For people who prefer organic foods, the three letters “GMO” are a four-letter word. And it’s not just diehard foes who are leery of GMOs. A 2018 survey for the International Food Information Council Foundation found nearly half of all U.S. consumers avoid GMO foods at least some of the time.
The safety of GMOs “remains a source of anxiety for some Americans,” The New York Times noted in May 2018.
If you’re reading this article, it’s likely that you feel anxious about GMOs. But how much do you actually know about them? Here, we’ve answered 10 common questions about GMOs.
1. What are GMOs?
As defined by the Non-GMO Project, a nonprofit that verifies non-GMO products, GMOs are genetically modified organisms “whose genetic material has been artificially manipulated in a laboratory through genetic engineering. This creates combinations of plant, animal, bacteria, and virus genes that do not occur in nature or through traditional crossbreeding methods.”
However, the pro-GMO website GMO Answers offers this explanation:
“For more than 10,000 years, humans have selectively cultivated plants to create new varieties of crops with desirable traits, like being resistant to pests or diseases or being tolerant to herbicides that allow farmers to better control weeds. Throughout history, they have used a variety of plant-breeding techniques to produce plants with useful characteristics, including selective breeding, mutagenesis and genetic engineering.”
2. Are GMO foods considered safe?
The answer depends on who you ask.
The Non-GMO Project says that a “growing body of evidence” ties GMOs to health problems and environmental damage.
“In the absence of credible independent long-term feeding studies, the safety of GMOs is unknown. Increasingly, citizens are taking matters into their own hands and choosing to opt out of the GMO experiment,” according to the Non-GMO Project.
For its part, GMO Answers declares GMOs are safe, and don’t cause new allergies, cancer or any other diseases. In making that claim, the website cites an “overwhelming consensus” formed by groups such as the World Health Organization, U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, and American Medical Association.
3. What do opponents cite as the dangers of GMOs?
The American Academy of Environmental Medicine urges doctors to recommend non-GMO diets for all patients, according to the Institute for Responsible Technology. The academy cites animal studies indicating organ damage, gastrointestinal and immune system disorders, accelerated aging and infertility as a result of GMOs.
Furthermore, critics also raise concerns about a lack of substantive testing and oversight of GMO foods, according to a research paper titled “The Debate on Labeling Genetically Modified Food.”
4. What do supporters tout as the benefits of GMOs?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says GMO proponents engage in genetic engineering to create plants with better flavor, higher crop yields, more resistance to insects and better immunity to diseases. Theoretically, GMO crops and animals also promise to be environmentally friendly because they conserve water, soil and energy, according to a nonprofit organization called Decoded Science.
5. Which commercially available crops in the U.S. are genetically engineered?
The 10 crops that fall into this category are alfalfa, apples, canola, corn, cotton, papaya, potatoes, soybeans, squash and sugar beets, according to Food & Water Watch, a government watchdog that promotes healthy food and clean water.
Up to 94 percent of soybeans and cotton grown in the U.S. is genetically engineered, according to the Center for Food Safety, as is 92 percent of corn.
6. How many processed food products sold at American grocery stores contain GMO ingredients?
Roughly three-fourths of processed foods on U.S. grocery shelves, including soda, soup, crackers and condiments, have genetically engineered ingredients, the Center for Food Safety says.
7. Do meat, fish and dairy products contain GMOs?
Some meat, fish and dairy products may contain GMOs, since much of the genetically modified corn and soybeans produced in the U.S. winds up being fed to farm animals and fish, according to the Non-GMO Project. To avoid GMOs, any meat, fish or dairy products you buy should come from grass-fed, grass-finished animals, the project says.
The first genetically engineered creature designed for human consumption — salmon — could be available at U.S. stores as soon as next year, Indiana Public Media reported. GMO salmon already has gotten the go-ahead from the FDA.
Food & Water Watch warns that GMO salmon could pose serious risks to consumer health, animal welfare, wild-fish populations, fishing economies and the environment.
“That’s all on top of potentially diminishing the nutrition and taste of salmon, one of the most popular and important fish in the American diet,” Food & Water Watch says.
8. Who oversees GMO foods in the U.S.?
The FDA regulates foods derived from GMO crops in tandem with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). However, critics complain that these agencies are too lax in their regulation of GMOs.
9. Where is GMO labeling required?
More than 60 countries mandate labeling of GMO foods, according to the Center for Food Safety.
“But here in the U.S., where powerful interests lobby to keep us in the dark about what we’re eating, we can’t tell if our food contains GMOs,” the center says.
A federal law enacted in 2016 prohibits states from passing their own GMO-labeling requirements.
However, the USDA is working on a new rule — required under federal law — regarding GMO labeling. But some observers say the rule might end up being too vague, particularly in terms of what does and does not need to be labeled.
10. How can you avoid GMO foods?
Integrative nutrition health coach Samantha Salmon recommends buying foods that are certified as organic or products that are verified as non-GMO. If you purchase conventionally grown produce, make sure it’s from the Environmental Working Group’s Clean 15 list, she says.