Often when I’m at the grocery store I see things that are labelled as “GMO-free.” I’m sure you’ve seen them, too. Usually it’s on boxes of highly processed or prepared food: crackers, cereal, granola bars, etc. Recently General Mills announced Cheerios are now GMO-free, and I’m sure you’ve heard the debate going on about labelling GMOs in our food. But what exactly is a GMO, and should you be concerned if there are GMOs in your food?
Let’s talk about what GMOs mean in a context that isn’t “I-don’t-think-it-sounds-natural-just-get-it-out.” If you’ve already decided that you hate GMOs or if you’ve attended a March Against Monsanto, this post probably is not for you. It’s for the moms out there who might not really know what GMOs are but kind of feel like since people are angling to force the government to label it, it must be bad for us, right? Not really. Not at all, actually.
This is going to be a long article; I’ll say that up front. It’s hard to cover this succinctly (and I’m not that great at being brief.) In the event you don’t want to read it all, here’s the summary. I’m going to address the following:
- What are GMOs? (plants that have a small genetic tweak to do something we want like yielding more)
- Where are they in my food? (primarily in highly processed or prepared foods, probably not in the produce aisle)
- Are they safe? (yes, every major scientific body worldwide has declared them as safe as non-GM varieties)
- Why should I care? (because they have the potential to contribute enormously to climate change adaptability of crops in the future)
What Are GMOs?
GMO stands for genetically modified organism. It’s also referred to as just genetically modified (GM), genetic engineering (GE), biotechnology or biotech seeds, transgenic, and sometimes Frankenfood. All of these terms describe the same idea: taking a gene from another organism (like another plant or bacterium) and putting it into a plant in order to produce a trait that conveys an advantage we want, like preventing bugs from eating the plant. This can be done in other organisms, too, but I’m going to focus on plants in this article.
Before we go on, let’s take a step back and talk about “genetic modification” in agriculture in a broader sense. Many people view GM as unnatural and view it negatively because it’s messing with nature. (After all, nature is a mom too!) The truth is we, as a people, have been “modifying” the genome of our crops for 10,000 years since domestic agriculture began; we call it selective breeding. We plant some seeds, and we like some individual plants more than others (maybe they grow taller or produce more fruit) so we decide to replant the seeds from that taller, better fruit-bearing plant again next year and leave behind the ones that weren’t so tall and made less fruit. Over many generations of this, we “modify” the genome of the plant in a way we like and the end result is a much different plant, sometimes called a “variety.” You might be surprised to know that every single piece of produce you see at the grocery store (even the organic and heirlooms) has been changed in some way by people. In fact, humans created the corn plant as we know it. The wild variety of corn would be unrecognizable to most people. For that matter, the wild variety of many fruits and vegetables would be unrecognizable. That’s important to keep in mind. Genetic modification, in that sense, is by no means new.
What is new-ish, though, is making the leap from a modification than can be done through traditional breeding to making a modification through biotechnology that probably wouldn’t happen in nature. Up to now, this technology has primarily provided us with food crops that help farmers manage pests. Next to weather, pests are a farmer’s biggest adversary. I’ve never been a farmer, but the idea that your annual salary and livelihood could be devastated by a bug or disease you can’t even see is scary. Keeping crops safe from pests does a number of things that help both farmers and consumers: it increases the yield, it makes produce more visually appealing, thereby cutting down on food waste (think biting into an apple and finding a fat worm), and it helps reduce food-borne illness (damage to crops can lead to toxins in food.) Thankfully, farmers have a whole toolbox of options to fight pests. One of those tools is biotechnology.
How Do I Know if GMOs Are in My Food?
Currently, there are three areas of GMOs in food crops: herbicide-tolerance, insect-resistance, and disease-resistance. To date, there are eight crops commercially available from GM seeds that contain some or all of these traits: corn (both field and sweet), soybeans, canola, cotton, papaya, squash, alfalfa, and sugar beets. So when you’re at the grocery store, where are the GMOs? Components produced from field corn, soybeans, sugar, canola and cottonseed are common in baked, prepared, packaged and snack foods. While sweet corn, papaya and squash have GM varieties, you’re unlikely to see them at the grocery store. Alfalfa and field corn are grown for animal feed. So for the consumer, we’re primarily talking about highly processed or prepared food. Ninety percent of the corn and 93 percent of the soy grown in the US is GM. The bottom line – if that food has an ingredient list, check it for the words corn, sugar, soy, cotton or canola. Unless it explicitly says “GMO-free,” assume it has GM crops as a source for some of those ingredients.
