Critics call them “Frankenfoods,” an unpredictable and untested science that could endanger human health. Supporters claim they’re beneficial and can even save the world from famine. Since their introduction in the mid-1990s, genetically modified foods (GM foods) have sparked controversy, generating heated public debate and scientific discussion. GM crops such as corn have been artificially altered by scientists in a laboratory, bred to fight off weeds and pests and avoid spoilage. This means more efficient and cheaper food production. Although it sounds good in theory, opponents worry about inadequate regulation and the lack of long-term testing. Many are also concerned about the potential ecological and environmental impact. As U.S. consumers become more concerned about their food sources and health, the demand has grown for more testing and labeling of GM foods. Here are 10 surprising facts about genetically modified foods.
10. U.S. Dominates Production of Genetically Modified Food
According to the PEW Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, the United States produces around two-thirds of the world’s genetically modified crops. U.S. farmers grow GM corn, cotton, soybeans, canola, squash, and papaya, although other crops such as GM potatoes are grown but are less popular. Other major producers of GM crops are Argentina, Canada, Brazil, China and South Africa.
One large U.S.-based company, Monsanto, is responsible for the production of more than 90 percent of GM crops worldwide. Companies such as Syngenta, Bayer CropScience, Dow and BASF produce the rest. This fuels some of the concerns by opponents who fear domination of world food production by a handful of giant corporations.
9. You’re Eating GM Foods … and Don’t Even Know It
Most of us have been unknowingly consuming GM ingredients for quite a while, in the form of modified enzymes found in cheeses, sodas, most breads, and even beer. Many dairy products, eggs and meat could also have come from animals fed GM crops. And around 88 percent of corn planted in the U.S. is genetically engineered, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
8. U.S. More Lenient on GM Labeling
Unlike the European Union, the United States Food and Drug Administration does not enforce the labeling of genetically modified food and ingredients in the U.S. Barack Obama said he would push for the labeling of GM products during his run for president, but has yet to act on his promise. The FDA and USDA say the genetically engineered foods they’ve approved are safe and don’t need to be labeled. Yet a large majority of the public wants GM foods clearly labeled as such, and in October 2011 a coalition of 300 companies, organizations and doctors filed a petition with the FDA to require labeling on all GM foods. Shoppers can, however, find products marked as “non-GMO” in some health food stores, and any food claiming to be 100 percent organic in the U.S. and Canada is supposed to be GM free.
7. Genetically Modified Foods Offer Numerous Benefits
The modification of food crops offers many benefits, according to the biotechnology industry. Fields are more productive, farmers can grow more crops, with higher nutritional yields, on less land, and it’s cheaper. They also reduce the use of pesticides. This would lead to the production of more food to feed starving people in impoverished nations. Some foods are also more nutritious, with added antioxidants and other health benefits. Agritech companies are even working on plans to introduce crops that survive heat waves and droughts. And UK scientists have developed a new genetically modified strain of “golden rice” which could help reduce vitamin A deficiency and childhood blindness in developing countries.
6. FDA Does Not Test GM Foods
Currently, the FDA does not test genetically modified foods for safety. The internal tests done by the biotech companies are considered adequate. Because of intellectual property rights it is difficult for outside researchers to fully verify the advantages and safety of GM food. Agritech companies such as Monsanto, Pioneer and Syngenta require a consumer to sign a user agreement when they buy GM seeds, which forbids the use of the seeds for any independent research.
5. Group Raises Alarm Over GM Foods
In 2009, the American Academy of Environmental Medicine stated that GM foods “pose a serious health risk” and called for a moratorium. The AAEM cited animal studies, which concluded that: “GM foods pose a serious health risk in the areas of toxicology, allergy and immune function, reproductive health, and metabolic, physiologic and genetic health.” The AAEM also called for the implementation of immediate long-term safety testing and labeling of genetically modified foods, and for doctors to advise their patients to avoid eating GM foods.
4. Prince Charles: Reliance on GM Foods Would Result in “Disaster”
In August 2008, the Prince of Wales spoke out against GM crops, telling The Daily Telegraph that the mass development of genetically modified crops risks causing the world’s worst environmental disaster. Prince Charles also accused firms of conducting “a gigantic experiment … with nature and the whole of humanity.” He added that relying on “gigantic corporations” for food would result in “absolute disaster.” His comments parallel most of the concerns of environmentalists and organic farmers opposed to GM crops.
3. Cross-Pollination Poses Threat
GM crops could threaten traditional farming through cross-pollination, according to organic farmers, food companies and consumer groups, who want more oversight and regulation. They complain that GM seeds are carried from field to field and contaminate pure, organic crops.
2. GM Crop Patents Spark Controversy
Many genetically engineered crops are patented, which GM food critics contend could make small farmers slaves to big firms. Monsanto has sued dozens of farmers claiming they raised patented GM crops without paying for them. In defense, farmers said that pollen from Monsanto crops blew in from nearby fields. In March 2011, a group of nearly 300,000 organic farmers lashed back, filing a lawsuit against Monsanto in an effort to keep their farms free of the company’s genetically modified crops. In India, Monsanto has been accused of “biopiracy,” and charged by the government with violating the country’s biodiversity laws over a genetically modified version of eggplant. They claim Monsanto is stealing an indigenous crop and using it to create a modified version without permission.
1. Research Continues on Genetically Modified Animals
As well as crops, scientists have genetically modified animals for possible human consumption and organ transplants. They’ve created genetically modified cows that can produce “human” milk to make it more nutritious, and inserted genetically modified organs into pigs for human transplants. And who can forget the “Frankenfish” that dominated the news in 2010. Aqua Bounty’s genetically modified salmon, designed to grow twice as fast as ordinary salmon, was fast headed for FDA approval, which would have made it the first genetically modified animal given the go-ahead for human consumption. At an FDA public hearing the company claimed that the fish is safe for humans and the environment. Many called for independent testing, and opposition was strong among environmentalists, scientists, fishermen and a handful of politicians. As of October 2011, the FDA had yet to decide whether to allow GM salmon onto the market.