Need-to-Know About GMOs

By Liz Robins / September 24, 2013
Need-to-Know About GMOs

Photography by Robin Jolin

Ingredients. Calories. Fat grams.
Food labels provide a wealth of information, but it’s what they don’t tell us that has a growing number of Americans calling for change. More specifically, in the form of mandatory labeling for genetically engineered (GE) foods, also referred to as genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Biotech companies produce GMOs, mostly plants that are then used to grow crops. (Some animals have also been genetically engineered.) Genetic engineering allows genes from one organism to be transferred by splicing to another of a different species to instill a desired trait in the host organism that it wouldn’t normally exhibit. For example, many GMO crops are designed for resistance to insect- and virus-related plant diseases or enhanced tolerance to weed killers, or herbicides. When a farmer sprays weed killer on crops, the herbicide-resistant plants survive intact. Plants that are genetically modified with a variation of a naturally occurring pesticide fend off insects that could otherwise be a threat.

Impact on human health
The vast majority of soybeans, corn and sugar beets grown in the U.S. are genetically engineered. Other crops at high risk include alfalfa, canola, papaya, zucchini and yellow summer squash, according to the Non-GMO Project, a nonprofit committed to preserving and building sources of non-GMO products. According to the Non-GMO Project, as much as 80 percent of conventional processed food today contains GMOs.

Concerns about the impact on human health and the environment are also on the rise, evidenced by the inclusion of Proposition 37 on the California ballot in last November’s election. The measure calling for mandatory labeling of GMOs was narrowly defeated, but it got more concerned Americans talking about the issue—and there’s plenty to discuss.

Some labeling advocates assert that independent research has not proven GMOs safe for human consumption, and that the GMO industry controls access to its products, making it difficult for independents to study them. Limited animal studies that have suggested negative effects of consuming GMOs have drawn criticism for flawed methodology; more long-term research is sorely needed.

Environmental impact
“The results of GE technology have not shown higher crop yields or drought resistance, rather an escalation in herbicide use, superweeds and even superbugs,” says David Bancroft, director of Just Label It, a national coalition of 600 diverse organizations that spearheaded the recent FDA petition drive for GE foods labeling, which generated 1.2 million signatures.

As weeds adapt, stronger chemicals are required to kill them, potentially posing a health risk to those who do the spraying and those who eat foods that have been exposed, intentionally or not (thanks to the drift of sprays through the air to other crops). In addition, it’s not possible to predict the outcome of gene splicing on other traits beyond those targeted, due to the complex interactions of genes within an organism. And, once GMOs are out in the environment, they can’t be controlled or recalled. Contamination of nearby non-GMO crops, including organic ones, is a real concern.

Regulation and labeling
Regulation is weak in the U.S., and there are no labeling requirements. “The key judgment on safety is not made by government experts,” says Bancroft. “Instead, the FDA requires patent-holder companies to assert that each new GE food is ‘not materially different in any respect relevant to food safety.’ The FDA accepts this and informs the applicant that the company has a ‘…continuing responsibility…’ to ensure the food is safe, wholesome, and in compliance with regulatory requirements.”

Mandatory labeling would give consumers the chance to opt out in favor of non-GMO alternatives. But the effort is an uphill battle, considering the financial and political muscle of biotech and food companies that stand to lose big. Fortunately, some retailers are taking matters into their own hands. Several major grocery retailers–Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s–recently pledged not to sell GE seafood. (GE salmon is currently being reviewed by the FDA.) And Whole Foods announced in March that it will require GMO labeling on products sold in its stores by 2018. “Until we have proof that genetic engineering is safe for people and the planet, only labeling will give us the information we need to make an informed choice,” Bancroft says.

What To Do
Choose Organic.
The National Organic Program prohibits GMOs in organic production and handling. (There’s no guarantee that any food is truly GMO-free, however, due to risk of contamination.)

Look for the Seal.
The Non-GMO Project offers an extensive list of Non-GMO Verified products on its website (

Educate Yourself.
Visit the Just Label It website ( to learn more.

Liz Robins
Liz Robins

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