GMO Free. Non-GMO Project Verified. Made With Non-GMO Ingredients. These phrases are increasingly popping up on consumer food products everywhere, but what do they mean?
GMOs are genetically modified organisms, meaning they are organisms whose genetic material has been altered in a laboratory setting through genetic engineering. Since their introduction in the 1990s, genetically engineered crops have become increasingly mainstream in the US. More than a dozen different genetically modified plants are approved by the federal government, but most farms that use GMOs grow corn, cotton, and soybeans. According to a USDA report, about half of the total land used to grow crops in the US was planted with GMOs in 2013. A 2013 YouGov poll found that about a third of Americans believe GMOs are not safe to eat and are bad for the environment, but a Rutgers University survey that same year revealed that 54% of Americans said they “know very little or nothing at all” about GMOs.
Crops are genetically modified to be tolerant to the herbicides glufosinate and glyphosate, to be resistant to virus and pest damage, and to produce the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) toxin, an insecticide that is documented as nontoxic to mammals. Other benefits of GMOs in agriculture include increased crop yields, reduced costs for food or drug production, and enhanced nutrient composition and food quality. Defenders see GMOs as a progressive biotechnology that is helping feed a hungry world, but opponents believe they can harm our health, tamper with the natural environment, and that they show no evidence-based benefits. One of the biggest producers of GMOs is Monsanto, an agrochemical and agricultural biotechnology corporation headquartered in St. Louis, MO. In recent times, the company has received a lot of flak for its production of GMO seeds, receiving the reputation as “the most evil company in the world” and for creating “frankenfood.”
But are GMOs really bad for your health? The US government’s position on that matter is that genetically engineered crops are safe, but the European Union prefers organic, and their stance is to keep GMOs off the shelves. The EU believes that the risks of GMOs to health and the environment outweigh the benefits. The truth is that no one has a clear answer to whether or not GMOs are safe. Enough studies have not been conducted and the government hasn’t ruled one way or another. Some experts say producing GMOs is a genetic roulette. GMOs are created through gene splicing, the merging of DNA from different species to make a new one. This creates new, artificial species that have not evolved over time like “real” foods have. "We’re consuming foods that contain, in simple terms, unnatural DNA,” says dietician Jaime Mass. The argument is that new allergies could be induced by the creation of new proteins. Some fear that when genetically modified foods are fed to livestock, there will be unintended consequences for the people who eat them. Others who support GMOs say that no food is 100% safe, genetically modified or not.
If anything is certain about GMOs, it’s that more studies need to be done on their health effects, especially in the long term. “There’s reason to continue studying GMOs to fully understand the impact they may have on our health over the long term,” Mass said. "Until scientists can come up with a clear and unbiased safety profile for humans, many believe it would be responsible to start educating the public and labeling foods.”
The problem right now is that foods containing GMOs are not currently labeled as such. Though, last year the US Department of Agriculture approved a voluntary “GMO-free” label from the Non-GMO Project, an organization against genetically modified foods. More and more brands, such as Cheerios, are also pledging to get rid of GMOs in their products. However, if GMOs are an area of concern for you and your family, the best way to steer clear of them altogether is to buy all-organic products.
- Are biotech foods safe to eat? WebMD website. http://www.webmd.com/food-recipes/features/are-biotech-foods-safe-to-eat.
- Fetters KA. Health myth: are GMOs actually bad for you? Fox News website. February 27, 2014. http://www.foxnews.com/health/2014/02/27/health-myth-are-gmos-actually-bad-for.
- Gerken J. Watch as scientists debate the benefits and drawbacks of GMOs with a Monsanto executive. The Huffington Post website. December 3, 2014. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/12/03/gmo-debate-intelligence-squared_n_6262286.html.
- Phillips T. Geneticall modified organisms (GMOs): transgenic crops and recombinant DNA technology. Nature Education. 2008;1(1):213. http://www.nature.com/scitable/topicpage/genetically-modified-organisms-gmos-transgenic-crops-and-732.