Side rant: on the GMO-free Cheerios. As you know, Cheerios are primarily made out of oats. Did you see oats on that list? No. The only change General Mills made was to source GM-free sugar (of which there is very little in Cheerios, which is one of the reasons Moms like them) and a very small amount of corn starch. Now that you know what GM crops exist, you’re better equipped to call momsense on a lot of false advertising from the natural food sector. Lots of products that claim to be GM-free have very little, if any, potentially GM-crop ingredients in them anyway. Doesn’t that feel a little misleading? I also took this recent photo at our local Costco that boasted hothouse tomatoes and cucumbers from Windset Farms that were labeled as “100 percent non-GMO varieties.” (I kind of have a love/hate relationship with Costco, but that’s a topic for another day.) I went to Windset Farms’ website and found out they also produce peppers, eggplant, endive, and lettuce. None of those exist in GM varieties. That’s a bit like trying to sell you vegetables by boasting they’re vegetarian. All vegetables are vegetarian and all tomatoes are GM-free.
Are GMOs Safe?
On to the big question: what about the safety? If you read my article about registering pesticides, you know the regulatory process is extensive. It is even more extensive for GMOs – on average it takes 13 years and $136 million to bring a new GM trait to the market. GMO crops are the most researched and tested technology in agricultural history and have been declared as safe as non-GMO crops (both for consumption and for the environment) by every major scientific body worldwide. The technology has existed far longer and has probably been better tested than much of the technology we surround ourselves with every day: iPads, wireless Internet, smart phones. It’s been about 20 years since farmers started growing GMOs. In that time, there has not been one single documented incident of health or human harm as a result of GMOs.
But Sara, what about all the stuff I’ve read on the internet about studies saying GMOs cause cancer, ADHD, celiac disease, and a host of other terrible stuff? Unsubstantiated. There have been studies that have made these claims (in fact, you can find a study that backs up pretty much anything you want to say about anything) – but they have been heavily refuted by the scientific community. They’re not reproducible, and they’re not based on sound science. It can’t be said better than molecular biologist Kevin Folta said it in his interview with Fourat of Random Rationality: “If my lab had a slight hint that GMOs were dangerous, I’d do my best to repeat that study, get a collaborator to repeat it independently, and then publish the data on the covers of Science, Nature and every news outlet that would take it. It would rock the world. Showing that 70-some percent of our food was poisonous? That would be a HUGE story — we’re talking Nobel Prize and free Amy’s Organic Pot Pies for life! Finding the rule breakers is what we’re in it for, but to break rules takes massive, rigorous data. So far, we don’t even have a good thread of evidence to start with.” The fact is, the evidence just isn’t there.
In the last ten years, there have been over 1,700 peer-reviewed studies on biotechnology, and a decade of research funded by the EU that concludes GM-food is just as safe as conventional food. It’s even hard for the activists to continue to ignore the science. Mark Lynas, a well-known activist who helped start the anti-GM movement, publicly apologized in January 2013 for having destroyed GM crops and claims science changed his mind on GM.
There are a host of issues that anti-GM folks trot out when the topic of GM is debated. As with most things in life, it is a complex issue. I know, because I’ve had the conversations. I’m not going to even try to cover that here, but I will talk more about GMOs in future posts. I understand the issues, but at the end of the day, the science is irrefutable. Neil deGrasse Tyson said it right, “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.”
Why Should I Care?
Here’s my bottom line: our population is expanding, our resources are finite, and you can’t argue that there isn’t going to be (or maybe there already is) a huge gap between our needs and our available food resources. There are lots of ways we can work to address these issues, but biotechnology should be in that picture. Biotechnology is not the end all and be all, but it is one important tool in the toolbox. We should not be scared away from it by pseudoscience and fear-mongering activists, because even if you don’t care about what biotechnology has done for us so far, you should care about what it could do for us in the future. You’ve probably heard about Golden Rice, GM rice that could help combat vitamin A deficiency, something that causes blindness in children in developing countries. Even Michael Pollan says he could get behind it. Researchers are working on ways that biotechnology could help plants deal with climate change and resource supply: reducing needs for resources like nitrogen fertilizer and water, and making crops more tolerant to extreme variations in temperature and flooding. I’m not saying we shouldn’t be careful with these applications and make sure we are good stewards of the technology and our environment, but let’s not let fear stand in the way of innovation that could help us deal with real problems.
If you have questions about GMOs, there’s a website called GMOanswers that probably has the answers and if not, you can submit your questions to be answered by real scientists in the field.