Q. What are genetically modified foods, why are they so controversial, and how do I know whether or not I’m buying them when I go to the grocery store?
Genetically modified foods, also called genetically modified organisms (GMOs), are foods containing genetic material that has been transferred from one organism to another. GMOs are produced to give foods genetic traits that they don’t naturally have.
For centuries, farmers have been crossbreeding plants to create “hybrids” with specific qualities. Producing GMOs, however, is typically carried out by large-scale private biotechnology companies and requires substantially different techniques: genes from animals have been inserted into plants, genes from human beings have been inserted into pigs, and genes from viruses, bacteria, and insects have been inserted into fruits, vegetables, and grains.
Proponents of GMOs argue that genetically modified crops are better able to withstand drought or pests, and may reduce the need for pesticides and herbicides. Some say that genetically modified foods may contain increased levels of certain antioxidants, amino acids, and other nutrients.
Critics point out that GMOs have not been adequately tested – or not tested at all – for safety. Genetically modified foods contain material that has never been consumed by humans, and may pose allergy threats. For example, some genetically modified tomatoes contain prohevein, an allergen found in rubber latex, because it kills fungus. People who are latex-sensitive may experience allergic reactions when they eat them. In addition, there are serious concerns in the medical community that some genetically modified foods contain antibiotic sequences that may lead to antibiotic resistance in humans.
The environmental impact of GMOs is unknown, and there is much uncertainty about the unleashing of foreign, untested genetic material into the ecosystem. This is of special concern for the delicate environment of Hawaii, since more genetically modified crops are reportedly grown here than anywhere else. According to Earthjustice attorney Paul Achitoff, Hawaii has been called “the GMO testing capitol of the world.”
In the United States there is no way to know if you are purchasing genetically modified foods at the grocery store. The European Union requires labeling of all genetically modified foods, and many other countries either require labeling or ban specific GMO crops. However, the FDA does not require that GMO foods be labeled, so the only way to avoid eating them in this country is to buy 100% organic food.
To learn more about GMOs in Hawaii, watch the video Islands at Risk; Genetic Engineering in Hawaii at www.youtube.com A film on GMOs in the United States and abroad is available through www.thefutureoffood.com.