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The fight over the effects of genetically modified food remains unresolved

Written by Ben Allen, General Assignment Reporter | Jul 7, 2015 8:53 AM

(Harrisburg) -- Chances are, at some point you've had food that's been genetically modified, otherwise known as a GMO. Much of the corn, soy and alfalfa grown in the U.S. come from seeds precisely engineered in a lab to guard against pests. But, there's a divide over the effects of the growing GMO industry.

When I started work on this story, I thought I would be able to sort out fact from fiction. Boy, was I wrong.

"The burden of proof is really on the corporations, not me," says Reverend Dan Hinckle, one of the founders of GMO Free Lancaster County.

"But right now, as well as science can know anything, we have absolutely no evidence that there's any reason to believe that any of these products cause harm," counters Penn State animal science professor Troy Ott.

What exactly is a GMO? For more than a quarter century, Monsanto, Syngenta and other companies have formulated genes in a lab and marketed the resulting seeds to farmers, who turned around and brought the crops to harvest. Eventually, it ends up on our plates.

You know Roundup, the chemical you spray to kill weeds in your backyard?

It's used a lot on genetically modified plants. When I asked to talked with Monsanto about GMOs, it instead connected me with Dr. Denneal Jamison-McClung, associate director of U.C. Davis's biotech program.

"Relative to other herbicides and pesticides that are commonly used in farming, glyphosate's very mild. And that's why farmers have adopted it so readily. That particularly technology affects plant photosynthesis, and people don't photosynthesize and so there's not a direct effect of glyphosate on people," says Jamison-McClung.

Glyphosate is the active ingredient in Roundup. The World Health Organization's international agency for cancer research recently said it's probably carcinogenic. Where there's a GMO, there's probably glyphosate. But it's not clear how much you need to ingest to reach the probably carcinogenic level. When I asked the agency to get specific, they declined.

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Dale Stoltzfus runs Oasis at Bird-in-Hand in Lancaster County, which sells non-GMO foods like meats, cheeses, vegetables and fruit.

Dale Stoltzfus runs Oasis at Bird-in-Hand in Lancaster County, which only sells organic, non-GMO food. He's showing me an Amish farmer's property. The farmer, who didn't want to be identified, says he hasn't used GMO crops since 1999.

"Every year, I'd have to go out and spray my weeds. I could kill the weeds and the crop would look nice, but the next year I'd have to spray again with herbicides. And I still didn't get ahead of them.

"So I got to thinking, well why don't I get a cultivator? It would take a little bit more time, but it would cost less.

He doesn't really know the specific science, but the Amish farmer knows this:

"Just thinking about it makes me feel better."

There's a Penn State Harrisburg student who says he went to an organic diet and his Tourette's ticks were significantly reduced.

Or a Lancaster child who has Crohn's disease and autism, which one mother fears was brought on by glyphosate.

Barbara Peirce with GMO Free Lancaster County says the anecdotes are starting to add up. But when I ask about if she feels the science is there, right now...

"I have confidence that the science will be on our side. There's evidence that it already is."

Will be. That's the takeaway. GMO advocates like Penn State animal science professor Troy Ott actually agree - if there are problems, they'll come to light. But right now, he says credible, rigorous, peer-reviewed studies don't show any reason for concern.

"If any one of them could show in a scientifically valid arena, that there was any evidence of harm, that scientist would immediately become quite famous, would be on every morning news show and that information would be out there. So there's a huge incentive for science to look at these new technologies," says Ott.

"I can't sit here and tell you that my health is being harmed personally necessarily by conventional farming and GMO. I'm concerned about the environment, the fish and frogs and animals and people and the future," says Dale Stoltzfus in Lancaster County.

That's a concern that hasn't been addressed yet. With GMOs spreading, some fear weeds are developing a resistance to Roundup. In some cases, farmers have had to use a mix of herbicides to kill off the weeds. Monsanto and another company, Dow AgroSciences, are asking for the feds to approve crops resistant to other herbicides.

But Stoltzfus notes non-GMOs and the farming practices that go along with it are needed to maintain the biological diversity that's so critical in our world...

"In one teaspoon of healthy soil, there are more microbes than the population of the world."

"That's amazing."

"Shouldn't we be trying to learn more about that and partnering with that rather than just trying to dominate everything and kill things we don't like?"

Just as the debate about how GMOs affect the environment and people's health goes on, so does development of such plants, fruits and vegetables.

This past February, the U.S. Department of Agriculture approved a genetically modified apple that is resistant to turning brown when sliced. It's expected to hit the market in a couple of years.

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