INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) - It's something you're likely eating every day, but may not realize it. Genetically modified foods have been around for nearly 20 years, and the use of the technology is only increasing.
Liz Feng never gave much thought to where her food came from until desperation forced her to start looking.
"My hair started falling out, skin problems," she described. "Everything all at once, allergies, just bam. It's like I'm a different person!"
With no specific diagnosis, Liz started researching her food.
"I just started to get further and further into it and that's when I was like, ‘Oh my gosh!'" she said. "There's a whole thing going on with our food system I had no idea about."
She started to learn about genetically modified organisms, or GMO's. They're a part of many foods Americans consume.
"It's amazing," Purdue's Peter Goldsbrough said. "It's real 'gee-whizzy' stuff."
Goldsbrough, a Professor of Botany and Plant Pathology at Purdue University, has been involved in the biotechnology since the first genetically modified tomato was released in 1994. It was modified to have a better shelf life and better flavor.
"This is interesting technology. It has the ability to do things that aren't either feasible or very easy to do using conventional plant breeding or plant improvement methods."
For example, if a new disease is found in your corn crop, it has the potential to destroy the entire crop. Scientists can go to a distant relative of corn, a grass, and pull a gene that is resistant to this fungus. Then, they transfer it into the corn and all of a sudden the crop is good to go.
It can be a crop saver, so it's no surprise farmers have been buying the GM seed at record levels.
At Beck's Hybrids in Hamilton County, about 87 percent of corn seed and 98 percent of the soybeans they sell are genetically modified.
"There's still a class of farmers that uses the non-GMO types of crops and in many cases get premiums for doing that," owner Scott Beck explained. "But by far the largest percentage of farmers are using the biotech traits and finding the benefit from those."
"This is a really big industry that involves a lot of money and a lot of politics," said Despi Ross with Slow Food Indy.
She's concerned with what she believes is a lack of research about GMOs.
Some GMOs work by sequestering certain nutrients in the plants. She believes the protein very well may continue its work once it's consumed by humans.
"Because it's consuming those nutrients in our bodies, we're seeing this explosion of all these diseases related to those nutrients."
Ross admits there's no proof of that, but there's no proof it doesn't. It's why Ross and Feng believe consumers deserve to have GMO labels put on food.
Whole Foods recently made a commitment to label all items that contain genetically engineered ingredients by 2018.
"We just want to inform consumers," said Sarah Smith with Whole Foods. "We want there to be labeling. Customers have a right to know what's in their food."
While the European Union requires labeling of GMO foods, efforts to require labeling have failed in the US on the national and state level.
An effort in the Indiana Statehouse to require labeling of GMO foods failed quickly.
In January 2013, House bill 1196 was proposed. It was dismissed immediately without even getting a hearing.
Representative Don Lehe, chairman of the state's agriculture committee, explains why.
"Quite frankly, I've not seen anything in regards to research or results that have shown those problems."
Lehe says labeling would be too expensive and too hard to define. He believes Hoosiers should be embracing the technology, not fighting it.
"Indiana's going to be at the forefront of that technology," he explained. "I've heard numbers of 70 percent of the increase in the development of this type of technology will be in states like Indiana."
Back at Purdue, Goldsbrough says the potential for the technology can do a lot of good. For example, he describes an effort underway now to make rice with beta-carotene. The benefit of that could especially be seen in developing countries.
"The idea is that when children, adults eat this rice they'll get more vitamin A and that'll prevent more disease, blindness, death," he explained. He says it would be impossible to have vitamin A in rice without genetic engineering.
Research is also moving into genetically modifying animals. Goldsbrough pointed to pigs and salmon.
"Pigs have a problem because there's a lot of phosphorous that comes out in the pig poop," he explained. "So they've genetically engineered pigs to make an enzyme in their saliva that helps them absorb more of the phosphorous."
He says similar research is being done on salmon to make them grow more quickly.
He understands the expanded research comes with concerns.
"People messing with genes sounds a little scary," he said. "There's an element of Jurassic Park in there with ‘Genes Gone Wild'. There's always a risk with anything, but I think this technology, the
way it's being used at the moment is perfectly safe."
Even though there is no labeling, there are some ways to tell if your food contains anything that's been genetically modified.
One is the numbers on produce: A five-digit code that starts with an eight means the item is genetically modified. Although technology has given life to GMOs, it's also helping consumers make educated choices.
The app "Ipiit" allows you to scan bar codes on foods.
You can program your settings to "gluten-free" or "GMO-free" and after you scan, it will tell you if it's a good choice for you.
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