Foods that have been genetically modified sound unappealing—especially if you’re someone who values healthy eating and natural products. But what makes genetically modified foods so controversial? And how prevalent are GMO foods in general? Here’s what you need to know to make informed choices that support your own values and health.
What are GMOs?
Genetically modified organisms (GMO) are new-to-nature organisms that are created in a lab. The process involves modifying the DNA of one organism—either by removing specific genes or adding specific genes from another organism—to give the genetically modified organism a desired trait.
The first genetically modified food sold in the U.S. was the Flavr Savr tomato, introduced in 1994. Developed by Calgene (now Monsanto), the tomato was genetically engineered to have a longer shelf life by adding a gene that delayed ripening. Sales of the Flavr Savr were dismal, and seed production stopped in 1997. However, the Flavr Savr opened the door to a world of possibilities for genetically engineered crops that could potentially reduce the cost of food production, add nutritional value, and increase crop yields.
Why grow GMO food?
In theory, genetically modified plants and animals can offer valuable nutritional benefits. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations argues that biofortified staple foods, such as vitamin A-fortified “Golden Rice,” could help reduce nutritional deficiencies in developing countries. But opponents aren’t so sure. They argue that there are less expensive options (Golden Rice has been in development since 1997, at a cost of tens of millions of dollars) for addressing nutritional deficiencies that are more culturally acceptable, and that support vital biodiversity.
Genetically modified crops have been widely grown in the U.S. over the past 20 years. The most commonly grown GMO crops today are those—largely soybeans, cotton, and corn—that are engineered to make plants able to withstand specific herbicides, such as Monsanto’s Roundup, and those that are engineered to include organic bacteria that make plants toxic to insects.
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Are GMOs harmful?
Much of the controversy surrounding GMOs relates to health. In 2015, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer stated that glyphosate, the popular herbicide known as Roundup, is “probably carcinogenic to humans.” It is also thought to be an endocrine disruptor. Yet it is a chemical that has become difficult to avoid.
Approximately 80% of the soybeans and cotton grown in the U.S. are GMO varieties that can withstand herbicidal spraying. This ubiquitous use has led to the emergence of “super weeds” that can also withstand herbicidal spraying, and that has led to heavier and more frequent spraying, according to a 2016 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
Another point of controversy surrounding GMOs is biodiversity. When a GMO crop is planted near a native crop, the native crop is in danger of becoming hybridized with the GMO crop. Genetic diversity is reduced over time, and once lost, it can’t be easily restored. Hybridization also puts native farmers at legal risk since GMO seed manufacturers are able to sue farmers whose fields become contaminated with patented GMO seeds.
How common are GMOs?
It’s estimated that 75% of processed foods sold in U.S. supermarkets contain some GMO ingredients. Worldwide, close to a billion acres are planted with GMO crops, mostly corn and soy for animal consumption. The U.S. does not currently require labeling GMO ingredients, although Australia, China, and the European Union do. In all, 61 countries currently mandate GMO food labeling, while 38 countries ban GMO crop cultivation.
How to avoid GMOs
The best way to avoid eating GMO foods is to buy foods labeled “certified organic,” and/or “non-GMO verified.” These labels mean that an independent (third-party) organization has confirmed that the foods have not been genetically engineered, or do not contain known GMO derivatives. If a food product you’re buying—including a nutritional supplement—does not contain one of these labels, there’s a good chance you might be buying a product that contains one or more GMO ingredients.
Ultimately, what we buy and what we eat are highly personal choices. But for me, I plan to keep GMO foods out of my shopping cart as much as possible. I’m right there with Joni Mitchell and the Counting Crows who sang: “I don’t care about spots on my apples; leave me the birds and the bees, please!”
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