GMOs or genetically modified organisms have gained more media attention recently, as several US states have approved or proposed laws regulating the labeling of food for GMOs. While Maine and Connecticut approved such laws this summer, New York, Vermont, Hawaii and Oregon seek to propose similar bills during next year’s election cycle. Since Americans started eating genetically modified foods in 1996, supporters and opponents have been having a heated debate whether GMOs are beneficial or detrimental. The points of discussion concern potential health risks, growing herbicide- and pesticide resistance, as well as patent agreements with big agri-biotech companies.
Public opinion on genetically modified foods is still divided: In California, a proposal to label food for GMOs failed by only 51% to 49% earlier this year. Still, food safety advocates expect a national standard set by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in addition to state regulations. The federal government, however, is reluctant to implement a national labeling law mainly because there has been no strong evidence that GMOs are unsafe to eat and several reputable agencies have endorsed the safety of GM food. A state-commissioned report found “no statistically significant, repeatable evidence of adverse health consequences” with regard to genetically modified foods. Yet, many critics of GMOs question how the data from this report was gathered and request more extensive research on the matter.
Another controversial issue is that GM crops have become more resistant to herbicides and pesticides, which has resulted in an increased use of these chemicals. While proponents of GM crops argue that genetically engineered crops allow farmers to use less herbicides and pesticides, and therefore make their farms more eco-friendly and economical, a new study by Food & Water Watch using data from the USDA and EPA found that GM crops adopt quickly and that the overall herbicide use has grown over the last nine years. Another study by Washington University from last year supports these findings, highlighting that spraying a pesticide repeatedly actually selects for resistant weeds. These then breed even more resistant weeds or “superweeds,” which are able to withstand larger amounts and different sorts of herbicides.
Furthermore, corporate patents by agri-biotech giants like Monsanto render farmers susceptible to lawsuits if their fields have been contaminated by GM seeds, even though they spread naturally through cross-pollination. In the past, Monsanto has sued more than 100 farmers for patent infringement and won cases against farmers who have used GM seeds without paying royalties to Monsanto. In September, 37 farmers, seed companies, and public advocacy groups appealed their case to the U.S. Supreme Court, challenging the “usefulness” requirement of patent law. They cited evidence that GMOs have negative economic and health effects, while the alleged benefits for food production and circumventing toxic chemicals are weak. Furthermore, farmers who do buy the patented seeds have to promise not to save seeds from the resulting crop and buy new seeds every year, which may not be feasible for poor farmers in developing countries.
Regardless of where you stand on genetically modified foods, you should remember that this is a very complex issue that involves multiple parties and plays out on various levels. Furthermore, experts on both sides agree that there hasn’t been sufficient research on the benefits and dangers of GMOs to make a final verdict. However, in order to make an educated decision for you and your family, it’s advisable to gather as much information as possible on GMOs and their impact on agriculture, health, and the economy.