The outcry about genetically modified organisms (GMO’s) is escalating as consumers become more vocal in the fight for mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods. We have been eating GMO foods for years now. Corn , and soybeans are the top genetically altered foods in our country; add squash, tomatoes and beets to the “modified” list as well. Genetically modified, or engineered, tomatoes take longer to ripen and last longer, making them highly desired by growers. And according to the Pew Trusts organization, since 2005, 85 % of soybeans grown on U.S soil have been genetically modified. Soybeans and soy products are in many of our foods. Chances are we have all consumed significantly quantities of food containing at least one modified ingredient. Some estimates are that 60%-70% of all processed foods in the US are genetically modified. Some of the risks of genetically mofidifed foods, according to WebMD.com, are:
- Introducing allergens and toxins to food
- Accidental contamination between genetically modified and non-genetically modified foods
- Antibiotic resistance
- Adversely changing the nutrient content of a crop
- Creation of “super” weeds and other environmental risks
The topic has gained traction in part due to a national campaign by Chipotle, the Mexican food chain. Their whimsical video, paired with the act of posting labels on their website, is leading the way with other companies pledging to follow suit. Chipotle acknowledges using ingredients that have been genetically modified in a lab—soybean oil, corn product and other ingredients are listed. The company is pledging to eliminate these from its food products. It was a bold move that is winning the company praise for its openness.
One of the main issues in this controversy over modified foods is the absence of mandatory food labels that would specify when a product contains genetically modified ingredients. Food labeling is standard in most developed nations. A recent petition, with over 1.2 million signatures, has been submitted to the FDA calling for mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods. An overwhelming majority of American citizens support labeling. Critics, consisting mainly of consumer packaging goods companies, and companies like the Grocery Manufacturers Association, are opposed to GMO food labeling.
“As public awareness is growing about GMOs, consumers are increasingly demanding to know what they are eating,” said Elizabeth O’Connell, campaign director for Green America, an environmental group based in Washington.
The critics say labeling is an unfair burden to businesses and retailers—alarmist thinking with no scientific backing. The emphasis here is on corporate earnings. We don’t know the long-term impact of genetic engineering on our foods. And, there is something unsettling about eating products that are no longer ‘natural’, foods that have been tweaked in the laboratories to produce prettier, longer lasting, and plumper foods.
Frito-Lay and PepsiCo are now involved in lawsuits for using labels saying, “made with all natural ingredients”. The wave of concern and lawsuits are sure to intensify as this issue grows. It is reaching a new high with the anticipated FDA approval of a genetically modified salmon, after years of review. This would become the first genetically modified animal to be approval for human consumption.
The salmon, produced by AquAdvantage, “consists of an Atlantic salmon containing a growth hormone from a Chinook salmon and a gene from the ocean pout, an eel-like fish. The result: A fish that grows to market size in about half the time as regular salmon.” AquAdvantage claims its product is safe and that it will help reduce over-fishing of wild salmon, protect the environment and give a boost to the world’s food supply. Safety issues notwithstanding, it just seems a little weird to be eating a genetically engineered fish or animal .
Whole Foods, Trader Joes and Target have pledged not to sell the fish; Safeway is indicating a similar course of action. This approach is viewed as the only practical solution, a partial one at best, if the FDA goes ahead with its anticipated approval.
Most of us are likely consuming products with genetically modified ingredients on a regular basis. The only way to avoid GMOs is to eat organic and homegrown food, buying from known sources. The debate is still on as to whether the opponents of genetically modified foods are being too fearful. Only time will tell, but, from a common sense, lay person’s viewpoint, it seems like attempts to alter nature in this fashion may increase the possibilities for unwanted side-effects.