Everyone from the bodybuilder at your local gym to the IT guys at work all want the same answer these days: What’s actually in my food? To some extent, the food industry is listening. Transparency campaigns from fast food tycoons, a change in the way products display nutrition facts, and a decision to ban trans fats are just some of the changes that have taken place. Up next: genetically modified organisms (GMOs) — or plants, animals, or organisms manipulated in a lab. Last week, the esteemed New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) called for more research, labeling, and caution when it comes to these science-fiction sounding products.
But what are GMOs — and do you need to worry about them? Here, 8 things every guy should know about the food you’re putting in your mouth.
1. GMOs are everywhere
No matter how hard you try to avoid them, GMOs “make up a significant part of the American diet,” says Sheldon Krimsky, Ph.D., a professor at Tufts University and author of The GMO Deception: What You Need to Know about the Food, Corporations, and Government Agencies Putting Our Families and Our Environment at Risk. “There are a lot of GMOs on the dinner table for many, many people.”
First introduced in the 1990s — primarily as genetically-modified (GM) corn and soy beans that could withstand herbicide, making it easier for farmers to grow — GMOs are now in everything from tomatoes to potatoes. They’re so prevalent, in fact, some reports suggest they’re in about 70 percent of our food. Think about it: Livestock are fed GM corn, too, and processed food can be chock-full of oils made from GM crops.
2. Scientists are pretty divided on the topic
Krimsky says that when it comes to GMOs, researchers have formed three cliques. One group says genetically-modified food is safe to eat, safe to give to animals, and that you don’t need to do any testing, he explains. These people believe that we know what we put into the crops and that we’re not going to create anything novel, so thus, we don’t really have to worry.
A second group believes you can’t be sure that a product is going to be safe unless you put that product through tests — after all, you can always get unexpected outcomes, right? (Think back to high school science class. No one is perfect.) The third group? “They say we’ve already done some of this testing and we’ve reached a conclusion that some of these products are not safe,” Krimsky says.
3. There isn’t enough unbiased research out there
Unbiased is the key word here. “Most of the funding for GMO research comes from companies — it’s not independent,” says Krimsky. Biotech industry groups and seed companies will fund research, making results largely biased and negative reports hard to come by. “We need independent sources of knowledge,” Krimsky stresses.
4. Lots of people want GM-foods labeled
Europe has strict regulations when it comes to labeling GM foods. The U.S.? “There's no mandatory process based labeling for GMOs anywhere in the U.S. at present,” says Alan McHughen, D.Phil., a Biotechnology Specialist and Geneticist at the University of California, Riverside. Next year, Vermont will require that GMO foods be labeled, but even this is undergoing a legal challenge that could nullify it, he adds. But some polls (like this one conducted by ABC News) suggest up to 93 percent of people would like to have GMOs labeled nationwide — like they are in 64 countries around the world. Will it happen? Last month, at the federal level, the House passed The Safe and Accurate Food Label Act, which would pre-empt state, county, or regional labeling initiatives, while at the same time require FDA approval for all new GM foods, says McHughen. “At this point, it is anyone's guess how the Senate will treat their version of the Bill.”
5. Organic means GMO-free
Or at least 99 percent free, says Krimsky. So if you’re trying to avoid GMOs, go organic.
6. Roundup is a name you should know
In terms of American medical journals, the NEJM is the cream of the crop. And their recent GMO report raised concerns about the safety of Roundup (an herbicide technically called glyphosate—“'Roundup Ready' crops are genetically-modified to resist Roundup, meaning if you spray them with Roundup, the crops won’t die, but everything around them — including all the weeds — will,” says Krimsky.) The article states: “The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified glyphosate, the herbicide most widely used on GM crops, as a “probable human carcinogen” and classified a second herbicide, 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D), as a “possible human carcinogen.”
The other side of the story: Glyphosate was around long before GM crops, and it’s a popular weed-killer in domestic gardens, says McHughen. He proposes: If there were any risk associated with it, wouldn’t we know about it by now?
7. There are some positives
GM technology has several advantages, says McHughen. “Farmers report increased yields and crops with fewer contaminants, leading to lower prices for consumers.” Proponents also consider the use of GM technology to remove allergens or toxins from foods and add in nutrients, such as the increase in beta-carotene in Golden Rice to treat Vitamin A deficiency in poorer parts of the world, says McHughen.
10. When it comes to health and safety, the jury’s still out
“If you look at the scientific literature, there is no consensus about the safety of eating genetically modified foods,” says Krimsky. While there have been reported adverse effects in animal studies, there are no human studies to suggest health consequences of GMOs, he says. McHughen adds: “Every professional scientific and medical society in the world that has conducted a study into the safety of GM technology has come to the same conclusion: That there is no increased risk with GM over conventional breeding methods.” This, though, goes back to the idea that more research is needed.