By now you’ve heard a lot about genetically modified foods. Whether you’re scared by GMOs, confused, or indifferent towards them, we’ve put together the ultimate cheat sheet to clear up the hype and lay down the facts.
Find out what foods have GMO, how you can avoid them, and what you can do to change things.
What are GMOs?
- GMO = “genetically modified organism”; sometimes called GE = “genetically engineered” or GM = ”genetically modified”
- Biochemists use recombinant DNA technology (aka “genetic engineering”) to isolate and change individual plant genes. They can transfer these modified genes from one organism to another, even swapping them between non-related plant species
- GMOs are designed to be resistant to insects, viruses, bacteria, and fungus
- Bred for high yield, drought tolerance, and longer shelf life
- Resist insecticides and herbicides
- Scientists are working to develop GMOs that will one day increase nutrient content, reduce allergic compounds, and improve efficiency (i.e. grow faster)
Are there health concerns?
So far, GMOs haven’t been around long enough to measure the effects over a full human lifetime. However, studies say there’s not enough evidence to say they’re “proven safe.” [source 1]
Currently the government does not require testing these GMO crops for carcinogenicity, harm to fetuses, or long-term risks.
The World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations say that GMOs have the “potential to introduce toxins and new allergens (or increase levels of existing ones), or cause nutritional changes in foods and other unexpected effects.” [source 2]
And as Food Democracy Now reports, a new study found that the herbicides used to protect GMOs from weeds (more on that below) could be a major endocrine (hormone) disruptor. [source 8]
Super weed breeds
GMOs are engineered to be resistant to bugs, reducing the amount of pesticides needed – which seems like an environmental win, right? Except that even without the bugs, the fields aren’t resistant to weeds.
Monsanto, the bioengineering company that develops the majority of GMO seeds, also engineers their plants to resist weed killer (more on Monsanto in the infographic below). GMO crops bred for weed-killer-resistance can get doused with gallons of Roundup (Monsanto’s own brand of weed killer) without affecting the harvest.
Consumer Reports found, “Since that technology was introduced in 1996, there has been almost a tenfold increase in the use of the herbicide.” This leads to “superweeds” that are resistant to the Roundup formula, driving farmers to use more toxic herbicides like dicamba and 2,4-D, both of which are linked to reproductive problems, birth defects, hormonal disruption, and increased risks of cancer. [sources 3, 4]
The reproductive particles of GMO crops, spread by airborne pollen, insects, and flooding, are affecting organic farms in nearby areas.
The contamination, however unintended, means that organic farmers have to throw out their harvest. According to an estimate by the Union of Concerned Scientists, potential lost income for organic corn farmers may total $90 million annually. [source 5]
The World Health Organization has found “outcrossing” from GMO crops never intended for supermarkets: “Cases have been reported where GM crops approved for animal feed or industrial use were detected at low levels in the products intended for human consumption.” [source 6]
What Foods Have GMO?[Tweet “The majority of corn, soy, canola, and sugar beets grown in the U.S. are GMOs.”]
In fact, as the Center for Food Safety reports, the U.S. is the world’s number one producer of corn, 93% of which are GMOs. Shockingly, 94% of all U.S. soybeans and 95% of sugar beets (used to produce sugar) are GMOs too.
These ingredients are used in processed foods, and again, are not labeled as such. The Center for Food Safety estimates that over 75% of processed foods on supermarket shelves– from soda to soup, crackers to condiments– contain GMOs. [source 7]
Here’s a chart illustrating the dramatic rise of GMO crops since 1996.
How to avoid them
Consider that over half of all sugar in the U.S. comes from sugar beets (95% of which are GMO). So, if you see sugar on the label, it’s most likely a GMO.
- pure cane
- raw cane
- turbinado sugar
- or any Non-GMO certification label
Because over 90% of corn and soy are GMOs, anytime you see corn or soy derivatives on a label you can assume they’re genetically engineered.
- high fructose corn syrup
- refined corn flour
- corn starch
- corn oil
- soy protein
- soybean oil
- soy milk
- soy flour
- soy sauce
- soy lecithin
**Refer to the EWG’s Shopper’s Guide To Avoiding GMO Food for a comprehensive list.
Your grocery store choices matter
What you buy at the supermarket can curb the rise of GMO foods.
Megan Westgate, executive director of the Non-GMO Project, told Consumer Reports that shoppers are demanding non-GMO products, and it’s working: “At least 200 companies that have come to us to become non-GMO verified have said they were prompted to make that change because of calls or letters they’d gotten from consumers.” [source 2]
Check out this infographic
Here’s a rundown of the GMO giant Monsanto and how their involvement has shaped genetically modified foods in the global market. Hold on to your lunch, because it gets scary, y’all.
What you’ll learn:
- The history of GMO giant Monsanto
- How many millions of acres of crops use Monsanto seeds?
- Monsanto’s role in developing Agent Orange, aspartame, the bovine growth hormone, and PCBs
- How much money do they spend on lobbying?
- How much control does Monsanto have over our farmers?
- Risks of dicamba https://npic.orst.edu/factsheets/dicamba_gen.html
- Risk of 2,4-D https://www.testbiotech.org/sites/default/files/Risks%20of%20herbicide%202_4-D_0.pdf
Image source: Creative Commons