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What are GMO foods and should you be told you're eating them?

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Fox 2's Deena Centofanti holds genetically modified corn kernels in her hand.  (Credit: Fox 2 News) Fox 2's Deena Centofanti holds genetically modified corn kernels in her hand. (Credit: Fox 2 News)

Many have never heard of the terms GMO or genetically modified organisms, but it's starting to make headlines. Scientists are working on the DNA of our food to make it better and resistant to bugs. But should you be told the food you're eating has been genetically modified?

This is an emotional, complicated issue. We're talking about our food supply. For example, two bags of chips, but one bag is labeled "GMO free". What does that mean, and why should you care?

When you go grocery shopping, chances are most of the processed foods that end up in your cart contain genetically modified organisms or GMOs, but you have no way of knowing it.

The biotechnology is praised by farmers and scientists.

"We harvest more high quality crops with less fertilizer and less pesticide and less water then we ever could before," said corn farmer Mark Lauwers.

However, others have serious concerns about what we don't know.

"There's not a single person among us who hasn't already had exposure to GMO foods. It's just a question to what extent. So we're all part of the experiment," said Dr. Jennifer Green with Beaumont Health System.

Here's how it works. DNA is taken from other species to create new plants that are stronger, resistant to herbicides and draught and even healthier. Now most corn, soybeans, sugar beets and canola crops grown in the world are likely to be genetically modified, which means GMOs are in about 80 percent of processed foods.

Without many of us realizing it, in the 1990s, farmers like Lauwers in Almont, Michigan started planting GMO or genetically modified crops. Thanks to foreign DNA, this corn now grows its own insecticide.

"When the insect eats the green material, the protein disrupts the activity in their stomach and they die from it," Lauwers explained.

Genetically modified corn is used for everything from feeding cattle to making corn chips, and many farmers celebrate this biotech science.

"We're probably using one-tenth of the fungicides, insecticides and herbicides that we used to use," said Lauwers.

The science is as compelling as it is controversial. Green argues we don't know enough about the long-term effects of consuming GMOs.

"There's not a single long-term human study on the safety of genetically modified organisms, which is surprising and shocking," she said.

Proponents argue after 25 years on the market, you can't prove any risk is linked to GMOs either.

"There's really nothing we can point to at this time that would say that this has done any damage to anyone," said Dr. Christoph Benning.

To understand GMO science, I went to Michigan State University, one of the world's top spots for the study of plant biology.

Benning is genetically modifying rutabaga to force it to grow oil in its leaves to someday use for bio fuel. He believes GMOs are helping to feed the world.

"We have crop plants that are more draught resistant. We don't have to run the risk of losing all this crop," he said. "In other parts of the world, food security is not a given. So as the human population grows over the years, the global population, we have to make enough food, and I don't see how we can do it with conventional technologies."

Whether you're frightened or fascinated by the science, should you know if you're eating genetically modified organisms? Certain manufactures voluntarily label their food GMO free, but the government doesn't require companies to tell you when you are eating GMOs.

"Because we have no mandatory GMO labeling laws, as consumers we've had the choice taken away from us. We have no way of knowing what has GMO ingredients and what doesn't," said Green.

However, at Hillers Markets you'll now find signs pointing out which foods are GMO free.

"We feel it probably is not only our duty, but the government's duty to identify those items that are GMO and let the customers decide," said Justin Hiller.

Dr. Benning agrees, saying he believes in the science and has nothing to hide.

"I think it's fine to let people know what they're eating. I think there's nothing wrong with that as long as people understand this is not doing you any harm," he said.

Since you can't rely on labeling for now, the nonprofit group No GMO 4 Michigan says be aware of what you're eating.

"There's four main ingredients -- corn, soy, sugar from sugar beats or canola oil. If any... products have those four ingredients and they're not labeled and they're not organic, chances are they are genetically modified," said Zach Schaeffer with the organization.

Why doesn't the government require GMO labeling? The FDA classifies GMOs as safe and says special labeling isn't necessary. The American Medical Association agrees, saying that labeling is misleading and will falsely alarm consumers.

This science is expanding because next the FDA is expected to approve the first genetically modified animal, salmon, which is being altered to grow bigger and faster.








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