In 1996, U.S. farmers planted the first commercial genetically modified (GM) seeds. Some were engineered to resist herbicides so farmers could apply weed-killing herbicides without destroying their crops. Others contained genes to keep pest insects at bay. Today, about 92 percent of all soy and 80 percent of all corn grown in the U.S. is GM. These crops feed the animals that feed us, and they provide the bulk of our sweeteners and cooking oil. In fact, more than 70 percent of processed foods sold in the United States have ingredients from GM crops.
Yet GM crops remain controversial. France, Italy, Japan and several other countries have banned them because of health concerns and worries that GM crops may spread their engineered traits to other plants. Although company-funded studies and the FDA have labeled these foods as safe, a few preliminary studies suggest they are responsible for allergies, decreased fertility and super-weeds. “Genetically modified foods are a very misunderstood issue in this country,” says Lisa Weasel, a biologist at Portland State University and a member of Oregon’s task force on developing policy for biopharmaceutical crops. Her latest book, Food Fray: Inside the Controversy over Genetically Modified Foods (AMACOM, 2009), takes readers to the frontlines of the debate.