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With genetically modified organisms permeating our food supply, you’d be forgiven for thinking the battle is over. But there are more headlines ahead. Here’s what you need to know when debate resumes in 2014.

Blame it on the states, where a movement to require labeling of genetically modified foods is gaining ground. Both Maine and Connecticut have passed laws requiring eventual labeling. Vermont is on the cusp, and Oregon and Colorado are expected to try soon. Altogether, almost half of all states are examining the issue.(1) But what exactly is that issue?

GMOs are made by inserting new genes into existing species (mostly plants) in order to give them new qualities like rapid growth or frost resistance. Two things about this process are a little weird: One, these genes often come from other species—for example a fish gene may be inserted into tomato DNA—and two, the techniques used are a bit imprecise and often inadvertently cause additional random changes elsewhere in the target food’s DNA.(2)

These “side effects” have the potential to create never-before-seen proteins and make the food toxic or allergenic, or they may lessen its nutritional value.(3) Does this make GMO foods unsafe? Nobody knows. There hasn’t been enough research to say for sure. But some evidence suggests it may be wise to watch what we eat.

Data from GMO Studies

Mice fed GMO soy, for example, experienced altered liver and pancreas activity.(4,5) Rabbits eating GMO soy showed kidney and heart changes.(6) And rats dining on GMO corn suffered liver and kidney damage.(7,8) The scant handful of human studies also found possible trouble. In one study, subjects’ immune systems reacted to GMO soy, an indication of potential allergy concerns.(9) Another controversial study found high levels of a insecticidal protein produced by GMO crops in the blood of pregnant women and their babies.(10)

Here’s something else to consider: Many GMO crops are engineered to resist large amounts of pesticides. Will that make them more likely to be contaminated by those chemicals? Possibly. Tests on bread and cereal bars in England, for instance, found that between 85 % and 100 % of tested product types contained glyphosate, a popular weed killer GMO foods are frequently designed to tolerate.(11)

All of this suggests that we may be wise to practice some GMO precaution. Here’s how: • Know where GMOs hide. Over 90% of U.S. soy, 86% of U.S. corn, and 90% of all canola is genetically modified. That puts GMOs in more than 80% of processed foods. Check ingredients panels and skip foods with these ingredients or ingredients made from them, like corn syrup and soy protein.(12) • Eat organic. By law the use of GMOs is prohibited in organic food production. • Look for “GMO-free” labels from third-party certifiers like the Non-GMO Project. • Watch your cooking oils. Corn, soybean, cottonseed, canola oils, and generic vegetable oils are likely to come from GMOs. • Skip products with aspartame, which can be made from the waste products of GMO E. coli bacteria.(13) • Download the Non-GMO Shopping Guide, which lists GMO-free brands and products.

Finally, support GMO labeling initiatives and your right to know what’s in your food. Just Label It and Right to Know are two organizations working for this needed change.

Want to learn more about GMOs? Read GMO Myths and Truths.

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Geoff the Inkslinger and his Dog

The Inkslinger has written about environmental issues for over 20 years and is a freelance writer for some of America's most iconoclastic companies and non-profits. His true loves include nature, music of the Americana/rock and roll variety, interior design, books, old things, good stories, pagan rituals, and his wife of 24 years, with whom he lives in an undisclosed chemical-free rural Vermont location along with his teenage daughter and two infinitely hilarious Australian shepherds!