Ongoing debate focuses on safety of GMOs

Up to 70 percent of food consumed in the U.S. contain some genetically modified crop

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – Lori Greene is a food shopper and Jim Bittner is a conventional farmer; together they represent the two sides of the ongoing debate over genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.

“A lot of people think that a GMO is harmless and that’s not necessarily the case,” Greene said to News 4 Investigates while being interviewed at Wegmans.

“If they sit back and look at the science of it, they’re safe,” countered Bittner, president and general manager of Bittner-Singer Orchards in Appleton which supplies fruits to area markets.

What are GMOs?

You probably eat genetically modified organisms all the time; one estimate is that 70 percent of the foods consumed in the U.S. have a GMO-component. Products containing sugar beets, corn or soybeans are likely to contain GMOs. Some GMOs help plants fight insects, others allow plants to resist chemical sprays.

“You can now move genes between organisms that normally couldn’t cross before,” explained Michael Hansen, senior scientist, Consumers Union.

Are GMOs harmful to people?

Margaret Smith, from Cornell University, says genetically modified foods are safe. “Yes, these are new and different,” said Smith, a native of East Aurora. “They have been evaluated quite carefully for food safety. So as far as any credible scientific information I’ve seen, there is nothing to worry about in terms of food safety.

“As a scientist, I see no evidence that would suggest reason for concern with the products that are being commercially grown and used in the food system right now,” said Smith who is a corn breeding specialist.

Hansen, who is a biologist and GMO critic, has been studying the issue of GMOs for 20 years. He says animal studies raise flags that require that GMOs receive more study before they are allowed on the market.

“What we can see is there is global agreement in the scientific community that GE [generic engineering] does differ from conventional breeding that it does raise safety issues, that should require pre-market review before the crops are allowed on the market,” said Hansen.

“The U.S. is one of the few developed countries that does not require such testing.

“Now feedings studies in animals have demonstrated the potential for adverse effects have been seen in the livers, kidneys, and the immune system of animals. That suggests further problems that should be looked into further.

“There was also a long term feeding study that was quite controversial that found increased tumors in animals fed genetically modified crops. That work needs to be replicated and looked into.”

Mark O’Brian, a molecular biologist in the University at Buffalo Medical School considers himself a neutral observer in the GMO debate. He says scientists have discredited the animal studies.

“There’s a pretty strong consensus in the scientific community that they are not well done experiments,” said O’Brian who considers GMOs safe for people. “There have been a lot of reports addressing the safety of GMOs. There’s strong consensus in the scientific community that GMOs are safe.”

“The National Academy of Sciences has come to this conclusion, the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences has come to this conclusion, the World Health Organization has concluded that GMOs are safe,” O’Brian said. “The American Medical Association has concluded that the labeling of products as GMOs from a safety perspective is unnecessary.”

“I don’t have any stake in this other than the fact that I think it’s important that people make decisions based on accurate information,” O’Brian added.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says there’s no difference between GMO and non-GMO foods. And companies, like Monsanto, that produce the seeds, say GMO crops are safe.

GMO opponents object to how the government approves GMOs. Companies voluntarily submit data that the FDA reviews. Consumer advocate Patty Lovera wants the FDA to conduct its own studies.

“We don’t have a system that’s going to find problems because they’re not looking for problems and the research is being done by the companies that want to sell them,” Lovera, assistant director, Food and Water Watch, a nonprofit that represents consumers on various food issues told News 4.

Michael Hansen is worried about how genes are changed, “If it goes in the wrong place it could shut off a gene that’s normally doing something important or turn on a gene that does something bad, we just don’t know.”

While unintended consequences are possible, O’Brian says required testing is a safety valve, “They are tested to minimize these risks.”

All of this debate leaves some shoppers such as Lori Greene in a quandary, “I don’t think there have been studies and definitive answers on how it’s affecting us,” she said.

At the very least, critics want the FDA or individual states to join the 64 countries that require labeling of GMO foods.

The push to label GMO products has turned into a debate across the country.

In New York, a bill first introduced in 2002, got some committee action this year when it moved out of the Assembly’s Consumer Affairs Committee but it will die at year’s end. Its Assembly sponsor, Linda B. Rosenthal plans to refile the bill in January.

Similar bills were introduced in 29 states in 2014.

Labeling laws were defeated in California in 2012 and in Washington in 2013. Vermont passed a law earlier this year becoming the first state in the country to require labeling but it is being challenged in federal court. Labeling laws were passed in Connecticut and Maine but they are contingent on neighboring states also adopting GMO labeling.

In November, voters in Colorado and Oregon defeated labeling laws.

The Oregon law would have required labeling of raw and packaged foods produced entirely or partially by “genetic engineering,”

The Colorado law would have required “food that has been genetically modified or treated with genetically modified material to be labeled, ‘Produced With Genetic Engineering’ starting on July 1, 2016.”

Genetically-modified and genetically-engineered are used interchangeably although ‘genetic engineering’ more accurately describes the process.

Peter Horvath, University at Buffalo nutrition professor says labeling would tell consumers what they are eating and allow for health studies.

“If they’re not labeled how can we follow this population and they say ‘I ate [a particular food]’ We don’t know if that has GMO or modified foods in it or not,” said Horvath, an associate professor in the department of exercise and nutrition sciences.

GMO critics say consumers do have the last word on this issue.

General Mills added a non-GMO label to its Cheerios box after consumers rejected a plan to use GMO ingredients. Other companies are labeling too, but there are no federal standards.

There’s a non-GMO project that encourages food producers to label their products with a distinctive label, but that is not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

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