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 November 04, 2014
Should you worry about GMO foods?

 If you haven't yet heard of the buzz-acronym "GMO," with the controversy surrounding it, bet you will soon. And odds are that you and your family have been eating "genetically modified organisms" (a common term for genetically engineered foods) --- or their derivatives --- without even knowing it.

After all, there isn't a way to tell GMOs apart from their non-GMO twins without biochemically analyzing them; scientists may have tinkered with the genes (which they do to make the plants more resistant to pests and herbicides), but that hasn't affected the taste or look of the product itself.

But scientifically engineered food is far more common than most of us might realize, said Margaret Smith, professor of plant breeding and genetics at Cornell University, who estimated that 90 percent of the feed corn, soy and cotton grown in the United States has been genetically modified (she's also heard estimates that one in five ears of sweet corn have as well, but said there aren't hard data to support that.)

This means that the derivatives of these products --- such as corn syrup or starch --- often come from genetically engineered foods. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Resource Service, about 95 percent of the nation's sugar beet crop is genetically modified, and that crop provides the raw material for 55 percent of the sugar produced in the United States.

Which sugar is a GMO, and which isn't? Good luck figuring that out, Smith said. Once a plant is chemically broken down to turn corn into corn syrup or a sugar beet into sugar, the protein or DNA markers that would indicate it's a GMO have been eliminated.

"You no longer find any difference between them," she said. "Starch is starch, oil is oil, and there's no protein or DNA in it. They're chemically identical."

Does that matter? Are GMOs bad for us?

It depends on whom you ask. The government --- the Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency --- suggests no (the government is responsible for the safety of GMOs).

Many scientists concur. Smith, for example, said that she has yet to see evidence that the products are hazardous.

"I don't see anything in terms of food safety, feed safety, or potential allergens. I think people have latched onto this partly because of a lack of understanding. We've changed crops a lot from when they were first in the wild, and it sounds really scary if you don't know that."

Others in the science community argue that not only are GMOs safe but are helping keep down food costs. In a recent op-ed in The Record, Gal Hochman, an associate professor in the department of agriculture, food, and resource economics at Rutgers University, and David Zilberman, professor in the department of agricultural and resource economics at the University of California at Berkeley, noted that GMOs have contributed to reducing the price of corn by 15 percent and soybeans by 30 percent, and have lowered the annual food bill for a typical family by $250. They also noted that a Cornell University study found that a family of four would pay $500 more per year on average if labeling foods as "GMO" or "non-GMO" was made mandatory -- something that many consumer groups are campaigning for.

Smith concedes that GMO crops have had their genetic material manipulated beyond what could have been done through selective breeding or cross-pollination (bacteria and insects have been genetically engineered as well). This is why, some argue, until we know more about GMOs, we can't assume that they don't --- or won't --- pose a health risk, and thus should be labeled accordingly.

Camille Miller, executive director of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New Jersey (NOFA-NJ), remains unconvinced of their safety, and does not eat GMOs because of concerns about the long-term affects on the body.

"It's like cigarettes --- you have one cigarette and you're not going to die, but if you do it over years, there's a good chance it's building up," she said. "Consumers should have a choice, like anything else in regard to their foods."

Keith Monahan, the secretary for and a board member of the organization GMO Free NJ, which supports food labeling, agreed, and worried that because of GMO plants' increased tolerance of certain herbicides, those herbicides may be used more freely, and residuals may be finding their way into our food supply.

"We are ingesting a lot of chemicals because of the way GMOs are currently being used," he said.

But consumers can rest assured that USDA-certified organic food and food products are not genetically engineered. Plus many non-processed or slightly processed foods -- like peanut butter --- do not contain genetically modified ingredients. However, highly processed foods might well.

There are no federal labeling laws on the books, although the New Jersey Legislature is currently considering some proposed regulations. That hasn't stopped some stores, like Whole Foods, from taking the initiative themselves.

Michael Sinatra, public relations manager for Whole Foods in the northeast region, said that although the chain doesn't have an official position on the issue, many in the public are surprised to hear that the store carries food containing GMOs considering its emphasis on organic fare.

However, Sinatra said the company has a plan to label all of its foods, GMO or not, by 2018, in the interest of providing "as much transparency as possible about what is or isn't in their food." Thousands of the store's products have already been certified as "GMO-free."

"We're not scientists --- we're grocers," Sinatra said, "but people should know what they're putting in their body."

Trader Joe's has a similar approach, stating that when developing products that contain ingredients likely to come from genetically modified sources, the company has the product supplier research and provide documentation (in the form of affidavits, certifications, and third-party lab results) that those ingredients are from non-GMO sources. This only extends to products with the Trader Joe's label, however, and the company is unable to confirm that animal products sold under that label were raised on non-GMO feed.

As for taste? Experts say genetically modified foods don't taste any better than conventional foods.

Nevertheless, Christine Nunn, chef and owner at the soon-to-be-opened Picnic on the Square in Ridgewood, said that it's difficult to not use GMOs. "Anybody who says they won't use GMOs ... good luck with your food costs."