Controversy remains over genetically engineered foods

Corn, soy, canola, cotton, and sugar made from beets are among the common ingredients in food products today. However, many people do not realize that these ingredients are some of the most likely to be genetically engineered, according to the organization Just Label It.  

The issue of genetically engineered foods has been one of the more controversial subjects of food science for years, forming allies and adversaries. Supporters claim that production and distribution of genetically modified organisms is more efficient, while opponents deem GMOs unethical, unnatural and potentially unhealthy.


A wide range of plants and animals have been genetically modified and placed into the food supply since 1994, according to Yvonne Ortega, a registered dietitian and nutrition professor at Santa Monica College.


“The United States Department of Agriculture reports 52 percent of all corn crops, 79 percent of all cotton crops, and 87 percent of all soybean crops grown in the U.S. are genetically modified,” says Ortega.


GMOs include foods that have received at least one gene unnaturally, according to “Campbell Biology: Concepts and Connections,” a textbook used in SMC biology classes.


“Developing GMOs is a lengthy, tedious and costly process requiring years of research and testing,” says Ortega. “After carefully selecting and cultivating cells from an organism with a desired trait, the DNA is removed, and scientists identify, isolate and extract individual genes that code for the desired functions.”


In 1992, the Food and Drug Administration published a statement for a policy applying to foods developed from new plant varieties, “including those that are developed using rDNA technology, referred to as ‘genetic engineering’ or ‘biotechnology.’”


The FDA’s draft guidance for indicating whether foods have been developed using bioengineering remains voluntary in the United States.


However, in the European Union, there are strict regulations set for GMO products. There, all foods that have been produced for human consumption and all animal products that contain GMOs are required to be clearly labeled, according to Ortega.


According to JLI’s website, a legal petition calling for the mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods was written by attorneys at the Center for Food Safety, and submitted to the FDA in September of last year.


JLI claims that since then, the organization has acquired over one million petitioners.


“[The petition] was created on the premise that people have a right to know what is in their food, and to give consumers not only a voice, but a choice in how they can take action,” as stated on JLI’s website.


According to a press release from JLI, the FDA responded to the petition on April 5, stating that they have not yet reached a decision on the issue.


“When a group or individual files a citizen petition, the law requires that the FDA respond within 180 days to either provide a complete response, or to let the petitioner know that the agency needs more time to review all the information associated with the issue,” said Siobhan DeLancey, FDA press officer and team leader for food products. “That's the case with this petition; the agency is still reviewing the issue.”


Ortega claims that GMOs were originally created to enhance nutritional quality, help crops grow faster, require less harmful pesticides, conserve soil, water and energy, and to increase security for countries with high rates of starvation.


“There have been few health concerns, but one fear is that there could be an increased risk of allergens, by either creating a new allergen, or causing an allergic reaction in susceptible individuals,” says Ortega. “Also, there is the development of new diseases that could attack plants, animals and humans.”


JLI’s website offers some tips on  how to take action and stay informed, for those who remain concerned about GMOs.


JLI recommends sending comments to the FDA asking for foods to be labeled. Eating more fruits, vegetables and unprocessed foods, and avoiding the five products most likely to be genetically engineered, will minimize GMO consumption. The True Food Shopper’s Guide from the Center for Food Safety lists brands with non-GMO products.


According to the USDA, by definition, in order for a product to be certified organic, it cannot be genetically modified.


“I believe the long term effects of GMOs may potentially cause harm,” says Ortega. “It will take more time to understand the impact on our health.”