Few things are more controversial than what we put on our plates and into our bodies. The topic of genetically modified food is one that has divided even those in the environmental community.
This year, Vermont passed a law requiring genetically modified foods (aka GMOs, GE, or GM crops) to carry a label identifying them as such. The law, which will go into effect in 2016, is the first of its kind in the U.S. Vermont is just one of many states that have jumped into the labeling debate in the last few years: in 2013 alone, 32 states introduced 110 GMO-related bills.
Opponents of GMOs say they lead to antibiotic resistance, further the industrialization and private control of our food supply, and contaminate nearby cropland and ecosystems. Proponents say there is no evidence that GMOs are harmful to human health and that they save cash-strapped farmers resources and time; some also believe that GMOs could feed a planet with an ever-expanding population.
When it comes to GMOs, the truth can be difficult to pin down. Here are five facts to start with:
Most food in the U.S. is genetically modified. Surprise! Although GMOs have only been around since 1996 (commercially), up to 70 percent of the food in our grocery stores contains genetically engineered ingredients, according to the Grocery Manufacturing Association. Corn, soy, sugar beets, and canola are the most prevalent GMOs crops. Some states, food manufacturers, and grocery stores, recognizing people’s concerns about GMOs, are pushing for labeling. Whole Foods Market will label all its GMO products by 2018.
Genetic engineering and crossbreeding are not the same things. Humans have been crossbreeding crops and animals for centuries, but genetic engineering (GE) is a relatively new (and more precise) practice. GE splices new genes directly into an organism’s DNA sequence, rather than waiting for the offspring to produce a desired trait.
Genetic engineering hasn’t increased crop yields. Contrary to the claims of the biotech industry, studies have shown that GE crops are no more productive than conventional crops. The Union of Concerned Scientist’s 2009 report Failure to Yield shows that it was smart farming practices and traditional breeding that produced better yields in the farms studied, not switching to GMOs.
Our seed supply is coming from fewer and fewer companies. According to the New York Times, just four companies control 50% of the seed market. This has resulted in ballooning costs for corn and soybean seeds and fewer varieties available for farmers. These rising costs correspond with the growing use of GMOs.
Some concerns about GE foods have more legitimacy than others. Will eating GE foods hurt your health? Probably not, according to most studies. However, when it comes to concerns about the consolidation and sustainability of our agriculture system, impacts to the ecosystem, and pesticide resistance, the fears are valid. The Union of Concerned Scientists doesn’t outright reject GMOs, but believes the risks outweigh the benefits as the industry currently stands.
Genetic Engineering in Agriculture, Union of Concerned Scientists
The Ghost in the GMO Machine, Earth Island Journal
Panic-free GMOs (series), Grist