For most of us, the issue of genetically modified food isn’t important enough to write our grocery lists around. While the idea of ingredients that have been scientifically engineered in order to survive diseases and be pest-resistant is hardly appetizing, proponents say they are a way to end world hunger, and there is no solid proof that they can harm us. At the food co-op where I shop, a well-meaning committee affixes green stickers to the shelves beneath non-GMO items, yet if I’m being honest, the labels have little bearing on what I throw in my basket.

Written By: Lauren Mechling

At least they didn’t before I read Modified, Caitlin Shetterly’s eye-opening book about an endlessly complicated issue. Shetterly’s interest in the controversial subject comes from a deeply personal place: A mysterious illness that struck when she was in her mid-30s confounded her doctors, who tried all manner of responses—from conducting brain scans to putting her on antidepressants. Finally, after three years of rashes and chronic exhaustion and pain, she saw an allergist and immunologist who suggested she was suffering an autoimmune reaction to genetically modified corn. Though Shetterly was initially skeptical, she eliminated corn from her diet and found herself to be well again.

Filled with a new sense of purpose, she abandoned her plan to write a novel and traveled across America and to Europe in order to speak with the scientists, farmers, and activists on both sides of the genetic modification issue. Modified is her passionate and rather horrifying account of what is happening in the heartland and to our food supply.

GMO corn and soy were first introduced around 1996. In the late ’90s, only 8 percent of corn grown in the U.S. was genetically modified. That number has shot up to more than 90 percent, and the crops that aren’t GMO are still likely to be contaminated due to wind and pollination from birds and bees. At least 80 percent of our packaged food contains ingredients made from GMO corn or soy, as do many natural foods. GMOs are everywhere, from baby food and seven-grain bread to the wax-lined paper cups we pass out at birthday parties.

While there is still little scientific evidence proving the dangers (or safety) of eating foods that have been genetically modified, what’s not up for debate is that the technology allows for widespread use of chemicals meant to protect crops from insects and disease. When you step back and look at the science pertaining to the pesticides that go hand in hand with GMOs, our reliance on engineered seeds becomes harder to shrug off.

For example, one of the herbicides that farmers favor, atrazine, has been shown to cause genital abnormalities in male frogs. And a 2010 Russian study on hamsters fed genetically modified soy over two years were sterile by the third generation. The USDA, which monitors genetically modified crops, has different standards than the FDA uses in considering which drugs to allow on the market. When asked about adverse effects on people, Shetterly, a mother of two, says, “Our children are the human studies.”

As Shetterly chronicles in her book, the six big biotech companies that produce GMO seeds—as well as the pesticides meant to complement them—contribute funding to many of the biggest biology departments at American universities, as well as wield sway on the political system. Academics feel little incentive to pursue this subject, for fear of being discredited by the scientists the agricultural companies employ. “Most of the people I spoke with said, ‘It wasn’t a hill I wanted to die on,’ so they’d change their research focus,” Shetterly says. “The crux of the problem rests on the fact that our economy is largely based on agriculture,” Tyrone Hayes, a professor of integrative biology at U.C. Berkeley, explains of the scant research currently under way. “If these companies have influence on our politics, it’s little surprise government funding is going to be short. Most of the research is funded by the manufacturers.”

More than 60 countries require that foods made with genetically engineered ingredients say so on the package. In the U.S., a law was just passed, yet companies can include a 1-800 number or a QR code for consumers to look up the information. Many food manufacturers do, however, opt to display a Non-GMO Project Verified label, and anyone concerned with the issue would be advised to download the Non-GMO Project’s free app, which scans bar codes and delivers an on-the-spot verdict.

Shetterly, for her part, devotes time to canning and cooking and freezing locally sourced food. What can the rest of us do? “If there’s one thing, it’s eat organic,” she says plainly. “You won’t find the chemicals in organic food.” And those of us who are lucky enough to shop somewhere with a green-sticker system would be foolish not to pay attention.

Originally Posted: