GMOs (genetically modified organisms)* are crops genetically engineered to withstand direct application of herbicide and/or to produce insecticide themselves.
*GMOs can be any living organism modified for any purpose, but the ones you hear so much about these days are commercial crops.
GM crops have been modified for all sorts of purposes, including the ability to withstand environmental threats, such as drought and frost, as well as pests, viruses, and herbicide application (so weeds can be sprayed without killing the crop). These modifications are typically intended to increase yield.
Genetic engineering is also sometimes used to enhance a crop’s nutrient profile (like golden rice), increase growth rate, or increase its shelf life. However, most commercialized GMOs are insecticide-producing and/or herbicide-tolerant plants.
How it works
An organism’s genome is modified by deleting, mutating, or inserting genes. In most commercial cases, new DNA is inserted from another organism, in order to produce certain desired traits.
Rise in popularity… and concern
Introduced commercially in the mid-1990s, GM crops quickly became popular because of the increased pest resistance and growth rates they promised.
Twenty years later, GMOs are omnipresent: 88 – 95% of U.S. corn, soy, canola, sugar, and cotton plants are genetically modified.
Although the general public was essentially unaware of the growth of GMOs over the past 20 years, consumer awareness has grown recently. The lack of transparency surrounding GMO product testing and marketing is gaining attention and leading to growing skepticism of GM foods. A recent poll shows that 52% of Americans believe that GMO foods are unsafe, and an additional 13% are unsure if the new foods are safe.
GM foods are implicated in a range of health concerns, including food allergies, gastrointestinal disorders, skin conditions, fatigue, ADD/ADHD, and neurological problems.
Still, mainstream science and media contest most of these claims, as the most prominent studies of GMO food safety show that there are no adverse health effects over the period of study. However, given the relatively sudden pervasiveness of GMOs in the American diet, combined with the lack of long-term scientific study on humans (especially study funded outside of the biotech industry), it is understandable that GM foods have not yet demonstrated long-term health implications. If they are chronically toxic (like cigarettes), rather than acutely toxic (like cyanide), it will take time to tell what the effects are.
Because the limited testing of GMO foods means that there is still some uncertainty regarding their safety for human consumption over the course of a lifetime, some sources recommend a precautionary approach- avoid until further notice.
Since being cautious about GMOs requires being able to recognize them, increasing numbers of science and health experts, as well as the general public, support mandatory GMO labeling. As you are probably aware, this is a significant current debate.
Understandably, major food and chemical companies are opposed to labeling products that contain GMOs, as it would scare consumers and hurt sales. (Yes, 57% of Americans would be less likely to buy food labeled as genetically modified.)
Mandatory GMO labeling has been introduced in 84 bills in 29 states, but has only passed once- this year in Vermont. As with much legislation, it’s a game of fundraising. While pro-labeling efforts are typically led by small NGOs, opposition to labeling is backed by millions of dollars from food and chemical industries.
It’s also interesting to note that the USDA does not support mandatory labeling, on the grounds that the current scientific consensus finds no detectable difference between GM foods and conventional foods, and therefore there is no reason to label a difference.
Yet while the U.S. government assures consumers that there’s no need to be aware of if/when you’re eating a genetically modified product, 64 countries and the EU require GMO labeling. While acknowledging the consensus that GMO foods are safe (well, not un-safe) for human consumption in the short-term, the EU has adopted a precautionary approach due to the uncertainty of the long-term effects not tested for in the studies used to form the collective scientific opinion.
5 good reasons to avoid GMOs “for now”:
- Potential health effects of consuming insecticides range from food allergies and gastrointestinal issues to neurological problems. Bt, the insecticide toxin produced by many GM crops, is linked to damage in the intestinal wall, causing digestive problems such as intestinal permeability, food allergies, and autoimmune responses. These reactions to Bt are also suggested to be a contributor to the recent rise in gluten intolerance. (Note: Bt is a naturally occurring bacterium approved as an insecticidal spray for organic crops, for which it has been widely used for decades. Bt degrades quickly in sunlight, so Bt-sprayed crops contain only trace amounts of the bacterium, whereas crops genetically engineered to produce Bt contain it in every cell. If you’re wondering, Bt kills insects by making their stomachs burst.)
