How Much of Our Food Is Bioengineered?

In a speech yesterday at the Coast Guard Academy, President Bush blasted the European Union for restricting the import of genetically modified foods. How much of the food produced and consumed in the United States qualifies as bioengineered?

A lot more than you probably realize. Two of the nation’s biggest crops, soybeans and corn, are subject to frequent genetic tinkering, often intended to help them fend off insects. Corn is commonly modified with the addition of a gene from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis; the resulting plant kills maize-devouring caterpillars. Other added genes bestow resistance to certain herbicides, which might otherwise decimate the crop.

Approximately 76 percent of last year’s American soybean crop was GM, as well as 32 percent of corn. (Some estimates place the corn figure closer to 50 percent.) As habitual label readers know, soybean and corn products are ubiquitous on grocery-store shelves, present in everything from Pop-Tarts to veggie burgers to Campbell’s tomato soup (which lists “high fructose corn syrup” as a primary ingredient). No government body keeps precise statistics, but a popular guesstimate among university researchers is that around 70 percent of processed foods contain GM ingredients. Considering that about 90 cents of every dollar spent at the supermarket goes toward processed foods, chances are you’ve been unwittingly consuming GM victuals since the mid-1990s, when they began appearing in stores.

The other two crops that are regularly modified are canola and papayas. About half of canola consumed in the United States is GM, though the bulk of it comes from Canada. And upward of 90 percent of Hawaiian papayas are tweaked to ward off insect infestations. [Correction, June 12, 2003: Hawaiian papayas are bioengineered to fight the papaya ring spot virus, not an insect.] GM potatoes were phased out three years ago, due to consumer backlash; the fry-eating public was worried about the long-term health risks (the FDA does not review individual GM products for safety), and the middlemen who sell to McDonald’s and Burger King refused to peddle fine-tuned taters. The Flavr Savr tomato, one of the first GM vegetables, is also out of circulation, but only because it didn’t taste very good.

There are few guidelines regarding the labeling of GM foods in the United States. The Food and Drug Administration mandates that bioengineered foods be labeled as such only if the nutritive content has been substantially changed or if a potential allergen (like a peanut gene) has been added. The European Union, by contrast, has placed a moratorium on the import of GM foods, a serious blow to American farmers.

Next question?

Explainer thanks Mike Vayda of the University of Maine and Craig Winters of the Campaign to Label Genetically Engineered Foods.

[Correction, June 12, 2003: Hawaiian papayas are bioengineered to fight the papaya ring spot virus, not an insect.]