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GMOs and a potential US-Europe pact

How a food fight could derail talks on a lucrative free-trade treaty.

A girl holds up a sign during a protest against US-based Monsanto Co. and genetically modified organisms (GMO), in New York May 25, 2013.

Eduardo Munoz/REUTERS

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The United States and Europe have reportedly begun negotiations for a new free-trade agreement that would be the biggest in the world and provide an enormous boost to both parties' sagging economies. But a disagreement over genetically modified organisms (GMOs) could scuttle a trade pact. Here's why:  

Q: Why are GMOs so controversial?

Proponents of GMOs note that most studies on the products (including corn, soybeans, sugar beets, dairy products, cotton, papayas, and zucchini) have deemed them safe for human consumption. They point to benefits like more-efficient food production and superior nutritional content or taste.

Critics say that most studies on GMOs are short-term and that the long-term effects are unknown. Even the short-term risks are still not fully known, they say. More needs to be done to determine possible effects on human health as well as on the environment, including the evolution of "super pests" that could devastate sustainable agriculture.

Some critics advocate a total ban on GMOs; others call on more oversight of the industry, including labeling of foods containing GMOs, until more data is collected.

Q: What is the US position on GMOs?

Most American agricultural products contain GMOs. Last year, genetically modified crops represented 88 percent of all corn and 93 percent of all soybeans grown. Both crops are used as animal feed and are common ingredients in processed foods. Though some 90 percent of Americans support the labeling of GMO products, few states require it, and there is no national statute. GMO producers, like major genetically modified corn retailer Monsanto, have said that labeling such products suggests that they are unsafe, although most current evidence suggests that there are no negative side effects. In general, GMOs in the US aren't treated much differently than non-GMOs.

Q: What is the European position on GMOs?


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