The decision by Chipotle Mexican Grill to use only ingredients that have not been genetically engineered has put the debate over GMOs back in the spotlight.
Thus far that debate has been filled with vitriol — and a lot of fear mongering, some experts say. Still many Americans worry about health risks. Are foods with GMOs safe to eat?
There’s been no clear evidence that genetically altered foods, which we've been eating since the 1990s, can hurt you. The Food and Drug Administration has the same safety requirements for ingredients with GMOs as from traditionally bred plants.
The real worry is the impact that genetically modified crops may have on the environment, say GMO critics. Meanwhile, proponents of GMOs say the genetically tweaked varieties can offer greater crop yields and a chance to enhance the nutritional value of common foods like rice and soybeans.
The biggest problem with the current debate over GMOs is that it’s oversimplified, says Christopher Gardner, a professor of medicine at Stanford University and a nutrition scientist at Stanford’s Prevention Research Center.
“People either praise them or vilify them,” Gardner says. “The answer to whether they are good or not is: It depends on the situation.”
On the side of GMOs is Leslie Bonci of the University of Pittsburgh, who says the public has a lot of misconceptions when it comes to genetically modified foods.
Bonci, director of sports nutrition and a member of the advisory board for the Monsanto Company, sees GMOs as just an advance on what plant breeders have been doing since mankind first started raising crops: tweaking cultivars till you get the traits you want. Genetic engineering just allows you to do it more quickly, she explains.
“It’s not like the corn we eat now is the same as what we ate 100 years ago,” Bonci says. “There can be healthful benefits, like rice that comes with beta carotene and soybeans that have omega-3 fatty acids.”
One of the biggest arguments put forth in favor of genetically engineered seeds is that they will increase crop yields and thus offer a way to feed the world’s ever burgeoning population. But a USDA report published last year suggested that this is far from the truth.
“Over the first 15 years of commercial use, GE seeds have not been shown to increase yield potentials of the varieties,” the USDA reported. “In fact, the yields of herbicide-tolerant or insect-resistant seeds may be occasionally lower than the yields of conventional varieties.”
That may be true overall, but as Gardener says, everything depends on the situation.
In a recent opinion piece in The New York Times, Cornell Alliance for Science researcher Mark Lynas describes how his experience in Kenya convinced him of the value of GMOs. Lynas saw firsthand how a pest resistant variety of eggplant led to a huge increase in the amount of food farmers were able to produce. Beyond that, because the eggplants had been engineered to contain a natural bug killer, called Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt, farmers were able to use far less pesticide on their crops.
Still, there is the issue of unintended consequences, many of them environmental, says Dr. Robert Lawrence, the Center for a Livable Future Professor in Environmental Health Sciences at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.
One issue is the popularity of the genetically engineered seeds. Right now somewhere between 94 and 95 percent of soybeans produced in this country are so called Round-up Ready, Lawrence says.
Should a disease develop that struck that variety of soybeans, the vast majority of the U.S. crop could be wiped out, Lawrence says.
Ultimately, “genetic engineering is a tool which can be used for good or bad,” says Sarah Lerch, a researcher and Ph.D. student at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.
“Genetically modified organisms can greatly benefit society when the proper regulations and safety checks are in place. The conversation needs to shift towards fostering a system that is effective at regulating the use and creation of GMOs rather than a discussion of whether they are good or bad.”
Even if GMOs are here to stay, many people still want to know whether the foods they buy are genetically altered. Here are a few ways to know:
- Look for the USDA organic seal. The Food and Drug Administration regulates organic foods and one requirement is the absence of any GMO ingredients.
- Foods labeled “contains organic ingredients” aren’t necessarily GMO-free.
- If the label says “no GMOs”. A call or email to the company can verify.