TOPEKA -- An expert on the food industry and genetically modified organisms gave a presentation to a group of people hungry to learn more about what they are eating.

Carey Gillam, who is based in Overland Park, said food companies maintain GMO foods are safe to eat while some consumers aren’t so sure. The primary point of contention now is labeling. “It’s been a very controversial issue,” she said.

Gillam was an investigative reporter with Reuters News for 17 years, covering the biotech industry and the fight over GMO labeling. In October 2015, she left the news agency and became research director for the U.S. Right to Know, a nonprofit that advocates for transparency in the food system.

The food industry, including companies such as Monsanto, have said that genetically engineering crops are important so yields can meet the needs of an increasing global population. Some foods may also be more nutritious.

However, others disagree. Gillam said some consumers are concerned about eating products grown with the help of glyphosate, a chemical used in many GMO crops. The World Health Organization has classified glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen, Gillam said. Non-GMO and organic farmers are concerned because cross-contamination with GMO crops have cost them millions of dollars. Other groups are concerned about the environmental effects of such crops.

Gillam said in her time as a journalist, she came to learn how much power and politics play into food.

The issue has become increasingly political. In 2015, U.S. Rep. Mike Pompeo introduced a bill that would prohibit mandatory labeling. Conversely, Vermont passed a measure that requires labeling to take effect by July 1. The food industry has responded with calls for an injunction and lawsuits against the state, Gillam said.

The U.S. government regulates GMO crops through the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The FDA considers GMO products “substantially equivalent” to non-GMO crops and therefore does not require any testing of them, Gillam said.

Globally, countries have also responded in different ways. Labeling is required in Australia, China, the European Union and Japan. Other countries such as Argentina and Brazil have ramped up their production of GMO crops in recent years.

Genetically engineered foods aren’t necessarily good or bad, Gillam said, but consumers have a right to know what they are eating and have a transparent food system.

Gary Anderson, chair of the Topeka chapter of the Sierra Club, which organized the talk, said the issue was timely and a worthwhile topic to learn more about.

Attendee Marsha West said, “There’s so much talk about GMOs in the news — I just wanted to know the pros and cons. This strikes a chord with people.”

About 30 people attended the event, which was held at the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library.