- Increased herbicide use allowed by GM crops’ tolerance to direct herbicide application has resulted in resistant “superweeds” that in turn demand even more herbicide. Due to increased spraying, GM foods have been found to contain higher herbicide residues, which are linked to sterility, hormone disruption, birth defects, and cancer.
- The uncertainty factor: Studies of GMO safety are based on limited-term health impact research, mostly funded by the same companies profiting from selling these foods; this is of questionable trustworthiness for judging these products’ long-term health effects.
- Hints from history: Monsanto, the world’s largest producer of genetically engineered seed (and corresponding herbicides), assures the public that GMO crops are safe to eat. Monsanto formerly assured the public that DDT, Agent Orange, and PCBs were safe, all of which were proven not to be, after widespread medical and environmental catastrophe.
- Eat Food. As a basic rule of thumb, it’s healthiest to eat real foods that have been part of the human diet for longer than you can remember. Seems simplistic, but really.
Unfortunately, avoiding GMO foods (if that’s what you’re interested in doing for the time being) is harder than you may imagine. An estimated 70% of food in American grocery stores contain GM ingredients, and they’re not labeled.
How to avoid GMOs:
- Avoid processed foods, as 80% of processed foods in the U.S. contain GMOs.
- Buy organic (the organic certification process does not allow GM ingredients).
- In particular, choose organic corn, soy, canola, and sugar products (these are the highest risk crops, and also present in a wide range of food products).
- Also select only organically-raised meat and animal products (conventionally-raised animals are fed primarily corn and soy, which are very likely to be genetically modified).
- Look for the Non-GMO Project seal, which means that the product was verified through an independent third-party process.
- Buy from producers you know and trust, or grow your own!
Not all bad?
So, if GMOs are so horrible, why do some people still support them?
Some cite the glory of golden rice and other genetically engineered crops that serve as a solution to hunger and malnutrition around the world. Yeah, golden rice is pretty cool. And so are drought-resistant GM crops that bring food security and economic growth to poor and famine-stricken regions.
But that’s not what we’re eating here. In the U.S., we don’t eat golden rice. We are not starving because our millet crop failed in the East African drought. We’re eating insecticides.
The American GMO argument is not simply about genetic engineering (which, as a whole, is arguably a good thing). It’s about using genetic engineering in food crops, in a way that is potentially harmful, while not being transparent about research methods and safety concerns, and denying the public the right to know how their food was produced.
The future will likely hold a place for genetically modified crops across the world. So, the current issue is our need to distinguish between the benefits of developing and promoting GM crops that improve health and livelihood, while also being realistic that perhaps some GM crops don’t provide significant enough advantage to be worth their adverse health effects.
What’s next: consumer impact
Recently, large American food companies have begun to (quietly) re-formulate their products without GMO ingredients. This is a sign that times-are-a-changin’ and top food execs envision a future in which consumers do not support GMO products like they currently do (with or without their knowledge of doing so).
“Non-GMO” is one of the fastest-growing label trends on U.S. food packages; increasingly, consumers want to know if their foods contain GMOs, and producers are profiting off of the opportunity.
Some reports also show that American farmers are abandoning GMOs because non-GMO crops are more productive and more profitable (purchasing GM seed increases farm overhead, by a lot).
So, although Americans have been unknowingly consuming GMOs for two decades, the recent rise in awareness and skepticism shows potential to hurt sales, and companies are responding. Businesses shift to meet consumer demand- which is why it’s incredibly important to vote with your dollar for the types of foods you would like to continue to have access to.
Too long; didn’t read: Avoid GMOs for now- there’s not enough research showing that they’re safe in the long-term (consumption over a lifetime), and enough reason to believe that they may not be.