corn on the cob

Remember when organic farming took the food world by storm in the 1990s? Farmers markets became all the rage, farm-to-table was the new food craze, and we were left questioning the impact of food processing on our health.

The next wave is genetically modified organisms (GMOs), but these foods are generating a more mixed public reaction. Let’s dive into genetically modified foods and see where this trend is headed.

GMO in a Nutshell

Genetically modified foods have had their DNA modified to improve growth, productivity, shelf life, and other traits. Fruits, vegetables, corn, and soy are commonly modified, and the methods of genetic modification have been around for over 25 years.

On the surface, GMOs seem like a change for the good: Genetic modification can help plants resist pests and viruses or grow more quickly. However, since we are essentially combining DNA from different species, there is the potential that the plant will be forever altered. When a species changes, it opens parts of the environment to new competitors, which could have adverse consequences.

Although the FDA approved genetically modified salmon for consumption in 2015, some groups express concern that modified fish could negatively affect other fish populations.

The Risks of GMOs

Here’s where the controversy truly begins. Over 90 percent of scientists believe GMOs are safe for human consumption, a view shared by the American Medical Association and the World Health Organization. However, only one-third of consumers agree with this statement.

Those who are GMO resisters may point to the belief that genetic modification will change the nutritional content of food, increase allergies, or cause tumors and cancer. None of these claims have been proven scientifically.

From an environmental standpoint, it largely comes down to the use of insecticides and pesticides in crop growing, one of the central debates of organic farming. A 2016 study of 10,000 U.S. soybean and corn farmers over 13 years showed that farmers using genetically modified seeds reduced their use of insecticides by 11 percent. However, modified plants are adjusting to the technology in surprising ways. For example, GMO corn farmers had to use 28 percent more herbicides to fight off weeds in the GMO crops.

GMOs have also been linked to the decreasing bee population, as some genetically modified crops contain neonicotinoids, an insecticide that affects bees’ memories and navigation. Bees are crucial to our ecosystem as they pollinate 80 percent of the crops grown in the United States.

GMO Labeling Gains Steam

The debate surrounding GMOs is not whether they should be legal, but whether they should require labeling. That’s because GMOs are present in a large percentage of the foods we buy at the grocery store.

The argument in favor of labeling genetically modified foods is that consumers have a right to know what they’re eating. 64 countries currently require GMO labeling. The argument against labeling includes increased costs and fear of public backlash over largely unproven risks.

In 2014, Vermont became the first state to require GMO food labeling, and just before it was implemented in 2016 a national law was passed. Now, manufacturers have until this summer to start labeling GMO foods, with few exceptions.

How You Can Act

While you might spend more time looking at food labels in the near future, there are a few easy ways to bypass GMOs:

  • Limit your purchase of processed foods, which are more likely to contain GMOs.
  • Buy foods labeled organic, as organic food by definition is non-GMO.
  • Download the free Center for Food Safety mobile app that identifies non-GMO products and store policies about GMOs.

Feature image by Couleur on

By Trey Granger

Trey Granger is a former senior waste stream analyst for Earth911.