Genetically engineered foods are everywhere on supermarket shelves. This is because some of the most common ingredients found in processed foods are genetically modified. From corn syrup to sugar, Americans regularly eat GMO foods and don’t know it.
GMO Foods Go Unlabeled
According to the non-profit Environmental Working Group (EWG), Americans eat almost 200 pounds of genetically engineered food per year. The United States does not require GMO ingredients to be labeled, so most people are unaware of how ubiquitous GMO foods have become. Short of genetic dna testing in the kitchen, the consumer has no way to know whether a given product is natural. Certain brands sell only non-GMO and organic foods as their market niche. However, the public must rely on advertising to identify these products.
Many Crops Are Genetically Engineered
EWG has quantified just how much genetically engineered food Americans have been eating. The group identified the consumption per capita of sugar, soy products and corn-derived foods and researched the percentage of genetic engineering per crop. According to the USDA, 93 percent of soybeans, 95 percent of sugar beets and 88 percent of corn were genetically modified. Over 55 percent of American sugar comes from sugar beets, and soybean oil accounts for 79 percent of salad oil consumption. The result is that the average American eats 193 pounds yearly of genetically modified food.
Few Safety Studies Exist
Controversy surrounds the perceived safety of genetically modified foods, but few long-term studies exist to lend facts to the debate. For one thing, genetic engineering is still a relatively new technology that is constantly evolving. Human lifespan studies on health take decades. Short-term research seems to have satisfied government regulators although many consumer advocacy groups take issue with what they see as complacency. Many groups are pushing for legislation at both the state and federal levels, and California has a GMO food labeling initiative on the November ballot. New regulations would likely include testing seeds and crops with a legal dna test much as the USDA checks meat today. However, the call for more legislation and oversight is meeting industry resistance.
Farmers See Both Sides of GMO
Another area of concern is the purported mutation of agricultural pests in response to GMO seeds. Large amounts of data are available from agriculture where crops have much shorter life cycles than mammals. Growers are dealing with widespread cases of genetically modified crops rendering pesticides largely ineffective. Farmers must use more pesticide to achieve results, and both insect and plant pests have adapted to resist the poison. Environmental Working Group reports that farms now use 300 million more pounds of pesticide per year to manage GMO crops. Agricultural biotechnology companies Monsanto and Syngenta race to develop resistant seeds without side effects, but the science involved is challenging.
Nonetheless, genetically engineered seeds have improved yield during the current drought. Although results have fallen short of some expectations, companies are rolling out new products over the next year. Under drought conditions, even modest increases in crop survival can determine the fate of farms and grocery store prices.
Meanwhile Americans will continue to eat daily servings of genetically engineered foods. As an unintended benefit, scientists will have an entire nation of data for use in future safety studies.