This is an update to a post published on June 20, 2014.
If you’ve shopped the health food aisles of your grocery store lately, you’ve probably seen an increase in products bearing the label “GMO-free” or “contains only non-GMO ingredients.” GMO stands for Genetically Modified Organisms and refers to any food product that has been altered at the gene level. While GMOs are labeled or banned in more than 60 other countries including Australia, Japan and all of the countries in the European Union, in the U.S. and Canada they are largely unlabeled and are found in nearly 80% of processed food.
Modification of plants is not a new phenomenon. For centuries, gardeners and farmers have been crossbreeding different species of plants to create plants that produce heartier, better tasting, or more beautiful crops. However, the type of genetic engineering of foods that has caused concern is vastly different. With modern genetic engineering, genes from an animal, plant, bacterium, or virus are inserted into a different organism (most often a plant), irreversibly altering the genetic code or “blueprint” of the organism that received the gene. Using this technology, scientists have created tomatoes with a longer shelf life by adding flounder genes, soybeans that are resistant to weed killers, potatoes that produce their own pesticides, and potatoes with jellyfish genes that glow in the dark when they need water.
Farmers, scientists, environmentalists, health professionals and consumers are concerned by the growing number of genetically altered foods in our food supply and are skeptical of the supposed benefits of this technology. Since 1996, when the first large-scale commercial harvest of genetically engineered crops occurred in the U.S., the percentage of genetically engineered crops grown here has increased to 25%, including 35% of all corn, 55% of all soybeans, and nearly half of all cotton. In addition, much of the canola oil produced in Canada comes from genetically altered rapeseed. According to the Grocery Manufacturing Association, 70% of all food products in grocery stores contain genetically engineered ingredients.
The health risks of consuming genetically altered foods have not yet been clearly identified, since there are few studies evaluating the impact of these foods on human health. However, many scientists have speculated that it is likely that these foods may trigger allergic reactions in some people, create new toxins that produce disease, and lead to antibiotic resistance and a subsequent resurgence of infectious disease.
The impact on the environment may be even more devastating. Many farmers are concerned that it will be impossible to prevent genetically engineered crops from “polluting” non-GMO farms, as the wind and bees will naturally carry pollen from the genetically engineered crops to nearby organic farms. In addition, farmers and environmentalists fear that foods that are genetically engineered to be resistant to herbicides will result in heavier herbicide use, further polluting the groundwater, lakes and rivers. Heavy use of herbicides may also encourage the development of “superweeds” that are resistant to herbicides, which could threaten crops throughout the country.
The results of a study conducted by researchers at Cornell University suggest that genetically engineered crops also endanger wildlife, specifically the Monarch butterfly. The study found that nearly half of Monarch caterpillars that ate milkweed leaves dusted with pollen from genetically engineered corn died within four days. A study conducted one year later at Iowa State University found that plants neighboring farms of genetically engineered corn are dusted with enough corn pollen to kill Monarch caterpillars.
As more is learned about the environmental and health risks of genetically engineered foods, people around the world are demanding that food producers eliminate them from their products. While the law in the United States does not mandate that foods containing genetically modified ingredients be labeled, several states have begun requiring it themselves (ME, CT and VT) and several more are currently proposing legislation to do so. Proactive food producers have stopped using these ingredients and are now labeling their products as “GMO-free” or “Non-GMO.”