There is great debate regarding the viability of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or genetically modified food products. While many countries have embraced the introduction of GMOs, others are vehemently opposed. GMOs are foods derived from plants or crops that have undergone some kind of genetic manipulation, such as being combined with DNA from bacteria, viruses or other plants and animals with the goal of creating some benefit, i.e. improved nutritional value or increased sustainability. Many Americans would be surprised to learn that the U.S. is one of five countries that produce 90 percent of the world’s genetically engineered food products. Other countries include Brazil, Argentina, Canada and India. Some of the food products include corn, soy, cotton, sugar beets and yellow squash.
Livestock, although not genetically modified, are fed with genetically modified feed which is passed to the consumer when products from the livestock are consumed. Presently in the U.S., FDA approval of genetically engineered salmon is pending approval. Proponents of GMOs argue that the increase in the world’s population demands the use of GMOs. They also point out that GMOs can ultimately improve nutrition and reduce the use of dangerous pesticides. Even now, there are efforts in place to create “golden rice,”which would contain vitamin A and reportedly help to improve the health of pregnant women and children around the globe.
On the other side of the debate over the use of genetically modified organisms, opponents (there are restrictions against the use of GMOs in over 60 countries worldwide, including Japan and Australia) argue that there are three main reasons to be cautious about GMOs. First, scientists do not know whether the manipulation of certain foods could cause allergies in humans, and no one knows for sure what effect the transfer and manipulation of bacteria and other genes has when introduced as food for the human body. There are also concerns about “outcrossing,” a term coined to identify the inadvertent fusing of GMOs with non-GMOs which could result in the inability to tell the difference between the two. This is especially concerning when there is no conclusive data to determine the long-term effects of GMOs on humans. Interestingly enough, testing in the U.S. is being conducted by companies who stand to profit from widespread acceptance of GMOs.
Opponents also argue that companies who are profiting from the use of GMOs do not necessarily have philanthropic motives. Several big U.S. companies including Mars, General Mills, PepsiCo and Monsanto are quietly attempting to obtain the intellectual property rights related to the production of GMOs. This could result in these big companies having a monopoly on certain food products. Many also argue that the American farmer could potentially be squeezed out.
In America, as in other countries, many groups are opposed to GMOs and there are fierce arguments for regulations around labeling that would inform consumers if a food product has been genetically modified or contains genetically modified components. In the U.S., GMOs are contained in as much of 80 percent of conventionally processed foods, but since there are no labeling requirements, Americans are unaware of the prevalence. It seems that purchasing organic foods or making clear labeling mandatory is the only way to be certain of what is being consumed.
The increase in the sale of organic foods from $1 billion in 1990 to $26.7 billion in 2010, with a jump in sales of 7.7 percent in 2010 over the previous year would seem to indicate that Americans are concerned about what they are eating. Most would be shocked to learn that a congressional panel recently declared that Americans are unable to understand the benefits of GMOs – the premise being that those who oppose the use of GMOs are uninformed alarmists.In the meantime, many countries have already embraced mandatory labeling. Vermont recently became the first U.S. state to pass a labeling bill, but so far, the U.S. and Canada have not introduced any federal legislation requiring clear labeling of food products that have been genetically modified.
By Constance Spruill