Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are complicated and controversial. With bounds of conflicting research, unclear industry lingo, and mixed marketing messages out there, it’s hard enough for most of us to understand what GMOs truly are—let alone whether they’re ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for us.
The GMO debate won’t be put to rest anytime soon. But in the meantime, you can certainly decide whether or not you want to eat them. Here’s the lowdown on what GMOs actually are, along with the arguments on both sides of the battle.
What Are Genetically Modified Foods?
Though genetically modified foods as we know them today are a recent innovation, the concept isn’t. “Crossbreeding has been used for centuries to make crops stronger,” explains dietitian Wesley Delbridge, R.D., a spokesman for the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics. Farmers have long cross-pollinated plants or purposely planted two crops close together to modify species over time.
In recent decades, though, scientists have learned how to hijack the process and alter plants’ and animals’ DNA in a lab, explains dietitian Keri Gans, M.S., R.D.N., owner of Keri Gans Nutrition. These modern, somewhat sci-fi-esque GMOs were first approved for commercial use and planted into U.S. soil in 1996.
Whether cross-bred the old-school way or modified in a lab, GMOs aim “to benefit the consumer in some way,” says Delbridge. Scientists use genetic material from other species to make crops more nutrition-packed, pesticide resistant, or less vulnerable to weather. Think apples with an anti-browning gene or potatoes with an anti-bruising gene.
The GMOs In Your Grocery Store
“Currently, 10 genetically modified crops are available commercially: alfalfa, apples, canola, corn, cotton, papaya, potatoes, soybeans, squash, and sugar beets,” says dietitian Jonathan Valdez, R.D.N., owner of Genki Nutrition and spokesperson for the New York State Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Many of these crops (most notably corn, soybeans, and sugar beets) are then used to make processed foods like cereal, chips, soda, salad dressing, and soups. And since these processed foods are everywhere, that means GMOs are, too. In fact, between 70 to 75 percent supermarkets carry GMO foods. “There are many more GMO foods on the market than people may realize,” says Delbridge.
GMO Rules And Regulations
Before they can hit shelves, GMO foods pass through a number of safety checks administered by the USDA, EPA, and FDA. First, the USDA reviews and confirms that a particular GMO is safe to grow. Next, the EPA reviews its potential environmental impact. From there, the FDA can review the GMO and declare it safe to eat. However, since the FDA considers most GMO foods to be ‘substantially equivalent’ to their non-GMO counterparts (per a 1992 policy), it approves most without review.
Many experts question whether the U.S. government adequately evaluates GMOs, and regulations across the globe vary. (The European Union, for example, has a much stricter evaluation process.) People in other parts of the world are so skeptical about GMOs that just five countries produce the vast majority of the GM crops out there: the U.S., Argentina, Brazil, Canada, and India.
What’s Next In GMO?
Though most won’t be on grocery store shelves anytime soon, hundreds of hard-to-believe GMO foods are currently in testing. A few out-there examples: pigs that don’t smell, wine grapes that resist fungus, bird flu-resistant chickens, and hornless dairy cows.
The Big Question: Are GMOs Safe?
With so many questions about GMO foods buzzing around, many of us wonder whether they’re really okay to eat. In fact, according to a new International Food Information Council Foundation survey, 47 percent of Americans at least somewhat avoid GMO foods.
The Anti-GMO Argument
“Critics say GMOs negatively impact the environment, promote herbicide use, and are less nutritious,” explains Valdez. Some even suggest they can mutate and have unexpected, harmful consequences.
A major part of the GMO conversation is how they impact farmers’ use of herbicides. Opponents argue that when foods are engineered to withstand herbicides and repellents, farmers then use more of these toxic substances. Issue is, this then increases the amount of chemical residue on our food—and the amount of the chemicals we ultimately consume. One particular herbicide of concern is glyphosate, which is widely used on GMO crops (about 80 percent of GMOs are engineered to tolerate it). In 2015, the World Health Organization classified the chemical as possibly carcinogenic to humans.
Another concern relates to GMOs’ potential impact on the environment around them. For example, research in the early 2000s suggested the pollen from a type of GMO corn harmed the local monarch butterfly population. (It’s now known as the Bt Corn Controversey.)
Beyond that, one of the biggest fears about GMOs is simply the element of the unknown. Some experts argue that GMOs haven’t been around long enough for us to understand their negative side effects. Therefore, they say, we can’t claim them to be safe. “It can take decades for the cumulative effects of something to be revealed,” explains Valdez. “Assessing the long-term effects of GMOs in the human body would take extensive research.” Studies would have to compare thousands of people who do and don’t eat GMOs over the course of decades. They’d also have to account for variables like exercise, sleep, and other health issues.
Meanwhile, On The Pro-GMO Side…
“Supporters of GMOs say the risks are non-existent,” says Valdez. They also argue that GMOs are more nutritious, have longer shelf lives, and can help reduce world hunger. Furthermore, they suggest GMOs are actually good for the environment and reduce waste.
Right now, scarce evidence scientifically proves GMOs are harmful—a fact major scientific organizations like the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Medical Association, and the World Health Organization acknowledge.
What’s more, a recent National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine analysis purports that GMOs are safe to eat, do no harm to the environment, and even benefit farmers. According to Delbridge, farming GMO crops has been shown to increase yield, which means less land needs to be cleared and farmed to produce the same amount of crop, which theoretically lowers a farming operation’s carbon footprint.
Plus, contrary to the pesticide woes of GMO opposers, one meta-analysis published in the journal Plos ONE found that GMOs actually reduce pesticide use by 37 percent.
More Confusion: GMO Labeling
Scientific and theoretical arguments on each side of the GMO debate not confusing enough? Recent laws and regulations about the labeling of GMO foods have made the topic even more menacing.
In 2014, Vermont became the first state to pass legislation requiring that GMO-containing food products identify such on their labels. Then, in 2016, President Obama signed a bill requiring all GMO-containing food products say so on the label by 2020.
“Laws surrounding GMOs and their labeling imply a greater danger,” says Valdez. “Seeing ‘genetically modified’ on a label makes people envision scary scientists, robots, and Frankenfoods—things that scare them,” adds Gans.
Since then, the USDA has proposed new guidelines for the labeling of GMO foods so that they can bear less-familiar terms, like ‘bioengineered’ or ‘BE,’ which don’t incite the fear that the term ‘GMO’ now does.
Meanwhile, many companies have started labeling their foods as ‘non-GMO’ in an effort to proclaim their safety.
The Bottom Line
For now, most scientific organizations consider GMOs to be safe, and many of the common criticisms lack solid scientific support.
While we wait for more long-term research on GMOs, whether or not you choose to eat them is a purely personal decision. If their short history makes you uneasy, look for products that sport that ‘non-GMO’ label. Surely, we’ll continue to learn and debate as the years go on.