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Do you know what’s in your food? Chances are it’s been genetically modified. Up to 80% of processed foods in the U.S. are. But what does that mean, and what’s all the fuss about GMOs these days?

“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.

Unless you eat only fresh, unprocessed foods that are marked as non-GMO or certified organic, you’re probably eating food that has been genetically modified. Is that a bad thing? It depends on who you ask.

What’s a GMO?

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) may sound more like something out of Star Trek rather than anything you’d expect to find on your dinner plate. They are plants that have been changed by scientists. But they aren’t something new. They’ve been sold since 1994.

Want apples that won’t brown when you slice them? Potatoes that don’t get bruises from farm to table? The FDA has approved genetically modified versions of these foods that can do that.

People who are pro-GMO say they help farmers grow better crops faster. That means more, and cheaper, food for us.

But people on the other side of the GMO debate worry about their safety. They ask, "Do we know whether eating them over the long run can hurt people?"

How GMOs Are Made

Here’s how it works. Scientists take a plant. They change the plant by adding DNA from another plant, bacteria, or virus to it. DNA is what gives everything its special characteristics. So in this way, the original plant now has new qualities. The changes can make them more resistant to disease, bugs, or drought. It can give them other qualities too, like those that affect their taste or shelf life.

How is that different from the way we’ve improved crops for centuries? One big difference is that genetic modification speeds up the process.

Where it might take years to raise several generations of plants outside in fields to get all the right traits, inside, scientist can grow several generations in one year. Conditions are perfect in the lab. They don’t need to wait for the seasons to change.

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