Calif. to vote on labeling genetically modified foods


Calif. to vote on labeling genetically modified foods

Questions and answers about GMO foods

What are genetically engineered foods?

These are plants that have had a gene from another plant inserted into them to give them some ability they didn’t have before. Today, there are two common genetic modifications. One is for herbicide tolerance: Plants are given a gene that protects them from harm when a farmer sprays them with herbicides to kill weeds. The other commonly added trait is a gene from a soil bacteria called Bacillus thuringiensis that allows plants to produce their own insecticide.

What’s a GMO?

It means genetically modified organism, a common term for genetically engineered foods.

How long have genetically engineered foods been on the market?

The first in the United States was the Flavr Savr tomato in 1994. It did not sell well because it didn’t taste any better than other tomatoes.

How much of our food is genetically engineered?

In the United States today a huge proportion of the most commonly grown commodity crops are genetically engineered: 95 percent of the nation’s sugar beets, 94 percent of the soybeans, 90 percent of the cotton and 88 percent of the feed corn, according to the 2011 International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications report.

About 90 percent of the papaya grown in the United States, all in Hawaii, has been genetically engineered to allow it to withstand the ringspot virus, which virtually wiped out papaya production in the islands in the 1980s.

Very small amounts of genetically engineered zucchini, yellow squash and sweet corn also are sold in the United States.

What about other foods?

There are genetically engineered versions of tomatoes, potatoes, wheat and rice, but none are sold in the United States.

Do most of the foods I eat contain genetically engineered ingredients?

It depends on what you eat and what you mean by “contain.”

Most unprocessed or little-processed foods, such as peanut butter, blueberries, wheat bread, milk, cheese and vegetables contain no genetically engineered ingredients.

Although it’s frequently said that 40 to 75 percent of the food in a typical supermarket contains genetically engineered ingredients, the actual percentage of genetically engineered material in those products is usually quite small.

Many processed foods can truthfully be said to contain genetically engineered ingredients because most contain sugar (42 percent of the sugar Americans consume comes from genetically engineered sugar beets, the rest from sugar cane), vegetable oils and high-fructose corn syrup. However, in those ingredients, the processing that turns them from corn, beets or soy beans into high-fructose corn syrup, sugar or soy oil also eliminates the DNA and proteins that contain the genetic modification. They are “chemically and biologically identical” to non-GE ingredients, says Gregory Jaffe, who directs the Biotechnology Project at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Why do farmers plant genetically engineered crops?

Although genetically engineered seed costs more than conventional seed, for many farmers the time saved and reduced use of insecticides and pesticides make them economical.

Are there benefits for consumers?

Not really. Genetic engineering hasn’t created anything that’s “cheaper, tastier or nutritionally enhanced” for customers to buy, says food writer Michael Pollan. Some vegetable oils from canola, safflower and soy that have lower polyunsaturate levels are in development.

Why do many people oppose genetically engineered foods?

There are four main reasons people oppose them:

Concerns about unknown dangers to human health.

The concentration of corporate control over agriculture by the few companies, mainly Monsanto, DuPont, Bayer and Dow, which own the technology and patents to create these crops.

An increase in the use of herbicides in conjunction with herbicide-resistant crops.

The evolution of herbicide-resistant weeds and Bt-resistant insects because these crops are so widely planted.

Does the FDA test these foods before they’re allowed on the market?

No. Instead there is a voluntary consultation process. Genetically engineered foods are overseen by the FDA, but there is no approval process.

Elizabeth Weise

Calif. to vote on labeling genetically modified foods

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