Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) have been creeping onto American dinner plates for 15 years, and lately we've been consuming a good deal more of them than we might realize.

Over 60% of processed foods on supermarket shelves are estimated to contain genetically modified ingredients, notes the nonprofit Center for Food Safety. In 2010, roughly 86% of corn acreage and 93% of soybean acreage came from genetically engineered seeds, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Although far fewer GMO-related shareholder resolutions have been filed in the past few years than there were in the mid-2000s-partly because of the difficulty for past proposals to meet Securities and Exchange Commission threshold voting requirements and the stepped up focus on other issues like climate change-the subject remains a hot button for advocates involved in corporate dialogues.

Sister Susan Mika, who directs the Benedictine Coalition of Responsible Investment and the Socially Responsible Investment Coalition, is one of the many who've been pressing seed and food producers for answers to health, environmental and social concerns for more than a decade. "We will continue to raise the questions on these issues regardless of how long it takes. We just don't give up," says Mika, part of the St. Scholastica Monastery near San Antonio.

Genetic modification (GM), also called genetic engineering (GE), involves inserting genes from one species into another. Seed producers use it to create strains with herbicide-tolerant or insect-resistant traits.

"The irony to me is that when we first engaged them, their rationale was to lower the environmental footprint," says Margaret Weber, corporate responsibility director for the Congregation of St. Basil in Detroit and the former lead on shareholder resolutions with Dow Chemical. Instead, studies have found that some GM crops have required greater use of the toxic herbicides produced and sold by these same companies.

The unknown long-term risks of GMOs deeply trouble Weber, Mika and other members of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR) who've led efforts with many companies to adopt better testing, reporting and labeling. They've also addressed GMOs with food retailers and restaurants.

"We're not taking an anti-biotechnology position. We want more information," says Weber, who serves on ICCR's board of directors and is the lead with PepsiCo on the issue of GMOs in the context of food sustainability. "What's the mother lode? What's the impact on the watershed and on the people who put it in their mouths or live next to the field?"

Finding answers isn't easy. The U.S. government, which doesn't recognize engineered food as being different from other foods, doesn't require safety testing. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration encourages GMO producers to conduct volunteer safety consultations and then relies on their self-reported findings.

"There's a fair degree of transparency [about 80 FDA response letters are posted on its Web site] but the agency has never made a conclusion," says Michael Hansen, Ph.D., a senior staff scientist with Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports. Many other countries, particularly European Union members, have much more stringent laws regarding GMOs.

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