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GMOs: Researchers debate the safety of genetically modified foods

Seventy percent of items in American grocery stores contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs) – ingredients that have been scientifically engineered in laboratories to enhance certain traits such as insect, disease and water resistance.          

“Genetic engineering is a recent technique that involves being able to take genetic material from one organism and put it into another when the two wouldn’t normally be cross-compatible,” said Margaret Smith, associate director for the Cornell University Agricultural Experiment Station.

There are four major genetically modified crops: corn, soy bean, cotton and canola.  According to Smith, this type of technology can be useful.

“We're facing increasing stresses from more erratic weather and new and different pests that move in,” Smith said.  “I think in that regard we're going to need every possible tool we can get to help make our crops as productive as they possibly can be.”

GMOs have only been on the market since 1995, but they’ve recently sparked a national debate over the potential impact they could have on the environment – and our health.

Dr. Michael Wald, of Integrated Medicine of Mount Kisco in New York, said more research needs to be done in order to prove that genetically engineered foods are safe to eat.

“The studies that have been done on different animals – and also reports from farmers – seem to suggest health issues, including intestinal problems, inflammation of the colon…and problems with the kidneys, the liver, the lungs,” Wald said.

Smith also agreed that research is key when it comes to assessing the safety of GMOs.

“None of the products out there have shown any evidence, over the 15 plus years they’ve been (on the) market, of human health concerns,” Smith said.  “So, I find that reassuring in terms of food safety.  That doesn’t say that new products shouldn’t be looked at very carefully.”

The Food and Drug Administration has approved over 40 seeds and plants for genetic modifications – but the agency leaves the safety assessments up to the companies.  However, more and more Americans are asking for GMO products to be labeled - and for the right to know what exactly they are eating.

“If people are not confident in genetically modified foods at this point, they simply should avoid them or purchase less of them,” Wald said. “That will send a direct message to the manufacturers, the big companies that are producing these seeds.”

To learn more about GMOs, visit FDA.gov.