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10 Questions About GMOs You've Been Too Embarrassed To Ask

Flickr Photo/Alex Baden-Meyer
Protesters hold a sign in front of the White House advocating for GMO labeling, October 19, 2011.

This election, the labeling of GMOs, or genetically modified foods, is one of the most hotly contested initiatives on the ballot. Big industries, led by Monsanto and the Grocery Manufacturers Association, have poured millions of dollars into fighting against a labeling requirement. Proponents have mounted vigorous and emotional debates in favor.

So what’s the root of the debate?Food is basic and essential to our survival. Messing with it brings up strong emotions. As a civilization, we’ve been genetically tinkering with our food for centuries, through domestication, cross-pollination, and selective breeding. Grafting of crops, like fruit trees, is essentially an ancient method of cloning. And we even mix things up. Modern crop science has given us blends like plumcots, apriums and tangelos.

But the use of recombinant DNA techniques, or genetic engineering, has sped up a process that used to take generations to accomplish, and it’s vastly expanded the possible combinations at the disposal of plant breeders. The prospect of taking a gene from a completely unrelated species – say a fish – and putting it into a plant – say a tomato – raises new sets of questions, and sets up a clash in values between the global and the local, between those who say GMO crops can help alleviate hunger and malnutrition around the world, and those who don’t want them in their kitchens.

But GMO foods are, in fact, already in many of our kitchens. Most processed foods today contain ingredients derived from GMO foods. Questions about long-term health risks, environmental consequences and social costs remain unanswered, or not yet answered to the satisfaction of all critics. In this series, KUOW and the Northwest News Network explore the issue and, below, try to explain the basics of the issue.

1. What are GMOs?

GMO stands for “genetically modified organism.” It means the organism has had its genome altered using genetic engineering techniques that allow a gene from an unrelated organism to be inserted into the original genome. The inserted gene is typically chosen to enhance, or confer a specific trait, such as pest or disease resistance, or increased nutritional value.

2. When did this all get started?

Genetically-engineered crops have been grown since the 1990s, notably in soy and corn crops. Most processed foods sold in the US today contain ingredients, including food additives, that derive from GMO crops. Genetic modification has also been used to save certain crops, such as the Hawaiian papaya, that were being wiped out by diseases. Major GMO crops today include canola, cotton, sugar beets and more.

3. If passed, what would the initiative do?

The initiative would require that foods containing GMO ingredients be clearly labeled on the front of the package. Animal products fed with GMO products would not be labeled.

The initiative does not ban stores from carrying GMO foods as long as they are labeled.

4. Why label?

Consumers have expressed a desire to know what is in their foods so they can make informed choices given that much remains unknown about possible long-term effects of consuming GMO foods.

5. Why would someone oppose labeling?

Producers fear that the existence of a label implies a food safety risk and would deter consumption when no such risk has yet been proven, and that labels would raise the cost of food for consumers.

6. Where else has this been done?

Maine and Connecticut have both passed labeling laws, but those laws won’t go into effect until bordering states also pass similar legislation. This was an attempt to minimize impact on trade across state borders. California attempted to pass a similar labeling law last year, but it was defeated.

7. What’s the cost?

Independent evaluators suggest there are costs associated with labeling regulations. Those costs largely stem from the increased regulatory activity required to keep labeled and unlabeled foods separate from the seed to the store, however it’s still unclear how much those costs could be. 

8. Why do people support GMOs?

The intent of many GMO efforts is to reduce the use of pesticides and herbicides, which are costly and have human and environmental health risk potential. GMOs could also help farmers reduce loss of crops to viruses and other plant diseases. In principle, these efforts would reduce the cost of growing crops, and that cost-savings would eventually be passed to consumers. 

In addition, some GMO efforts are aimed at improving the supply and nutritional value of staple foods, such as rice.

9. Why are other people so opposed to GMOs?

Concerns around GMOs center on the possibility of unintended consequences, such as potential genetic contamination of non-GMO crops, or harm to other species in the ecosystems that depend on those plants. There is also concern that pests and other organisms could develop resistance to the new genes as well.

Many people also have concerns about possible health risks, notably the potential that these genes may create new allergens in foods.

Finally, there is a concern that existing food safety and regulatory mechanisms are not doing sufficient testing for potential long-term health effects.

There is also an economic concern that the patenting of seed stocks created through genetic engineering is raising the cost of seeds and requires farmers to buy new seeds every year. Critics of GMOs have raised concerns about the cross-over of executives from the biotech and agricultural industries and government agencies responsible for oversight of food safety.

10. Who regulates food safety?

The US Food and Drug Administration regulates foods produced by traditional techniques as well as those produced using genetic engineering. It is the primary federal agency responsible for food safety and covers all foods except for meat and poultry products.

The US Department of Agriculture regulates meat and poultry products.

The US Environmental Protection Agency regulates pesticide residue in foods.

Stories from our series on GMOs

Washington's I-522: A Tale Of Two Northwest Farms

Washington's GMO Labeling Initiative Fires Up Global Food Industry
Top Donors Fighting GMO Labeling Revealed: Pepsi, Coke, Nestle
The Record: Role GMOs Play In Our Food System

Will GMO Labeling Alter Consumers' Perception Of Specialty Foods?

Push for GMO Labeling Gains National Momentum