Genetically modified foods are those that contain genes that have been transferred from another organism to produce a desired trait not naturally occurring. GM foods go by a number of different names – genetically modified organisms (GMOs), genetically engineered (GE), or transgenic. In the United States, most of our biggest crops – soy, corn, and cotton – are genetically modified for pest resistance or herbicide tolerance to increase crop yields. As a result, approximately 80% of processed foods in the U.S. contain one or more GMOs. However, because the FDA does not require GMOs to be labeled in our food, you wouldn’t know if something contained GMOs without doing your research first.
Some of the benefits of GMOs include increased crop yields, pest resistance, herbicide tolerance, and the potential for improving the nutrient profiles of foods. Of the approved GMOs already in our food supply, the FDA has agreed that they are safe for consumers based on scientific evidence. However, health and environmental groups are concerned about the potential for adverse effects in humans and the environment – including introduction of allergens to foods, toxin contamination, GMO contamination of nearby non-GMO crops, or, in the case of animals, crossbreeding with non-transgenic species. The long-term health effects of a lifetime of consuming GMO foods are unknown, since GMOs have only been in our food supply since 1996.
Several states have recently introduced legislation that would require GMOs to be labeled – unfortunately for consumers, none of the legislation has passed. Implementation of labeling would be difficult to require at the state level without a federal mandate. But, with more and more states considering labeling laws, the issue is definitely in the public eye. Whether or not the FDA will act is a different story.
This infographic, from the Just Label It! campaign, gives just a few reasons that consumers should have the right to know whether or not the foods they eat contain GMOs. The FDA allows voluntary labeling of GMOs – not surprisingly, the products that are currently labeled are those that are non-GMO. Although the infographic depicts GMOs somewhat negatively, the issue at hand is not whether GMOs should be allowed – but purely whether or not labels should be required so consumers can make informed choices about their food.
If you are concerned about GMOs, there are a couple ways you can avoid them in the absence of mandatory labeling. For now, the best way to avoid GMOs is to buy certified organic foods – which are not genetically engineered by default – and avoid processed foods.
What’s your take on this issue? Should GMOs be labeled?
For more on this topic, check out Marion Nestle’s recent article in The Atlantic.