It was standing room only at a community event about genetically-engineered foods at the National Center for Primary Care at Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta.
For some, it was the first time they had heard of science’s ability to manipulate genetic material in plants and animals, and for others it was affirmation of a government cover-up of America’s food.
“We have a right to know what’s in our food,” said Rev. Ralph David Abernathy III, son of famed civil rights leader, Ralph David Abernathy Sr. He was outraged when he learned he had been eating genetically-modified organisms, or GMOs, and didn’t know it.
“Without GMO food labels, people are stripped of their right to choose,” he added.
Abernathy — alongside Rashid Nuri, CEO of Truly Living Well Center for Natural Urban Agriculture, and Jeffery Smith, consumer activist and Seeds of Deception author — spoke to the large crowd this fall about the quiet introduction of biotechnology over the past two decades to the American food system.
The World Health Organization defines GMOs as organisms in which the genetic material, or DNA, has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally.
Unlike traditional methods of crossbreeding, genetic engineering is faster and more precise. The process involves selecting a desired trait from one organism and inserting it into the DNA of another. For example, crops can be modified to resist pesticides or designed to have a longer shelf life like the Flavr Savr tomato, the first commercially approved genetically engineered crop in 1994.
Despite the touted benefits that genetically-modified crops are the solution to world hunger, resistant to drought and disease, and enhance nutrition, many believe GMOs have no place in our food supply.
Nuri believes the answer to sustainability can be found in naturally taking care of the land the crops are grown on.
“We build the soil,” he says. “God grows the food. If the soil is strong, the plants are strong.”
The best indication of the quality of soil he says is the number of earthworms in it, for example.
“Go to most commercial farms,” he adds, “and you won’t find anything. The soil is dead.”
While GMO benefits are debatable, GMOs themselves are hard to avoid. The meal you ate last night likely had ingredients that were genetically altered. According to the Grocery Manufacturers Association, 70 percent of processed foods in America’s supermarkets contain genetically-engineered ingredients. That’s because almost all of the corn, soy, cotton, canola, and sugar beets grown in the U.S. are genetically engineered. Most grains fed to farm animals are also genetically engineered.
The Federal Drug Administration believes genetically-modified crops are no different from traditionally grown crops and therefore need no special regulation.
The World Health Organization says GMOs aren’t known to pose a risk to human health, but adds GMOs should be assessed on a case-by-case basis as it’s not possible to make general statements on the safety of all GM foods.
With the prevalence of GMOs, coupled with lax regulation and unknown long-term health risks, more people are demanding to know what’s in their food.
But for those who are concerned with its safety, avoiding GMOs is hard to do. That’s because out of 64 countries requiring labels on GMO-containing foods, the United States is not one of them.
More than 20 states are currently fighting for GMO labeling laws. Monsanto, the world’s largest genetically-modified seed producer successfully squashed California’s Prop 37 in 2012 to label GMOs. And although Connecticut is the first to successfully enact a law requiring labeling, four other states must pass similar legislation in order for it to take effect.
On the other side of the debate, scientists’ attempt to prove GMOs are safe is futile. David H. Freedman writes in the September Food issue of Scientific American, Are Genetically Engineered Foods Evil?:
“Frankenstein monsters, things crawling out of the lab,” Freedman writes. “This is the most depressing thing I’ve ever dealt with.” Goldberg, a plant molecular biologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, is not battling psychosis. He is expressing despair at the relentless need to confront what he sees as bogus fears over the health risks of genetically-modified crops.
“People are afraid of what they don’t understand,” says Caleph B. Wilson, PhD, an immunologist at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania who uses genetic-modification to develop therapies for cancer and HIV patients.
“It’s the same reason people are afraid of the dark,” Wilson says. “They can’t see what’s out there, and that can be scary.”
Wilson says scientists can do a better job at listening to the concerns of the public. He believes once people have a better understanding of the science behind GMOs, even if they still don’t support it, their issue will not be based on fear.
Reyna L. Jones, MPH is a public health journalist and writer with the National Science and Technology News Service, which aims at diversifying news coverage of science and health.