GMOs — or genetically modified organisms — were in the spotlight again this past week following controversy at “The Dr. Oz Show” over, among other things, the television host and doctor’s stance on GMOs. It sparked a media firestorm and had people picking sides.
But why all the hoopla over what we harvest?
GMOs are organisms that have had their DNA modified through genetic engineering. This is often done by taking a gene from one organism and putting it into another one to alter it in a desirable way. For example, when genetic engineers want to create a corn crop that is resistant to pests, they seek out the trait in Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) soil bacteria that naturally acts as a pesticide. From there, engineers isolate the gene responsible for that trait and directly insert it into the corn’s DNA. This corn is then bred with other corn until it’s ready to be produced for consumption.
Scientists adopted this process for altering food for a variety of reasons, but most commonly to create crops, like the corn, that can naturally keep pests away, as well as crops that are resistant to herbicides and can tolerate various climates for more sustainable agriculture. And this manipulation has proven to be a very divisive issue.
On one side a majority of the scientific community argues that genetically modified, or GM, food is safe and even beneficial. According to a recent Pew Research Center poll, 88 percent of scientists from the American Association for the Advancement of Science believe eating GMOs is “generally safe.” For thousands of years, humans have been changing and improving crops through selective breeding. That process alters genes as well. But genetically modifying in a laboratory is a faster, more direct method.
On the other side of the debate are advocacy groups and concerned citizens worried about potential risks of food manipulation. The same Pew Research poll shows that 57 percent of U.S. adults think eating GMOs is “generally unsafe.” Opponents have raised concerns over health safety, like the possibility of an increase in allergies or worse, unforeseen impacts down the road.
Many also have environmental concerns. They worry that the plants that are made resistant to herbicides — meaning the crop won’t be damaged when sprayed with weed-killer — will lead to the development of “superweeds.” And then, farmers will need to use more and more chemical herbicides.
A minority of the scientific community still believes that more research on the safety of GMOs should be done. Over a thousand studies have concluded that GM food is safe, but critics point out that the companies that make genetically modified products have funded many of those studies. A significant number have been conducted through independent research as well, though.
A handful of commercial crops are genetically modified, including corn, soybeans, cotton, sugar beets and canola. Right now, over 90 percent of the corn and soy grown in the United States has been genetically modified. Most of that goes into animal feed, ethanol, and processed products, such as corn oil.
Consumer pressure to know what is in our food has led to a debate over whether or not food with GMOs should be labeled. Opponents argue that labels would unfairly stigmatize GMOs. In the U.S. more than half of the states have brought forward labeling legislation, but only three states have passed it. And for two of those — Maine and Connecticut — the law won’t go into effect unless legislation passes in surrounding states. Vermont also passed GMO labeling legislation and plans to start in July 2016, although the law has already faced legal challenges by opponents.
Still, a handful of brands have taken it upon themselves to proactively respond to concerns over GMOs in their products. Whole Foods has said that by 2018 all products containing GMOs will be labeled. Cheerios has removed GMO ingredients from its original cereal. And Chipotle announced this week that no GMOs will be used in its food. One caveat is that Chipotle will continue to sell drinks containing GMO ingredients, like corn syrup, most of which comes from GM crops.
So, while this food fight rages on, whether you think that GMOs are spoiling our fruits and veggies or a fresh approach to produce, at least after watching this video you can say, “Now I get it.”