(I'm addressing GMO foods, meaning genetically-modified organisms engineered via transgenic splicing of DNA -- as opposed to modification via breeding, which is not controversial).
Q. Are unlabeled GMO foods already in circulation all over the world?
A. No! Sixty two countries have either banned or required mandatory labels for GMO foods (as of late 2012). This includes not only all of Europe, but also China, India, Brazil, Russia, and Syria. In Europe, GMO food represents a very small proportion of the food supply, but it's not banned. Map: Center for Food Safety.
In the USA, GMO food quietly entered the food supply in the 1990s and has been sold to unsuspecting consumers ever since, without any labeling. In that time, America has seen sharp rises in allergies, bowel-related diseases, and autism compared to countries that don't eat GMOs.
There are many different GMO foods, and we have almost no scientific knowledge as to which ones are safe.
There have been very few controlled studies on the health impact of GMOs; no controlled human trials; and only one long-term animal study. Scientists are impeded from conducting tests. Researchers are legally barred from access to the GMOs, and the derivative foods are unlabeled, making controlled experiments nearly impossible.
The only long-term study found that GMO corn caused massive tumors and premature death in rats starting after one hundred days. Critics complained about the sample size and types of rats used in this study; but those were the exact same as the FDA-approval study, which cleared the GMO corn as "safe" after monitoring impact on rats for only ninety days. I believe the science so far is inconclusive, and I'd love to see more studies.
Q. Are seeds sold in the market potentially GMO too?
A. GMO includes both animals and plants. Just last month, over the holidays, the Obama administration quietly moved forward with approval of GMO salmon (Obama Administration Snubs Risks, Moves Forward With GE Salmon Approval). This would be the first GMO animal for human consumption, and there are plenty more animal species in the research pipeline.
Since the advent of genetic engineering, biotechnologists have engineered potatoes with bacteria genes, "super" pigs with human growth genes, fish with cattle growth genes, tomatoes with flounder genes, and thousands of other plants and animals. At an alarming rate, such creations are being patented for release into our food system.
Currently, up to eighty five percent of U.S. corn is genetically engineered, as are ninety one percent of soybeans, and eighty eight percent of cotton (cottonseed oil is often used in food products). Up to ninety five of sugar beets are now GMO. It has been estimated that upwards of seventy percent of processed foods in the US today - from soda to soup, crackers to condiments - contain genetically engineered ingredients.
Q. What is the reason behind GMO foods?
A. The main benefit "claimed" by GMO proponents is that GMO technology increases agriculture yields or livestock growth. In other words, that it can increase our food supply, presumably lowering food prices.
However, in the USA, GMO crops have not increased yields (Scientific American).
Proponents of GMO crops also defend it as a mechanism for feeding the "rest of the world," citing third-world countries that are struggling with hunger and growing populations.
However, the reality is different. In fact, some of the biggest countries struggling with hunger and population (China, India, and Brazil) all regulate GMO food. In India, GMO seeds have led to the largest wave of suicides in human history: Two hundred and fifty thousand farmers have committed suicide as crop failures have left them in financial ruin, largely because of the declining yields of the GMO seeds.
The UN-sponsored IAASTD, history's most comprehensive & rigorous assessment of global agriculture, recommended against GMO crops, citing that GMOs cause yield declines, and are particularly harmful to subsistence farmers.
Why I support transparency. Label GMOs!
Personally, I support science. I'm for continued research and commercialization of genetic engineering.
I'm willing to eat anything that has undergone rigorous safety tests: animal & human trials. But today, they are sneaking these invented organisms into our food supply after a minimal ninety day rat study.
I also believe anybody who wants to eat untested GMO foods should have the freedom to do so; provided they have the information to make that decision. This is why I support labeling and transparency.
Transparency would create an incentive for GMO producers to invest in safety tests rather than impede safety tests.
Transparency would also make the market more efficient and reduce food prices. Today, they deceptively label GMO foods as "All Natural," charging an unfair premium for food without telling you that it contains patented inventions. If it were labelled accurately, the rich might pay more for food that's actually natural; and that would reduce the price of the GMO food for everybody else.
What's the hubbub about a former anti-GMO activist recanting?
You may have read in NY Times & elsewhere about a flip-flopping "academic," Mark Lynas, recently switching from anti-GMO activist to pro-GMO: New Shade of Green: Stark Shift for Onetime Foe of Genetic Engineering in Crops.
(The article also describes Lynas as admittedly "anti-science" and favoring dogma over data. It includes a photo of Lynas throwing a pie in the face of a fellow academic who disagreed with his views.)
Anybody who builds a career on anti-science dogmas is a dubious source. Lynas's text mixes fact and fiction with surprising carelessness, to arrive at a conclusion that's as flawed as his earlier anti-GMO position.
I believe it's ludicrous to say all GMOs are bad; it's equally ludicrous to say they're all good. This fellow Lynas just flip-flopped from one ludicrous extreme to the other.
Science is good. Genetic research is good. But not all engineering is created equal, and not all engineered organisms are good.
We've all experienced "bad" engineering when we get frustrated with our computer or phone. Even the best engineers make mistakes. And unlike software or phones, the repercussions of releasing a newly-invented creature into the world are less predictable and harder to reverse.
An engineer myself, I believe newly-engineered organisms should be tested more rigorously before being released: human trials and long-term trials, not just ninety day rat tests. Also, no matter how safe (or even beneficial!) a new invention might be, most Americans believe they're entitled to know when new inventions are added to their food. Basic transparency and food labeling is the standard throughout much of the developed world and even the third world, and should be adopted in America as well.
For more info about GMOs, see: The Center for Food Safety
More questions on Healthy Eating: