The debate over genetically modified foods has divided scientists against theologians, environmentalists against agribusiness, and food marketers against consumers who aren't being told the truth about what they're buying.
Before you engage in any food fights -- and before you go grocery shopping -- arm yourself with some basic facts about the development and safety of genetically modified foods.
What Are Genetically Modified Foods?
Genetically modified foods, also known as genetically engineered foods or GMO foods, are any food item that is wholly or partially made from a genetically modified organism, or GMO. A GMO is a plant or animal whose genetic material was changed when researchers added a gene from a different plant or animal -- these living organisms are sometimes called "transgenic" plants or animals.
In one early example of a transgenic species, a gene from a winter flounder (a fish that lives in very cold water) was added to the DNA of a tomato plant. Genetic engineers hoped that this gene would help the tomato plant resist an early frost or other cold temperatures.
In field experiments, however, the transgenic tomato plant didn't fare so well in cold weather, and the "fish tomato" experiment was dropped. Many other genetically engineered foods, however, have been successfully grown and are now cultivated, distributed and consumed all over the world.
If you live in America, or many other countries, you've probably been eating genetically modified food for years without knowing it. Researchers estimate that up to 80% of processed foods contain at least some GMO ingredients.
Why Grow Genetically Modified Foods?
Over 250 million acres of genetically modified crops were planted in 2006, and over half of those were in the United States, according to the Human Genome Project. The greatest area of growth for GMO crops, however, is in developing countries. Why are so many private companies and governments investing billions in genetically modified foods?
If your first guess was "Money," you're probably right.
Genetically modified plants and animals that grow and mature faster with greater disease resistance and bigger yields are a compelling argument in favor of GMO cultivation. That's why some of the world's largest agribusinesses -- like Coca-Cola, Monsanto, PepsiCo, Dole, Kraft, General Mills and Archer Daniels Midland -- are heavily invested in the research and development of genetically modified foods.
How Green Are Genetically Modified Foods?
There are some significant environmental benefits to genetically modified crops, too. Some GMO plants, for example, can be "designed" with a built-in resistance to insect pests, so these plants need fewer pesticides, making them a somewhat greener choice for farmers than non-GMO crops that require lots of toxic pesticides.
Plants and animals can also be genetically developed to grow in poorer soils, colder temperatures, drier climates and other less-than-favorable conditions. These GMO crops can have more nutrients while needing less-intensive industrial processing. These are important benefits in a world where more than 7 billion people now need to be fed.
Critics argue, however, that social and environmental concerns are secondary to profit. For example, many of the plants now being engineered are designed to be resistant to pesticides like Roundup (manufactured by GMO giant Monsanto). This allows farmers to spray large amounts of Roundup or other toxic pesticides on their fields without regard for how it will affect their crops -- or the environment.
One major concern is keeping genetically modified crops from entering the environment, where their DNA could mingle with the DNA of other plants. The effect that their genetically engineered DNA could have on other plants is unknown: The effect could be negligible, or it could produce a catastrophic loss of plant and animal life.
Are Genetically Modified Foods Safe?
Nobody's completely sure about the safety of genetically modified foods and other GMOs, which have only been in existence since the 1970s. Some have argued that by taking DNA from one species and inserting it into the DNA of another species -- creating what critics call "Frankenfood" -- we are tinkering recklessly with the fundamental building blocks of life itself.
On a more practical level, there may be some potential for these GMO crops to create allergens that would affect the health of humans and other animals. Genetically modified foods could also transfer antibiotic resistance to people, which can promote the growth of "superbugs" and bacterial diseases for which we have no effective medicine.
A report published in the February 2012 issue of Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition stated that "Animal feeding studies have demonstrated that a minor amount of fragmented dietary DNA may resist the digestive process. Mammals have been shown to take up dietary DNA from the GIT [gastrointestinal tract], but stable integration and expression of internalized DNA has not been demonstrated."
What this means is that some genetically engineered DNA may be absorbed when a person eats genetically modified food, but there's no evidence yet that this can cause any health problems.
Other critics have noted that genetically modified plants and animals can become the property of the developer, putting some companies like Monsanto in the enviable position of "owning" a life form -- and a very profitable one at that.
Genetically Modified Foods: Laws and Labels
Perhaps the most potent criticism of genetically modified foods is their labeling -- or lack thereof. In Europe and many countries around the world, no GMO foods can be sold without labels identifying them as such. The European Union also has the world's toughest standards regarding the cultivation and sale of genetically modified foods.
The United States, however, has some of the loosest GMO regulations in the world; genetically modified foods can and are sold in grocery stores and restaurants nationwide, and no labels are needed, so consumers have no idea whether the food they're buying and eating has been genetically engineered. Industry critics charge that much of this regulatory laissez-faire is due to the overwhelming influence that agribusiness has over the U.S. Congress and regulatory bodies like the USDA and the FDA.
(One exception is USDA-certified organic foods, which cannot contain more than trace amounts of genetically modified ingredients.)
Concern over the proliferation and potential risks of GMO crops has caught the attention of some government officials -- including Congressman Dennis Kucinich -- and there is increased pressure to regulate the industry in the United States. Most of these regulatory efforts are focused not on eliminating all GMOs, but on labeling genetically modified foods as such, and on containing and securing those GMO crops that are now grown in open-air environments, where their pollen could easily spread into other fields and into the natural environment with unknown consequences.