Today the Senate Agriculture Committee announced that it was putting forth the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act (aka SAFE Act). This bill would block states from individually tackling the issue of requiring food products to be labeled for GMO-containing ingredients (like Vermont plans to do this summer). So, the GMO debate is back front and center.

GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, have been a hotly debated topic for years among consumers, nutrition experts, and the food industry. There is a lot of information out there about GMOs and a lot of passionate people involved in the debate. So much information and passion often leads to confusion (at least it does for me).

What are GMOs?

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are living organisms whose genetic material has been artificially manipulated in a lab to modify their characteristics. Genetically engineered crops are beneficial for pest control and weed management. The most notable example of this is the Hawaiian papaya crop that nearly went extinct from a virus until it was genetically engineered to be resistant to the virus.


What’s all the controversy?

The debate revolves around if genetically engineered foods are safe for humans because genes in the organisms have been modified in a lab instead of occurring naturally. Genetically engineered foods have been around for almost 20 years. These foods are generally recognized as safe (GRAS) by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA routinely reviews research relating to GMOs and food safety as well as any impact on human health. Genetically engineered products do have an environmental impact on biodiversity. There is also a concern that creating resistant crop results in weeds and insects adapting and becoming resistant to the pesticides and herbicides used today.


Why does it matter?

To many it matters if you care about food. There is a tug-a-war going on between consumers’ demand for increased transparency of their food and support for the way food is currently produced. Today, most of the genetically engineered crops are used for animal feed and biofuels but GMO ingredients can also be found in highly processed foods in the grocery store. This will not be an easy debate to resolve given the passion on both sides of the issue. 


At the end of the day, I think it’s great to take an active interest in the food you eat and try to eat a healthy as possible. If your diet is whole food-based and contains foods as close to their original form as possible then you have a healthy diet that’s probably low in GMOs too.