GMOs or genetically modified organisms are controversial with one side arguing its benefits and the other arguing against it. GMOs have appeared in the news in the recent past, and I have noticed more and more product companies labeling their foods as verified to be non-GMO. I thought it would be interesting to dig deeper into the conflict surrounding GMOs.
What Are GMOs?
The World Health Organization (WHO, 2014) defines GMOs as “organisms (i.e. plants, animals, or microorganisms) in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally.” Foods that are produced from these organisms are then called genetically modified foods or GM foods.
GMOs can be bacteria, plants, or animals that are developed from a means different than traditional breeding. For example, instead of using natural mating, natural recombination, or plant breeding, GMOs are developed through biotechnology or genetic engineering. Genes are transferred from one organism to another, and these organisms may or may not be from related species (Franz & Novak, 2009).
Why Do We Have GMOs?
GMOs were developed in order to provide benefits to both food producers and/or consumers. These advantages include benefits to the crop and the resulting food. For instance, crops are genetically modified to be resistant to insects, diseases, and/or microorganisms (such as viruses and bacteria). They may also be resistant to environmental conditions and resistant to herbicides that get rid of weeds, but keep the crops alive. GM crops may also have higher yields.
GM food was developed to create innovation in food products, and to offer foods at a lower price point, with greater nutritional value, longer shelf life, better taste, and/or greater health benefits (Franz & Novak, 2009; WHO, 2014).
Keep in mind these are generalizations regarding GMOs and GM foods. There may be additional benefits not listed here. Also, all GMOs and GM foods do not include all of these benefits. To determine the specific benefits of each type of each individual GM organism or food more in-depth research is required, and is beyond the scope of this article.
Why the Controversy?
If GMOs were developed with all of these benefits in mind, you might wonder, why the controversy? There are many arguments against the use of GMOs and GM foods, and here are the main ones.
- Most people are not aware that they are consuming GM foods. It was not until recently that the USDA announced they were creating regulations surrounding the labeling of GMOs in foods. But, until then, many companies do not disclose their use of GMOs in their food products.
Given the recent outcry from consumers over this lack of transparency, some food companies have started disclosing that information, but not all. “General Mills, Kellogg’s, Nestle, ConAgra, and PepsiCo” (Environmental Working Group (EWG), 2016) are among those that do not disclose their use of GM foods.
Even those companies that do, do so by including this information in small print, which requires the consumer to diligently review food labels. Still, that is better than nothing. Groups, such as the EWG, have set up petitions urging more companies to disclose their use of GMOs.
- There is no regulatory agency overseeing the use of GMOs. Although the USDA is working on creating regulations on labels, there is no regulatory agency in the United States that oversees the practice of genetically engineering food and the use of GMOs in food. At this moment, biotechnology companies and food industries are free to practice genetic engineering at their discretion.
There is also no international regulatory system for GMOs. Some countries have stricter evaluation of GMOs and related food items than others. In addition, there is no regulating body over the trade of GMO’s from one country to another. Individual countries are at their own discretion on whether or not to accept foods containing GMOs.
The Codex Alimentarius Commission was developed in a joint effort between the WHO and the FAO or the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (WHO, 2014). The Codex “developed principles for the human health risk analysis of GM foods in 2003,” and although it is expected that companies abide by these principles, these are not binding (WHO, 2014).
- The risk of GMOs and GM foods on human health is not clear. There are studies that are published stating that GMOs are safe for human consumption, but these are typically released by biotechnology companies that sell GM foods or GM products to the food industry or by the food industry itself (Fagan, Antoniou, & Robinson, 2014).
The WHO (2014) has a Food Safety department to assist with risk assessment of GMOs and GM foods. WHO provides recommendations for the correct way to produce risk assessments, including the investigation of health effects and toxicity, potential for allergic reactions, toxic or nutritional components, stability of the modified gene(s), nutritional effects, and any unintended effects. Keep in mind these are just recommendations on how to assess the risk of GMOs, but the WHO does not conduct these risk assessments themselves. That is left up to the companies.
However, even the WHO (2014) admits that it is hard to provide a general answer as to the safety of GMOs and GM foods, because each organism and resulting GM food item would need to be evaluated individually. General concerns to human health as described by the WHO (2014) include creating additional foods that produce allergic reactions on humans, genes transferred into the GM food causing a reaction in the human body when consumed, and transferring genes from one organism to another to have an effect on food safety and food security.
- Environmental risks. The WHO (2014) also lists potential risks to the environment, which include GMO getting introduced into wild populations, how persistent the modified gene is after the GMO is harvested, how susceptible other related, non-pest organisms are to the gene modification, stability of modified gene, loss of or detrimental effects on biodiversity, and increased use of chemicals. This last concern is of particular interest to human health, because as GMOs are being created that are resistant to herbicides and other chemicals, the GM plants get doused with these chemicals, and those chemicals eventually end up in our food (Fagan, Antoniou, & Robinson, 2014).
