Are GMOs Safe? What We Know

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Robyn Beck / AFP / Getty Images

GMOs are stirring up major controversy these days. Short for genetically modified organisms, these are plants that have been injected with DNA from other plant species or even animals. This type of genetic rejiggering – which is banned in Japan, Australia and several European nations – creates crops that grow bigger and faster and can withstand weeds and insects. Some experts believe genetic engineering is the best agricultural advancement ever made. Others fear that meddling with plant DNA is playing with fire. The truth, according to the current science, probably lies somewhere in the middle.

Big agricultural companies only began modifying seeds in the 1990s, but these doctored-up species have already penetrated our food system in a big way. About 90 percent of America’s soybean, sugar beet, and corn crops are now GMO. As a result, a whopping 80 percent of processed foods in the U.S. contain GMO ingredients. Many argue the new seeds have helped to keep the cost of raw ingredients and food prices low. Furthermore, advocates argue that since there are currently no quality studies than definitely linking GMOs to health issues, they are safe for human consumption.

Opponents say there hasn’t been enough time since GMOs were introduced to develop solid science. Many already blame GMOs for the uptick in food allergies and sensitivities and think that, in time, research will prove this. They also say that genetically altered crops allow companies to use greater quantities of pesticides with unknown consequences, and have given rise to “superweeds” (kind of like how antibiotic overuse has spawned resistant superbacteria).

Whether GMOs prove to be harmless or hazardous, the fact that has so far caused the most outraged is that consumers were kept in the dark about GMOs’ increasing presence in our food system. This has turned into a battle for mandatory labels on foods that carry GMOs.

This plea has made its way to several state legislatures. Nearly 25 states have considered mandatory labeling or bans on GMOs. Both Washington and California recently put mandatory labeling up to a vote. These initiatives were defeated in both states, in part thanks to big food and agriculture corporations pouring millions of dollars into last-minute ad campaigns.

Since labeling proponents haven’t succeeded in pushing legislation, they’re taking matters into their own hands. Last spring, Whole Foods Market announced that, by 2018, all products sold in its stores will be labeled to indicate whether they include GMO ingredients. Many other natural food stores and co-ops nationwide have followed suit with similar initiatives. But it isn’t just retailers trying the pushing the needle. The Non-GMO Project, a nonprofit organization that verifies products that contain zero GMO material, has awarded its strict seal on more than 14,000 products since it began in 2008. Hundreds more products are in the process of being verified. Technically, foods carrying the USDA Organic seal already don’t contain GMOs, but the Non-GMO Project Verified stamp gives added assurance.

With so much new stir around GMOs – something most Americans knew very little about just a few years ago – some type of uniform labeling seems inevitable. Whether it will be federal government controlled or voluntary is unknown. But at least for right now, thanks to all of these initiatives, you have much more control over whether you want to eat GMOs. If they don’t concern you, then nothing has really changed. But if you’re sketched out by the idea of DNA roulette and don’t want to risk health consequences down the road, you now have thousands of labeled GMO-free foods to choose from.

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