World / Science & Health

Genetically modified food spooks consumers

by Mary Clare Jalonick


Genetically modified food has been around for years, but most Americans have no idea if they are eating it.

The Food and Drug Administration says it doesn’t need to be labeled.

However, in the first major victory for consumers who say they have the right to know whether their food contains genetically modified organisms, the state of Vermont has moved forward on its own. On May 8, Gov. Peter Shumlin signed legislation making his state the first to require labeling of GMOs.

Throughout the country, there’s a lot of confusion about genetically modified food and its safety, and whether labeling matters.

The food industry and companies that genetically engineer seeds have pushed back against the labeling laws, saying GMOs are safe and labels would be misleading. “It’s really polarizing,” said New York University’s Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition and food studies. “There’s no middle ground.”

GMOs are not really a “thing,” Nestle said, and that’s hard for the average consumer to grasp. You can’t touch or feel a GMO.

Genetically modified foods are plants or animals that have had genes copied from other plants or animals inserted into their DNA. It’s not a new idea — humans have been tinkering with genes for centuries through selective breeding. Think dogs bred to be more docile pets, cattle bred to be beefier or tomatoes bred to be sweeter.

What’s different about genetically modified or engineered food is that the manipulation is done in a lab. Engineers don’t need to wait for nature to produce a desired gene; they speed up the process by transferring a gene from one plant or animal to another.

Most of the nation’s corn and soybeans are genetically engineered to resist pests and herbicides. A papaya in Hawaii is modified to resist a virus. The FDA is considering an application from a Massachusetts company to approve a genetically engineered salmon that would grow faster than traditional salmon.

Only a small amount of sweet corn, the corn Americans eat, is genetically modified. Most of the genetically modified corn and soybeans are used in cattle feed, or are made into ingredients such as corn oil, corn starch, high fructose corn syrup or soybean oil. Even in some of those products, the manufacturing process itself may remove some of the modified genes.

A few fruit and vegetables are engineered — the Hawaiian papaya and some squash and zucchini, for example. But there’s no genetically modified meat or fish, like the fast-growing salmon, currently in the market for human consumption; the Food and Drug Administration has yet to approve any.

The vast majority of scientific research has found genetically engineered foods to be generally safe. An Italian scientist’s review of 10 years of research, published in 2013, concluded that the scientific research conducted so far has not detected “any significant hazard directly connected with the use of GM crops.”

Even the food police say they are safe: The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a well-known critic of food companies and artificial and unhealthy ingredients in food, has not opposed genetically modified food, on the basis that there’s no evidence it is harmful.

Though what we are eating now appears safe, the main concerns for the future would be new genetically engineered food — from the United States or abroad — that somehow become allergenic or toxic through the engineering process. The FDA says the foods they have evaluated to this point have not been any more likely to cause an allergic or toxic reaction than food from traditionally bred plants.

Unlike animals, the FDA is not required to approve genetically engineered crops for consumption. However, most companies will go through a voluntary safety review process before they put them on the market. There are clear benefits for the agricultural industry — the crops that are resistant to pesticides and herbicides, for example. And companies such as Monsanto that produce modified seeds say their technologies will be needed to feed a rising world population as they engineer crops to adapt to certain climates and terrains.

While most modified food has so far been grown to resist chemicals, pests or disease, advocates envision engineering crops to make them more nutritious as well. Food animals have been engineered to be bred to be free of diseases, be cleaner in their environments or grow more efficiently, although none has yet been approved in the United States.

On the political front, there is an escalating fight between the U.S. labeling advocates and the food industry, which has dug in against labeling. In the absence of a federal labeling standard, GMO opponents have gone to the states to try to get a patchwork of labeling laws approved — a move that could eventually force a national standard.

Currently, the FDA says labeling of genetically modified food isn’t needed because the nutritional content is the same as non-GMO varieties.