Eliminating world hunger is a hefty, almost impossible task. But with advances in biotechnology, scientists have become known for their ability to grow the world’s food supply. Biotechnologists modify biological systems or organisms to make different or new products. There are two major types of biotechnology used in our food system: selective breeding and recombinant DNA (rDNA) technology. It’s the latter of the two which has provoked the most controversy.

The goal of biotechnology in our food system is to produce food that has superior nutrient composition, extended shelf life and the removal of food allergens. Other benefits include increased crop yields, minimized water, pesticide and herbicide use and increased hydrocarbon fuels.

Selective breeding, the process in which farmers choose their best products and use them for reproduction in hopes of improving selected traits, has been around for centuries. This process involves combining multiple genes across the same species. However, in rDNA technology scientists are directly altering an organism’s genes and not always staying within the same species. An example of rDNA technology is the inclusion of a bacterial protein found naturally in certain plants and also commonly used as a pesticide by organic farmers into the DNA of corn and soybeans.

Although you may be familiar with the phrases genetically engineered (GE) and genetically modified organisms (GMOs), you may be unaware that you are likely eating these foods on a daily basis. Around 90 percent of corn, soy, cotton and canola grown in the United States has been genetically engineered. According to some resources up to 80 percent of the processed foods in the U.S. contains GMOs.

The majority of GMO corn and soy is actually used for animal feed but the rest makes its way into our food supply as processed corn meal, high-fructose corn syrup, corn and soybean oils, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, soy lecithin, and more. Most Americans consume processed foods everyday, which more than likely contain products derived from GE corn and soy. However, through processing virtually all of the modified genes and proteins are eliminated. Does this make GE crops safe to consume?  Although current guidelines have deemed these foods safe to consume, research is ongoing.

Since the late 1980s GE crops have been under federal regulation by three agencies: the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Each oversees a different aspect of GE crops from environmental safety to the safety of consumption by both humans and animals. The concerns from researchers and consumer groups are mounting due to the potential weaknesses in the regulation of these crops, the potential for new allergens and toxins to be introduced, and several other reasons.

It’s unlikely this technology will disappear so fighting for the right to know becomes the consumers’ main objective. The bottom line is consumers should have a choice in what we consume. Unfortunately, that is not the case here in the U.S. because we don’t have mandatory labeling laws for these products. Some manufacturers have voluntarily labeled their products as non-GMO, but it is highly unlikely you will see a food package stating the ingredients were from GE crops. If you don’t want to consume GE foods then it’s best to buy certified organic products. The majority of our produce, from apples to zucchini, has not been genetically modified but science is changing everyday and a good rule of thumb is to buy organic especially for high-risk crops such as alfalfa, canola, corn, soybeans and sugar beets.

Catherine Wallace, MSH, RD, LD/N is a local Registered and Licensed Dietitian. She works as a Clinical Pediatric Dietitian at Wolfson Children’s Hospital and teaches Nutrition and Food Science at the University of North Florida.