If you’ve eaten today, chances are you’ve had a food that’s been touched by science as well as Mother Nature. Up to 80% of processed foods in the U.S. have something that's been changed by man from the way it would grow on its own. This happens at a very basic level -- in the plant's genes. We say these are genetically modified (GM). Their number is growing by leaps and bounds. Key crops include corn, soybeans, and cotton. (Yes, cotton products are in foods.)
Scientists tinker with plants for many reasons. They often take a gene that controls a desired trait in one plant -- less need for water, so it can survive a drought, for example -- and add it into a different plant. The end result: hardier crops, more colorful berries, even seedless watermelons and grapes.
“What that means is, like it or not, genetically modified foods are almost impossible to avoid,” says Sheldon Krimsky, PhD, an adjunct professor of public health and community medicine at Tufts Medical School in Boston.
The World Health Organization, the National Academy of Sciences, and the American Medical Association all say these crops are at least as safe as, and often safer than, foods changed the old-fashioned way, such as when a new plant is bred from two different types.
In the U.S., three groups play a role in bringing GM products to grocery store shelves. The EPA rates GM plants for their effects on the environment and the USDA decides whether the plant is safe to grow -- it won't harm other plants or animals. The FDA decides whether the plant will make anyone who eats it sick.
“They’re the most thoroughly tested food on the market,” says Dan Goldstein, MD, senior science fellow at Monsanto, an agriculture company responsible for a large share of genetically modified crops worldwide.
Those in favor of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) count these among their top selling points:
More food: These plants can help farmers boost their yield by making crops that can live through a drought or the cold and resist disease. Backers say GM products will help us feed the extra 2 billion people that will fill the planet by 2050. “Not using these tools would push us back 40 to 50 years in food production,” says Kent Bradford, PhD, distinguished professor of plant sciences and director of the Seed Biotechnology Center at the University of California, Davis.
Less stress on the environment: Supporters say using science to make the changes is better for the planet than older farming methods. Crops built to resist pests lower farmers’ need for toxic chemical pesticides, Goldstein says. They also require less soil to be tilled, reduce runoff, and keep the soil in place.
Better products: Scientists can create crops that contain vital nutrients. Swiss researchers created a strain of “golden” rice with high amounts of beta-carotene. Monsanto produced soybeans with lots of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Other crops, like papaya and cassava, can be made to withstand disease. “Naturally occurring molds (if we don’t prevent them by creating GM crops) present huge health hazards,” Bradford says. “Why reject a technology that has the potential to benefit so many people worldwide?”