What Are GMOs?

What are GMO?From Amy Cramer and Lisa McComsey | Segan Eating: The Lure of a Healthy, Sustainable Seafood + Vegan Diet | TarcherPerigee | 2016

If anything in the gastronomic realm is as polarizing as politics, it’s the topic of GMOs (genetically modified organism). And, just as with political issues, there’s a heck of a lot of misunderstanding and grandstanding out there. Without further ado, here are simple answers to the complicated questions you’ve been wondering regarding GMO, including the pros and cons, the potential dangers of GMOs, a list of some common foods containing GMOs, and why some feel GMOs are bad, excerpted from a well-researched and well-intentioned book by Amy Cramer and Lisa McComsey that demystifies much of the murk surrounding our contemporary food supply.—Renee Schettler Rossi

What on Earth Are GMOs?

What are GMOs? For starters, GMOs are a lightning rod for controversy (more on that in a sec). But scientifically speaking, GMOs (genetically modified organisms) are plants and animals whose genetic material has been manipulated in the lab to produce a desired trait (such as herbicide resistance).

Most commercially produced GMOs are found in crops like soybeans, corn, and cotton. Scientists insert gene codes from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) into normal plants, causing the GMO version to produce insect-killing chemicals. In effect, the plant now makes its own insecticide, reducing the need for farmers to spray these crops with other potentially harmful insecticides. Other plants are genetically modified to withstand colder temperatures, grow more quickly, require less water, or survive application of herbicides like glyphosate (commonly sold as Roundup).

The theory is that genetic-engineering techniques will improve crop yields, decrease dependence on traditional fertilizers and insecticides, and reduce other harms to the environment. Genetic engineering is also being used in the animal world—to speed up the growth rates of food fish like salmon and tilapia, for example.

GMOs—OMG or OK to Eat?

Many people—and organizations like the Non-GMO Project—argue that there have been no long-term studies of the effects of GMOs on human health. Then there are the ethical issues: Should corporate muckety-mucks and scientists be given carte blanche to, in effect, “play God”? What happens when pollen from GMO plants escapes into the environment? Finally, activists are concerned about the implications of allowing large corporations to patent seeds and other life forms, forcing farmers to buy seeds from them rather than maintaining natural stocks of seeds.

It isn’t even clear whether GMOs really provide benefits to farmers or consumers. For example, insects can quickly develop resistance to the insecticides produced by Bt cotton. Bt compounds affect only specific types of insects, leaving other insects unaffected by Bt toxins—so farmers have to apply traditional insecticides to Bt crops anyway.

Concerns about the safety of GMOs have led more than 60 countries, including the European Union, either to ban them outright or to regulate their use tightly. In the United States, however, GMOs are considered substantially similar to normal plants and are, at most, lightly regulated. As a result, GMOs are found in nearly all the food on our supermarket shelves (unless they are organic). It has been estimated that GMOs are in more than 80 percent of the food products sold in North America.

Where Do They Lurk?

According to the Non-GMO Project, the most common GMOs are soybeans, cotton, canola, corn, sugar beets, Hawaiian papaya, alfalfa, and squash (zucchini or yellow). Since these crops often form the basis of many prepared foods, you may be consuming significant amounts of GMOs even without eating soybeans or drinking soymilk directly.

They’re also found in various food ingredients, including amino acids, aspartame, ascorbic acid, sodium ascorbate, vitamin C, citric acid, sodium citrate, “natural” and “artificial” flavorings, high-fructose corn syrup, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, lactic acid, maltodextrins, molasses, monosodium glutamate, sucrose, textured vegetable protein (TVP), xanthan gum, vitamins, and yeast products. Scanning the side of nearly any package will likely reveal one or several of these ingredients.

What’s a Health-Conscious Consumer to Do?

First, don’t panic. We’re not happy about the presence of GMOs in our food, and we’re worried about the long-term implications of GMOs on health and the environment. But we’re not aware of any hard evidence of harm from GMOs, at least not yet. And while we’re suspicious of studies backed by food and seed manufacturers claiming GMOs are safe, we’re also cautious about the hysterical claims made by anti-GMO activists.

We would, however, like to know what’s in our food! Which brings us to the controversy over labeling laws: Right now, more than 64 countries have policies regarding GMO labeling. But labeling initiatives in the U.S. remain stalled, thanks to the millions of dollars spent by companies opposing such requirements. Some states like Vermont have passed their own laws, but most of us remain in the dark about GMOs.

For now, the best we can do is rely on independent organizations like the Non-GMO Project to certify foods that don’t contain genetically modified ingredients. Look for their label on foods as a guide. The Institute for Responsible Technology also publishes a helpful non-GMO shopping guide, and the Environmental Working Group is another terrific resource (ewg.org).

Some products say they are made without any GMO ingredients, which may or may not be the case. The only way to tell for sure is if the product has been independently tested and verified.

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  1. I find it interesting that you omitted the overwhelming scientific consensus on this topic. A Pew study has shown that 88% of scientists believe genetically modified foods are safe. That’s the Pew foundation, not some fringe group, not fake news, not “food or seed manufacturers.” That’s more scientists than those that believe in human-caused climate change.

    Of course, that might not matter to a lot of people. We live in world that dismisses scientific evaluations. And for those who don’t believe in global warming, vaccines, or even dinosaurs, they’re not going to be moved by the science on this topic, either.

    Of course, there are questions that people want to have answers to, such as long-term environmental impact, that may not be addressed by current scientific evaluations. But you, the author, should recognize you own biases, and how you are deceptively passing them off as pure information.

    You say you want each person to make her own decision, yet you very deliberately fail to mention any of the facts on the other side. You did not give even one (not even one!) argument with evidence on the other side. The closest you come is the following sentence: “But we’re not aware of any hard evidence of harm from GMOs, at least not yet.” Pretty flimsy, and that “at least not yet” pretty much says it all.

    If you had labeled this post as “ways to tell if your food is GMO,” I would have little comment. But as a “well-researched” information “that demystifies much of the murk surrounding our contemporary food supply”? Come on.

    Do better.

    1. Sonja, fair enough. The concern with much scientific research that purports the safety of GMOs, or that addresses concerns regarding the potential harm of GMOs, is that there is no long-term research on the topic. And so it’s questionable to draw any sort of viable conclusion because we simply don’t know yet. Which is in itself, for some of us, cause to choose not to ingest GMOs. And much of the research I have read that cites GMOs are safe has been funded by companies who have a financial gain to make with the consumption of GMOs. In the Pew study you cite, are the scientists actively involved in research regarding the safety of modified foods or was it simply a poll of scientists at large? So many questions. Completely respect your opinion and yet this is all we have at this time—opinions.

      1. While attending college a few years ago I did a paper on GMO’s. My research revealed quite a few astonishing facts. Animals were found to have decreases in reproductivity, for one. Furthermore, Monsanto, who controls most of these crops and produces RoundUp, makes millions of dollars. Land and crops have been overtaken because Monsanto crops have overtaken them. Monsanto controls the industry, making it more difficult for smaller farms and family farms to survive. I do not claim to know all of the facts, but I know enough to keep GMO’s out of my diet.

    1. You’re very welcome, Joana. I so appreciate you taking the time to say that. I think it’s very important for everyone to be informed about what the food industry is doing. Each person can make her or his own decision but best to do so when you have the facts.

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