Last month, several fast-food chains announced that they would be eliminating the use of antibiotics in their chicken products. This week, genetically modified organisms (GMO) are the cause de rigeuer in the food industry as Chipotle announced that it successfully eliminated all GMO ingredients from foods served in its U.S. restaurants. The move, a first for a nationwide chain, is the latest step in a push against farmers and ranchers using science to alter our foods. But should we really be worried about GMOs? Are there legitimate health concerns? Or is this simply rooted in too many viewings of Attack of the Killer Tomatoes?
What are GMOs?
The World Health Organization defines genetically modified organisms (GMOs) as "organisms in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in such a way that does not occur naturally." One could argue that almost all foods we eat today are genetically modified in some way — farmers and ranchers have manipulated the natural breeding process for millennia to obtain desirable traits by cross-breeding plants and selectively breeding animals. The term GMO, however, is generally reserved for genetic modification through biotechnological procedures used to alter plants on the cellular level, either by directly changing their genes or inserting genes from other organisms into their DNA (recombinant technology). Either way, the goal is to imbue organisms with characteristics not found in nature. The question is whether or not it's more dangerous when done with cutting-edge equipment in a lab rather than by traditional field practices.
Why do we use GMOs?
The answer depends on who you ask. On the humanitarian end of the spectrum, genetically modified foods could play a crucial role in combating poverty and food insecurity worldwide. Low-nutrient staple foods like rice can be reinforced with essential vitamins, increasing their nutritional value. Crops can be engineered to grow in harsh conditions and with greater efficiency, which would improve access to food and provide economical boon for local farmers. Ideally, modified crops would also protect the environment by reducing the negative impact of agriculture.
But on the (completely justified) cynical side, development and use of GM crops can be used by powerful food producing corporations like Monsanto, to the detriment of local farmers. The 2008 documentary Food, Inc. famously alleged that Monsanto intimidates farmers who attempt to "save" heirloom seeds (on its website, in a dedicated section to the Food, Inc. film, the corporation claims that "Monsanto files suit against farmers who breach their contracts and infringe our patents — not against farmers who did not intentionally take these actions").
Twenty-five years' worth of scientific studies have shown no evidence of harm from the use of GM crops.
But what are the health risks from eating genetically modified food?
There aren't any. Twenty-five years worth of scientific studies have shown no evidence of harm from the use of GM crops. A recent report from the European Union found that "the main conclusion to be drawn from the efforts of more than 130 research projects, covering a period of more than 25 years of research and involving more than 500 independent research groups, is that biotechnology, and in particular GMOs, are not per se more risky [to consume] than e.g. conventional plant breeding technologies." These findings are backed by the American Medical Association, the US National Academy of Sciences, and the World Health Organization — along with other respected scientific research based organizations worldwide. Nevertheless, popular resistance to the product continues to grow. As a result of this, all of the countries in the EU and dozens of other countries worldwide restrict or ban the production and sale of genetically modified foods.
In the United States, genetically modified foods are overseen by the US Department of Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the US Food and Drug Administration. Prior to entering the commercial market, GM plants undergo safety testing. This rigorous testing determines whether the foreign DNA poses a risk to human health, and whether new known allergens have been introduced to the food. Labeling is, at this point, only mandatory if the GM product has nutritional or safety properties different from what consumers expect from a specific food. If the two are "substantially equivalent," no labeling is federally required. Currently three states have passed mandatory labeling laws — all at different stages of implementation — with ballot initiatives in place in more than 25 others. But labeling proponents may have a fight on their hands: Just last week, the House of Representatives, led by U.S. Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack, will hear a bill that will make GMO labeling a federal consideration, potentially invalidating already-passed state laws.
Meat and dairy served at Chipotle are likely to come from animals given at least some GMO feed.
GMOs have been a part of the American diet for decades, and science suggests it is safe to eat. But the public's documented fear of GMOs is based on claims propagated by convincing bloggers like the Food Babe, who reject scientific evidence in favor of fear mongering. Supermarkets and restaurants are increasingly pandering to these vocal activists by actions like identifying products as containing GMO ingredients or, as is the case with Chipotle, removing them entirely. (On its ingredients website, Chipotle proclaims that while "the meat and dairy products we buy come from animals that are not genetically modified... it is important to note that most animal feed in the U.S. is genetically modified, which means that the meat and dairy served at Chipotle are likely to come from animals given at least some GMO feed.")
What about environmental impact?
There are a few ways GMOs may benefit the environment. GM crops can be modified for improved sustainable agriculture and forestry. Modifying crops to become pest-resistant can also decrease the use of applied chemicals, reducing their spread in the environment. That said, while research suggests that there are no health concerns associated with GMOs, some ecologists are still wary of possible environmental impacts — hybridization and loss of genetic diversity among them. According to the Ecological Society of America, "GEOs should be evaluated and used within the context of a scientifically based regulatory policy that encourages innovation without compromising sound environmental management." Essentially, move science forward, but don't forget that human health is not the only thing to safeguard.
Am I eating GMOs?
Probably. Scientifically created GMOs have have been on the market worldwide for more than 15 years. According to the USDA, the majority of crops grown in the United States — like corn, soybean, and rapeseed (canola) — are genetically altered versions engineered to resist pests, withstand herbicides, and improve growth. The USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service estimates that 94 percent of corn and 93 percent of soybeans grown in the US today are from GMO strains. From there, GMO ingredients appear in staples like vegetable oil, corn starch, soy flour, and baking powder. Some academic estimates claim that GMOs are in up to 80 percent of conventional processed foods. They are essentially unavoidable, but if the actions of major chains like Whole Foods and Chipotle are any indication, this may be set to change.
As consumers, we have a right to know what is in our food. Dietary content and ingredient lists are a standard part of packaging on everything from carrots to potato chips. Given that there is no evidence of any functional difference between GMO and traditionally manipulated plants, including that distinction on food labels is akin to notifying people where the crops were harvested. It comes down to whether people choose to believe the scientific data or their instinctive mistrust of genetic modification.