WASHINGTON — Genetically modified foods have been around for years, but most people in the United States have no idea if they are eating them.
The Food and Drug Administration says such foods don’t need to be labeled, so some states are moving forward on their own.
Vermont recently became state the first to require labeling of genetically modified organisms. Bills and ballot initiatives are pending in many more.
A look at the debate and some of the facts about genetically modified foods:
What they are
GMOs are hard for the average consumer to grasp. You can’t touch or feel a GMO.
Genetically modified foods are plants or animals that have had genes copied from other plants or animals inserted into their DNA.
It’s not a new idea.
Humans have been tinkering with genes for centuries through selective breeding. Think dogs bred to be more docile pets, cattle bred to be beefier or tomatoes bred to be sweeter. Turkeys were bred to have bigger breasts — better for Thanksgiving dinner.
What’s different about genetically modified or engineered foods is that the manipulation is done in a lab. Engineers don’t need to wait for nature to produce a desired gene. They speed up the process by transferring a gene from one plant or animal to another.
The vast majority of scientific research has found genetically engineered foods to be generally safe.
An Italian scientist’s review of 10 years of research, published in 2013, concluded that the scientific research conducted so far has not detected “any significant hazard directly connected with the use of GM crops.”
One French research team raised safety questions. But their much-criticized 2012 study linking genetically modified corn to rat tumors was retracted in 2013 by the scientific publisher, who cited weak evidence supporting the conclusions.
Even the food police say they are safe.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a well-known critic of food companies and artificial and unhealthy ingredients in foods, has not opposed genetically modified foods, on the basis that there’s no evidence they are harmful.
There are clear benefits for the agricultural industry.
For example, crops that are engineered to ward off pests or to tolerate herbicides. Also, companies such as Monsanto that produce modified seeds say their technologies will be needed to feed a rising world population as they engineer crops to adapt to certain climates and terrains.
So far, most modified foods have been grown to resist chemicals, pests or disease. But advocates envision engineering crops to make them more nutritious as well. Food animals have been engineered to be bred to be free of diseases, be cleaner in their environments or grow more efficiently, though none has yet been approved in the United States.
There is an escalating political fight between labeling advocates and the food industry. In the absence of a federal labeling standard, GMO opponents have gone to the states to try to get a patchwork of labeling laws approved. That could eventually force a national standard.
Ballot measures in California and Washington state failed, but the legislative effort prevailed in Vermont. Maine and Connecticut have passed laws requiring labels, but they don’t take effect unless other states follow suit. The food industry has said it will challenge the Vermont law in court.
The state efforts aren’t slowing down. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, there are 85 pending GMO labeling bills in 29 states.
In Congress, the food industry is pushing a House bill that would head off efforts to enact mandatory labeling of genetically modified ingredients by proposing new voluntary labels nationwide — an attempted end run around the state-by-state laws.
Currently, the FDA says labeling of genetically modified foods isn’t needed because the nutritional content is the same as non-GMO varieties.
Consumers increasingly are interested in what is in their food, including GMOs.
Labeling proponents say it’s about transparency, not technology. They say there is precedent, like orange juice labels that say whether the juice is from concentrate.
David Ropeik, the author of the book “How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts,” says he thinks the food industry should endorse labeling so it can move past the debate.
“By supporting labeling, companies would say, ‘There’s no risk, we have nothing to hide,’ ” he says.