You don’t have to look far to find foods with GMOs today. According to the Grocery Manufacturing Association , 70% of items in American food stores contain genetically modified organisms, ingredients that have been scientifically engineered in laboratories to enhance certain traits. While GM ingredients have only been on the market in America for around 20 years, they’re already sparking national controversy, as people wonder what the potential impacts could be on the environment and our health.
Corn, rice, canola oil and soybeans were among the first FDA-approved GMOs during the mid 1990s. Large companies such as Monsanto, Nestle,General Mills, and PepsiCo experienced cost benefits by using these added ingredients, and the trend quickly spread to other sects of the food industry. In 1998, the papaya was among the first GM fruit to be approved by the FDA. In the special case of the papaya, the fruit had developed a virus that would have destroyed it worldwide were it not for scientific engineering. But the GM papaya opened a door of possibilities for genetic modification of other produce items, most notably the zucchini and potato. Back in November, the FDA has approved over 40 seeds and plants for genetic modification.*
In addition to the visual perfection that GMOs boast, proponents claim that they have more profound advantages as well:
-GM crops can be made resistant to viruses, fungi and bacterial growth.
-GM crops can be engineered to grow faster.
-GM crops can be engineered to be naturally pest-resistant, undermining the need for pesticide chemicals.
-GM crops can be engineered to tolerate extreme weather conditions, such as cold fronts or droughts, allowing for a geographically diverse range of growth sites.
-GM crops can be engineered with added vitamins and minerals, which is especially beneficial in third world countries dealing with malnutrition.
Sounds great! So what’s with all of the fuss about GMOs in America?
Under California’s Proposition 37, companies would be required to put warning labels on domestically produced foods containing GM ingredients, as the European Union has since 2002. Currently, the FDA has shied away from interfering with GM foods as much as possible, trusting food companies to watch out for public safety. According to the FDA’s Statement of Policy, “Section 402(a)(1) of the act imposes a legal duty on those who introduce food into the market place, including food derived from new crop varieties, to ensure that the food satisfies the applicable safety standard.”
Unfortunately, not all Americans are confident that food companies will act with public health in mind without greater legal enforcement from the FDA. If the proposition passes in California, as it is projected to, the current 70% of food items in your average grocery store containing GMOs would have to be relabeled. And because California is historically a leader in American legislative action, it’s likely that national reform would soon follow.
Being new developments, GMOs carry mystery, raising concern and questions among scientists and consumers who wonder:
-What are the possible long-term environmental effects of GM crops?
-Do GMOs pose health risks to humans? (The FDA’s states, “Theoretically, genetic modifications have the potential to activate cryptic pathways synthesizing unknown or unexpected toxicants, or to increase expression from active pathways that ordinarily produce low or undetectable levels of toxicants.” The FDA encourages companies that are concerned about toxicity to “consult informally with the agency on testing protocols for whole foods when appropriate.”)
-Could cross breeding create new food allergens?
-GM fruits, vegetables, oils and grains…what’s next? GM animals for consumption?
Although scientific studies have not proven significant ill effects on humans or the environment as a result of GMO production so far, many people argue that they haven’t been on the market long enough to see what the long-term could hold. Based on practice and tests to date, the FDA claims that it has, “not found it necessary to conduct, prior to marketing, routine safety reviews of whole foods derived from plants.”
Food manufacturers worry that labeling GM products with warnings could cause food prices to rise and create uncalled for concern among consumers. “It sort of implies the product is bad for you when there is no basis for that,” said CEO of Faribault Foods, Reid MacDonald. Nonetheless, many Americans are demanding the right to know what they’re eating.
Scientists are able to perform basic safety tests and speculate about the future, but only time will tell for certain what impacts GMOs may have. As of now, GM skeptics believe that the FDA has put too much trust into the hands of food companies to decide if their ingredients are safe. “Companies developing new ingredients, new versions of established ingredients, or new processes for producing a food or food ingredient must make a judgment about whether the resulting food substance is a food additive requiring premarket approval by FDA.”
Rachel Hennessey, Contributor