Now Foods (2016) states that the most common GMOs are bacteria, fish, insects, mammals, plants, and yeast. They also state that the most high-risk commercially available plants include alfalfa, canola, corn, cotton, Hawaiian papaya, potatoes, soy, sugar beets, and summer squash. They are designated as high-risk because they are known to be produced from GM crop. Canola oil comes from the rapeseed plant, and is one of the most commonly available GM foods (Reed Business Information Ltd, 2012). Other plants that are high-risk, but not yet widely commercially available include beets, chard, Chinese cabbage, flax, rice, wheat, and winter squash (Now Foods, 2016).
GMOs are also found in some natural products. For example, there is a GM variety of peppermint, which was created to be resistant to herbicide, have increased essential oil yield, and have improved essential oil quality (Franz & Novak, 2009). Other essential oils or herbs that are available in GM form include lavandin and spike lavender (Franz & Novak, 2009).
It is important to note that not ALL varieties of these plants and animals are GM. In other words, every single corn available in the market is not a GMO. There are non-GMO versions of these plants, animals, and organisms, and non-GM food products available. What is hard is distinguishing which is which.
How to Know if You Are Consuming GMOs
In order to assure that you are avoiding GMOs and GM foods, it is important to read labels and be aware of what you are purchasing and consuming.
Some companies have begun to disclose their use of GMOs, but as I mentioned this is often listed in fine print, so read labels carefully. But, because many companies still do not disclose the use of GMOs in their foods, even if the label does not state GMOs are used, it does not necessarily mean they are GMO-free.
The only way to guarantee a product is non-GMO is to look for the non-GMO product label on the packaging. You can visit the NON GMO Project website for details of what the label looks like, and to see a list of verified products the NON GMO Project. The EWG also has a listing of verified products.
In addition, organic foods and biodynamic foods are non-GMO. I encourage you to look for certified USDA organic products or certified Demeter Biodynamic products.
When dealing with produce, it is important to look at the five-digit price look up (PLU) that is found on stickers or tags on the fruits and vegetables. If the PLU starts with an “8” it is a GMO (Organic Its Worth It, n.d.). But, if the PLU starts with a “9” it is organic and is not a GMO.
When looking at other food items, avoid products containing ingredients that are more typically GM, including corn, corn syrup, corn starch, corn oil, corn meal, soy lecithin, soy protein, soy flour, soy isolate, soy isoflavone, vegetable oil, cottonseed oil, canola, sugar beets, and cotton (Organic Its Worth It, n.d.).
You can also visit the EWG and sign up for their cause to demand more companies to disclose their use of GMOs.
GMOs were developed to create improvements or benefits in the foods that we consume. However the safety of GMOs is uncertain and is unregulated. Until we know for certain the effect that GM foods have, this means that the safest option is to consume natural, organic, and local, when possible.
Environmental Working Group. (2016). Tell big food: label GMOs!. Action. Retrieved on February 27, 2017 from http://action.ewg.org/p/dia/action3/common/public/?action_KEY=2222&tag=2016ACGMOCo&_ga=1.93981533.1965194030.1392145718
Fagan, J., Antoniou, M., & Robinson, C. (2014). GMO Myths and Truths (2nd Ed). London, Great Britain: Earth Open Source.
Franz, C. & Novak, J. (2009). Sources of essential oils. In Husnu Can Baser, K. & Buchbauer, G. (Eds.), Handbook of Essential Oils: Science, Technology, and Applications (pp. 39-81). Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.
Organic Its Worth It. (n.d.). A lesson on GMO labels. Learn. Retrieved on February 27, 2017 from http://www.organicitsworthit.org/learn/lesson-gmo-labels
Now Foods. (2016). GMO & non-GMO FAQs. Product FAQs. Retrieved on February 27, 2017 from https://www.nowfoods.com/now/nowledge/gmo-and-non-gmo-faqs
Reed Business Information Ltd. (2012). GM OSR could cut healthcare bill. Farmers Weekly, i766 pNA. Retrieved from http://lirnproxy.museglobal.com/MuseSessionID=612e278cf7f938e359f6e56a416ca834/MuseProtocol=http/MuseHost=galenet.galegroup.com/MusePath/servlet/HWRC/hits?docNum=A294553297&index3=&index2=&index1=RN&tcit=0_1_0_0_0_0&locID=lirn12711&rlt=2&text3=&text2=&text1=A294553297&t=KW&s=11&r=d&secondary=false&o=DateDescend&n=10&l=d&c=1&bucket=per
World Health Organization. (2014). Frequently asked questions on genetically modified foods. Food Safety. Retrieved on February 27, 2017 from http://www.who.int/foodsafety/areas_work/food-technology/faq-genetically-modified-food/en/