Genetically modified foods have become so commonplace that if they were to be labeled for containing genetically modified organisms (GMO), “virtually every product in the grocery store would then be labeled ‘GMO,’” Amanda Lang, co-host of the Canadian TV show, “The Lang & O’Leary Exchange,” said last week when the labeling of GMOs and whether or not GMOs should be in food was the subject of an intense debate between 14-year-old anti-GMO food activist and founder of the "Kids Right To Know" organization, Rachel Parent, and the show’s other host Kevin O’Leary.

GMO's are created when “they take the DNA from a species, such as a bacteria, virus, animal, or even from a plant, and they insert it into the DNA from another species to introduce a new trait,” Parent said on the TV show.

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GMOs have been in the food supply for 20 years now. About 90 percent of all cotton, soybeans, and corn are genetically modified. GMO have been a growing part of public attention in recent years, as companies have used these techniques to make food more nutritious, tastier (corn syrup), disease and drought resistant, able to produce higher yields, and even pesticide-producing, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Parent and O’Leary’s heated debate centered on whether the benefits of these foods to populations with food scarcity outweighed the possible health effects, which Parent says haven’t been fully explored. For example, O’Leary argues that rice modified to contain vitamin A, known as “golden rice” could help people who become blind — and then die as a result — in countries where rice is the primary source of food.

Parent and O'Leary Debate

“Golden rice was scrapped because it didn’t work,” Parent said. “In order for the average 11-year-old boy to get enough vitamin A from rice, he’d have to eat 27 bowls of rice. Another thing is, the reason there’s blindness, isn’t because there’s a lack of vitamin A in the rice, it’s because their diets are simply rice.”

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“Well that’s the problem, you’re saying even if he has to eat 30 bowls of rice, there’s no vitamin A in what he’s eating now… The bottom line is there will be other ways to modify food to save people like that. Should we not be trying these things to help those that are dying, or are you against that too?” O’Leary asked.

“Should we be messing with mother nature?” Parent shot back.

The 13 minute debate continued along the same path; with Parent’s main issue being GMO labeling on food, and O’Leary becoming increasingly condescending with each question, at one point calling Parent a “shill” who may be allowing anti-GMO organizations to use her to spread their message through the media attention she’s been getting.

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Parent says that at the moment she’s against GMOs because they haven’t been properly tested, citing the agricultural biotechnology giant Monsanto.

“Monsanto’s longest study is only 90 days. That really doesn’t determine how long-term it’s going to affect our health, the environment, or even our entire ecosystem,” she said. Adding that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Health Canada rely on studies provided by the companies developing GMOs to determine their safety.

The FDA's Stand On GMOs

In May, the FDA released a consumer update about the role it plays in regulating GMO food products.

“FDA encourages developers of GE plants to consult with the agency before marketing their products. Although the consultation is voluntary, [Dennis] Keefe (director of FDA’s Office of Food Additive Safety) says developers find it helpful in determining the steps necessary to ensure that food products made from their plants are safe and otherwise lawful. The developer produces a safety assessment, which includes the identification of distinguishing attributes of new genetic traits, whether any new material in food made from the GE plant could be toxic or allergenic when eaten, and a comparison of the levels of nutrients in the GE plant to traditionally bred plants.”

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With regards to the controversy of GMOs, the agency says it supports GE plants based on neither their purported health benefits nor their health risks, and that its only duty is ensuring safety and compliance with the law.

When Lang asked Parent what kind of testing she thinks would be good for the ecosystem, Parent says a long-term study, after which O’Leary says, “We’re in the long-term study. You’re eating genetically modified food whether you like it or not, and we have been for decades.”

“We’re the lab rats,” Lang added.