Watch CBS News

​Digging for seeds of truth in GMO debate

By some estimates, 80 percent of all processed foods - cereals, baby formula, canned soups and more - contain at least one genetically-modified organism
Food fight over GMOs 10:30

By some estimates, 80 percent of all processed foods -- cereals, baby formula, canned soups and more -- contain at least one GMO, or Genetically Modified Organism. But whether GMOs are safe and whether they should be listed on the label has led to a very big food fight. Our Cover Story is from Barry Petersen:

Delan Perry's papaya farm on the Big Island of Hawaii may be a bit off the beaten path. But it's smack in the middle of a worldwide debate about one of life's essentials: the very food we eat.

His papayas, like almost all those now grown on the Big Island, are GMOs -- genetically-modified organisms.

"I'm sure their first question is, 'Is it safe?'" asked Petersen.

"We say, 'Of course!'" laughed Perry. "Been eating it, my kids have been eating it for 20 years now."

Twenty years ago, the Big Island's papaya industry had been thriving; growers were shipping 60 million pounds of papayas a year. But then insects began spreading a devastating virus called ringspot to nearly every papaya tree on the island. In about three years, the trees were dead. Fields were barren. The industry was literally wiped out.

But a Hawaiian-born plant pathologist, Dennis Gonsalves (then a professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York), came to the rescue.

"We had a technology that could help develop a virus-resistant papaya," he said.

Gonsalves and a team of scientists pulled off a remarkable feat of genetic engineering: they took a DNA strand from the destructive papaya virus and inserted it into the DNA of a papaya seed. Just as with a vaccine for a human, the papayas became immune to ringspot.

One of the final field tests was on Delan Perry's farm in 1997. Photos show the dead and diseased trees surrounding the healthy, genetically-engineered trees.

"It grew beautiful, absolutely beautiful," Gonsalves said. "And even to this day, there has been no breakdown of resistance."

Today, American farmers grow about 10 different GMO crops, including more than 92 percent of all corn and soy. Most are engineered to ward off insects, or to resist weed-killing herbicides (or both). That means farmers can dramatically reduce insecticide use. And when they spray for weeds, the herbicide won't kill their crops.

And most of us eat GMOs every day, in processed foods like soda, cereal, chips and cheese. in November, salmon joined the list; it's genetically engineered to grow faster.

And there are more foods in the pipeline, among them a peanut without the toxin that triggers deadly allergies; and cassavas and bananas (the main source of food for hundreds of millions of Africans) that would become immune to diseases now decimating those crops.

So given all that, why are so many people so opposed to GMOs?

"As a mother and a scientist who's been looking at these issues for some decades, I am increasingly concerned at the ways in which corporations have gained more and more control and influence over our food system," said Marcia Ishii-Eiteman, a senior scientist at the Pesticide Action Network.

Marcia Ishii-Eiteman, of the Pesticide Action Network, with correspondent Barry Petersen. CBS News

"Genetically-engineered seeds are responsible for an enormous increase in the use of pesticides, primarily herbicides -- weed killers," she said. "People have a healthy skepticism to corporations telling us that their products are perfectly safe. We've seen that with DDT and tobacco, for example."

A lot of the opposition to GMOs (dubbed "Franken-Food") is directed at the world's largest seed company, Monsanto. Ishii-Eiteman says she is troubled that when farmers buy herbicide-resistant GMO seeds from Monsanto, they are locked into using large quantities of Monsanto-produced herbicide as well.

And there's something else: Farmers who buy Monsanto's patented GMO seeds must sign an agreement promising that they will use them for only one harvest, or be sued.

"Farmers have done this since the beginning of farming -- they raise their crops, and they save their seeds and they plant them the next year," said Petersen. "So why push farmers not to plant seeds that are patented from Monsanto from this year to next year?"

"We spend a billion and a half dollars a year on research and development," said Hugh Grant, the CEO of Monsanto. "And there needs to be some way of seeing a return on that."

Grant says farmers who want to take their business elsewhere they have plenty of options.

"The grower has very little loyalty," Grant said. "They're looking for the best possible seed that produces the best possible crop."

But those crops are getting harder to sell, as consumers say they don't want GMOs in their food.

Critics, like the group Occupy Monsanto, say consumers do not know of any potential health complications which may arise when eating diets rich in GMOs. "I want to say 'no' to GMO and 'yes' to healthy food," says a girl in an ad.

And some companies are reacting: Chipotle, Hershey and Whole Foods have, or will soon either ban or require the labeling of all GMOs.

The big question is: Is all this fear justified?

"Researchers are only just beginning to investigate the myriad of potential adverse health effects," said Ishii-Eiteman. "The issue is that we don't have the long-term independent studies to be able to answer these questions fully."

And this is the great divide: Polls show 57 percent of Americans think GMOs are unsafe to eat. But consider this: 88 percent of scientists say GMOs are safe.

And prestigious scientific organizations -- among them, the American Medical Association; the World Health Organization; and the National Academy of Sciences -- all say hundreds of peer-reviewed studies confirm GMOs pose no danger to health.

"We're looking at genes that make the plants tolerant of flooding," said Dr. Pam Ronald, a plant geneticist at the University of California - Davis, whose husband is a certified organic farmer. "We're also interested in drought. And we're also looking at genes that control the disease resistance in plants."

Dr. Pam Ronald, a proponent of GMO crops. CBS News

Petersen asked, "Has any study shown even as much as one person who's been harmed or died from eating food that was genetically engineered?"

"There's not a single instance of harm to human health or the environment using genetically-engineered crops," Ronald replied.

Ronald points out that farmers have been genetically altering food for thousands of years, using techniques like grafting, hybridization, and cross-breeding. Look at corn, for example: Today's modern sweet corn produces a hundredfold more grain than its ancient ancestor, which is not used anymore.

"Nothing we eat has been engineered by nature," said Ronald. "Everything we eat has been genetically altered using human intervention."

Still, the vast majority of Americans say GMOs are different, and should be clearly labeled.

"Since the foods are not labeled, we have no way to really ascertain what are the kinds of impacts that people are having who are consuming GMOs, and those who are not," said Marcia Ishii-Eiteman. "Americans have a right to know what's in our food and the right to know how it's been grown."

And Ishii-Eiteman has a surprising ally: The CEO of Monsanto:

"We've been for voluntary labeling for quite some time," said Grant.

"I'm surprised," said Petersen, " 'cause I would think that if there's one company that didn't want people to have GMO on a label when they walk through a grocery store, it would be Monsanto."

"If we're going to be transparent with this, we should really open it up," Grant replied. "To me, that makes sense."

What no one disputes is this: The controversy over GMOs is creating an ever-lengthening approval process in countries around the world.

Take vitamin-enriched Golden Rice, which could help 250 million children who have a sometimes-fatal vitamin A deficiency.

"We absolutely have to have food that's safe," said Dr. Pam Ronald. "But what's been put into the Golden Rice is a pigment that we eat every day, or should eat every day, in carrots. And as we impose additional regulatory hurdles that are not placed on other crops, many children are dying every day."

Faced with increasing anti-GMO public opinion, the push to ban them is accelerating in rich countries where there is so much food that obesity is a major health issue.

Yet, their biggest impact could one day be on the increasingly hungry third world -- a lesson not lost of Dennis Gonsalves, the man whose genetic engineering saved Hawaii's papayas.

"We in the United States, we're rich, we have a lot of food, no problem," he said. "But a lot of these people in these other countries don't have much food. And that reaction is really harming the people most in need."

For more info:

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.