How much do you really know about what your family eats? Genetically modified foods have been around for decades but the debate around them is heating up because the FDA recently recommended approving the first ever genetically engineered protein – a salmon.
How genetically modified foods are changing farming
"I’ve been farming 35 years and we've suffered through three bad years here with limited rainfall," said Williamson County farmer James Prinz.
For the first time in years, Prinz sees hope on the horizon in the form of a seed, a corn that's supposed to be drought resistant.
"We're anxious to plant some and see if it makes a difference," said Prinz.
It's among the latest genetically modified plant to be introduced and grown in the U.S.
"We've seen significant yield advantages under very stressed conditions," said Travis Miller, Ph.D., Texas A&M Professor and Associate Head for Extension Programs.
Miller researches and tests genetically modified crops.
"We don't control whether you use it. The farmers just asks us, 'Does it work?'" said Miller.
Genetically modified organisms, or GMOs as most consumers have come to know them, have been around for decades. They are any plant or animal whose DNA has been altered.
The fact is, unless you're buying all certified organic products most of what you eat, even what you wear, is made of genetically modified ingredients.
Nearly all of this country's corn (88%), cotton (90%) and soybeans (94%) are genetically modified.
"It's fairly well established that there is not a significant difference in nutrition," said registered dietitian Dierdre Earls.
Earls says the big question everyone wants answered: Are genetically modified foods safe?
"It's just been around too short of an amount of time to know what the potential long-term consequences are," she said.
Julie and Bill Hopkins don't want to wait for a long-term government study.
"I definitely want to know what's in my food," said Julie.
As parents of two-and-half-year-old Nyela, they choose to buy organic and eat seafood whenever they can.
"It just seems like a healthier choice,” said Bill Hopkins.
Yet they're more concerned than ever about the future of our food.
Genetically engineered salmon
The FDA has recommended approving the first ever genetically engineered protein -- a salmon.
The salmon is harvested in Panama by a company called AquaBounty. It's DNA has been altered. Scientists add genes from the Chinook salmon and an eel so that it grows faster and gets to your plate quicker.
"People make a joke about the movie Jurassic Park, but I think there's a nugget of truth to that," said George Leonard of the Ocean Conservancy, a non-profit which fights for a healthy ocean. Leonard heads up the fish division.
“This issue is much larger than this individual application. It’s about the future of fish. It’s about the future of seafood, and no one has really asked or answered the really big questions of 'What do we want our future seafood supply to look like?'” said Leonard.
"If the fish get out they could either interbreed with wild fish and have negative effects on wild fish, or even if they don't breed with them, they could compete for food and compete for resources and otherwise undermine wild fish populations," said Leonard.
AquaBounty says no fish have escaped in the 20 years they've been doing research, and the fish are sterile so they can't reproduce.
“One of the arguments made by the company is these grow more quickly and therefore are better from a business perspective. There are other strains of non-engineered fish that grow just as quick as this fish without the risks. So why do we want to take on these risks when there are other ways to go?” said Leonard.
The Ocean Conservancy would like to see the FDA conduct an Environmental Impact Study or EIS.
“That is a more comprehensive and sophisticated analysis of this issue,” said Leonard.
Right now the FDA has no plans to conduct such a study.
Leonard says there's another concern that affects all consumers, like all other genetically modified foods, this salmon won't have to be labeled.
"Consumers have a right to know what’s on their plate. They have a right to make informed purchasing decisions, and part of that is being equipped with information. If you go to the seafood market here you’ll notice, you’ll see if it’s farmed or fresh and the country of origin. It would be very difficult to tell if genetically-engineered salmon is in this marketplace,” said Leonard. “The only way you would know is if it said the country of origin is Panama, which is where it's initially going to be produced."
“That I don’t agree with,” said Julie Hopkins. “That I think is very wrong to Americans we really should know what we’re eating.”
"If they start with salmon, what's next?" asked Bill Hopkins
Ongoing GMO research
The fact is the research is ongoing with both meat and plants, scientists argue because it has to.
"It's about life and death. It's about people being hungry and people not being hungry,” said Miller.
The world is expected to add two billion people in the next 30 to 40 years and already farmers are struggling to feed everyone.
So farmers like Prinz prepare to plant the first drought-resistant corn this spring.
"If it all works and gets better results, you'll see a lot more of it next year," he said.
Organic farmers concerned about GMOs
One survey found nine out of 10 people believe that a food should say on its label if it's from some genetically modified animal or plant. By law, all certified organic products must be created only with non-GMO ingredients.
So if you see a USDA Organic label, that is one way to avoid GMOs.
Here is a list of genetically modified foods/plants the FDA has approved.
Whole Foods at forefront of non-GMO labeling
In 2009, Austin-based Whole Foods began a non-GMO project. It’s an effort to verify and label its store brand products and others which are sourced to avoid GMOs. With the help of manufacturers, retailers, distributors, farmers, seed breeders and consumers they developed North America’s first independent third-party non-GMO Product Verification Program. As a result, hundreds of products, including Austin-based Beanitos, have been verified. All you have to do is look for the labels that say "non-GMO."
California became the first state to ask voters to approve labeling for genetically-modified foods this past election. However, Prop 37 failed.
China, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, countries in the European Union, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Russia, India and Chile are just a few of the nations that already require GMO foods to be labeled.
Voice your opinion about genetically engineered salmon
If you oppose the genetically-engineered salmon and would like to join the Ocean Conservancy’s efforts, the organization has written a letter to oppose selling genetically-engineered salmon. You can personalize that letter and it will also be sent to the FDA. Go here for that link.
AquaBounty has issued its own call for people to support genetically-engineered salmon.
Resources to help you decide what fish to buy
The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program has a lot of resources to help you make smarter choices when you buy seafood. You'll find guides for all kinds of seafood, including information on what to avoid and what is the best choice. And be sure to check out the terrific pocket guides that you can print out to take with you in your wallet or apps you can download to your phone.