"The important piece to this is why others are raising questions, what are the basis of their questions, and why do they have so many reservations," says Mika, who notes that scientists are among those calling for more research.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have also been viewed as too lax on GMOs. ICCR expressed concern about the EPA's hasty 2009 approval of SmartStax corn, jointly developed and marketed by Dow AgroSciences and Monsanto. Eight genes were inserted (six to resist bugs, two to tolerate weeds) while previous approvals had a maximum of three genes.

In the past few weeks, the Department of Agriculture has also given farmers the green light to resume planting genetically engineered sugar beets and alfalfa, both of which had been temporarily banned. In August, a federal district court judge revoked approval of GM sugar beets on the grounds that the Department of Agriculture hadn't adequately assessed the environmental consequences before approving them for commercial planting. This herbicide-resistant strain, developed by Monsanto and German firm KWS SAAT AG and first grown in 2007, now accounts for 95% of the U.S. crop. Sugar beets provide about half the sugar consumed in the U.S. The Department of Agriculture was supposed to prepare an environmental impact statement (EIS) before it could approve the crop again.

Monsanto's Roundup Ready Alfalfa, genetically engineered to be resistant to the herbicide glyphosate, was banned by district and appeals courts prior to a Supreme Court reversal last year. The Department of Agriculture, which completed an EIS on this alfalfa in December, will now allow farmers to resume growing it without restrictions.

Despite legal challenges, "the basic take-home message with genetic engineering itself is the U.S. is really out of step with the rest of the world," says Hansen, who represents Consumers International, a federation of over 220 consumer organizations in 115 countries, at Codex Alimentarius and other international forums. The U.S. has tried to block adoption of international food labeling laws for nearly two decades, he says. It's put pressure on other countries to accept GMOs, a topic recently exposed by WikiLeaks but no surprise to him and others in the industry.

For Hansen, the big concern with GM is that it disrupts the scientific schema of every gene having a very specific location on a chromosome. "You're shooting into the genome and have no idea where, which can cause all sorts of problems," he says. In contrast, marker-assisted breeding-a conventional process performed by scientists, farmers and indigenous people-analyzes and breeds seeds with the best traits without injecting genes.

GMOs also raise social justice concerns. Since the seed producers own the genetically engineered DNA, farmers are forced to abandon traditional seed-sharing customs common in both developing countries and the United States' small rural communities. Farmers who acquire DNA through spillage or the spread of pollen from neighboring farms have been slapped with patent-related lawsuits. And although GMOs have long been touted as a way to solve the world food supply crisis, many have their doubts.

Steven Heim, director of ESG Research and Shareholder Engagement at Boston Common Asset Management, points out that alternative steps-such as promoting traditional agricultural breeding methods, developing fair trade policy and localizing food production in agrarian communities-have a record of success without potential harm.

Since GMO crops haven't been proved safe, "it's a risk for the environment and investors," says Heim. Boston Common policy since 2003 has been not to invest in GMO seed producers, such as Dow Chemical, Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta and Bayer, the parent of Bayer CropScience.

Boston Common also won't buy Eli Lilly, which in 2008 purchased all rights to Posilac, Monsanto's genetically engineered recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH). The U.S. is one of the few countries where rBGH is approved for commercial use, says Heim.