of GMO. From “super pigs” pumped full of human growth genes, to fish with cattle growth genes, and tomatoes with flounder genes, what was once thought of as science fiction has now become a reality.
With that said, GMO foods are a common practice in our country and exist in almost everything we eat. Most of us never even know it.
That leads to the question, what are the possible risks?
Despite a lack of rigorous scientific study and testing, the Food and Drug Administration granted genetically modified foods GRAS status (generally regarded as safe) in the early nineties. Although the FDA and food manufactures insist that GM foods are completely harmless and actually beneficial, there have been numerous independent studies to suggest otherwise.
One of the possible health concerns which is documented in an article by Mae-Wan Ho of the Institute of Science in Society, is Horizontal gene transfer (HGT). HGT, a phenomenon in which genetic material from one organism is transferred to another organism that is not its offspring, is most common among bacteria.
According to the study, the risks of HGT include: Antibiotic resistance genes spreading to pathogenic bacteria, disease-associated genes spreading and recombining to create new viruses and bacteria that cause diseases, and transgenic DNA inserting into human cells, triggering cancer.
Another more likely health concern is associated with “Roundup Ready” crops. It's estimated that nearly 85 percent of all GM plants are modified to be herbicide tolerant. This allows the plants to tolerate very high levels of herbicides, particularly Glyphosate. The plants are then soaked in these harmful chemicals which in turn, end up on our plates.
Although other concerns exist which are documented by scientific studies such as the possible link between GM corn and tumors in rats, and the use of Glyphosate in modified crops linked to cancer and other illnesses, the fact remains that these foods are a part of our every day life and have been for over two decades. While the risks and their studies can always be debated, the truth is that we really don't know how these unnatural foods effect us. There's also no real way of telling whether or not the foods we purchase have been genetically modified.
So what can be done? One solution is GMO labeling.
According to The Huffington Post, 64 countries, including the European Union, Australia, Japan and China, require the labeling of GM foods. In the United States however, GMO labeling requirements have been non-existent. That is, until last month.
On May 8 2014, Vermont became the first state to pass a bill which will require all genetically engineered foods to be labeled. In response, the Grocery Manufacturers Association filed a lawsuit claiming that enforcing such a law would be unconstitutional. This was expected.
In 2012 there was a similar attempt to bring GMO labeling to Washington state with Initiative 522. On November 5 2013, the initiative was put up on the general election ballot for voters. Although I-522 had a large following and support from many activists, farmers, small-scale producers, and natural food stores like Whole Foods Market, the opposition was stronger.
Lead by several large chemical corporations such as Monsanto Company (creator of Roundup), DuPont Pioneer, and Dow AgroSciences LLC, along with the nations largest food maker's trade group, the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), a whopping 22 million dollars was contributed to the 'No On I-522' campaign. According to The Seattle Times this was the most spent against an initiative in state history. In the end, the initiative failed to pass by a narrow margin of 48.91 percent to 51.09 percent.
While GMO labeling is currently a hot topic and many states continue their fight to bring such laws into effect, it's still an uphill battle. With the powerful opposition of giant food manufactures and chemical producing companies like Monsanto, the future of GMO labeling in the US is uncertain.
Although the health risks remain unclear and will remain so until the issue is fully researched, many consumers believe that they simply have the right to know what they are putting into their bodies and feeding their families. Until then, the option of buying Organic is always available. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the use of genetically modified organisms in organic products is strictly prohibited.
Currently, several other states are working on GMO labeling laws. The most notable are Oregon and Colarado. Advocates of Washington's failed I-522 also vow to try again in 2016.