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The Truth About GMOs

Genetically modified foods are likely in your family’s diet. Learn about the potential harms of controversial GM foods and how you can identify GMOs—and avoid them—in the supermarket.

| January/February 2013

  • Your best bet for avoiding GM foods is to know which ingredients are likely GM and reading labels closely. Nearly all U.S. corn and soy is GM, while pasta, rice and beans are not.
    Photo By iStockphoto
  • In the United States, 70 percent or more of the processed foods in the supermarket directly or indirectly contain genetically modified (GM) ingredients.
    Illustration By Barry T. Fitzgerald
  • “U.S. agencies treat GE foods no differently than other foods—requiring neither mandatory safety testing nor labeling.” — Ronnie Cummins
    Photo By iStockphoto
  • Grocery store shelves are full of products containing GMOs, from cereal and cookies to milk, cheese and veggie burgers.
    Photo By iStockphoto
  • Nearly all U.S. corn is GM.
    Photo By Shutterstock
  • Most commercial cereals are made with GM corn or soy ingredients.
    Photo By iStockphoto

Foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are everywhere, and they’ve likely been a part of your diet for almost 20 years. The process of introducing a gene from one organism into an unrelated organism has made its way onto our grocery store shelves via items as diverse as milk, cheese, veggie burgers, cereal and cookies.

Most of the corn, cotton and soybeans grown in the United States come from genetically modified (GM) plants, and almost all processed and packaged foods contain corn or soybeans in one form or another. Controversy surrounds these crops. While they have undoubtedly benefited humans in some ways—worldwide life spans have lengthened during the era of GMOs, partially due to improved nutrition made possible through GMO technology—the profitability of the GMO industry has led large-scale agriculture companies to rush products to market without the level of testing many would consider adequate to ensure human and environmental safety.

Despite this, GM ingredients are ubiquitous. The Environmental Working Group conservatively estimates that each American consumes about 190 pounds of GM foods every year. Unless your diet has been composed almost entirely of organically grown, unprocessed ingredients for many years, you have been a participant in a scientific experiment of grand scale.

The foods that contain GMOs are known by many names: genetically modified; genetically engineered (GE); transgenic; recombinant; gene-altered; biotech; and even “Frankenfoods.” Why should you care whether you are eating these so-called Frankenfoods? The many reasons include concerns over environmental stewardship, international relations and trade, biodiversity, chemical-based versus sustainable agriculture, the patenting and ownership of life forms, and a number of personal health maladies. Here we will concern ourselves mainly with the potential threats to our collective health and the issues surrounding consumer choice. (To learn more about all of these issues, consult the “Resources” section later in this article.)

GMOs: The Basics

What is genetic modification?
Organic regulations define the process as “a variety of methods used to genetically modify organisms or influence their growth and development by means that are not possible under natural conditions or processes.” In essence, genes for desirable traits are extracted from a plant, animal, fungus, bacterium or virus and inserted into a life form that would typically not be able to assimilate that gene into its DNA. Some examples include engineering corn with the pesticide Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) to kill the corn borers that might attack the plant; inserting a gene that produces growth hormones into hogs to make them grow faster or into cows to make them produce more milk; or transferring a trait for herbicide resistance into plants so that they may then be sprayed with that herbicide without dying. According to organic regulations, genetic modification does not include the use of traditional breeding, conjugation, fermentation, hybridization, in vitro fertilization or tissue culture.

How does it work?
Scientists rely on a few methods to transfer genes into the DNA of plants, and even after many years in development, all are surprisingly imprecise. They also carry potential risks.

8/6/2013 7:48:21 AM

This is why my relatives from Hungary mail me their nongmo organic seeds that I grow into seedlings with my aero grow garden. We always have an awesome yield. Picked 5 pounds of green beans yesterday from my non gmo organic NJ garden. Can't wait to eat them. Very thankful 

Liz Lagreca
2/27/2013 12:13:50 AM

VERY worthwhile article to read about the food we eat & the lack of concern by the FDA

Debra Paterson
1/9/2013 9:08:13 PM

This is a great article about why not to eat GMO's and why they should be labeled.

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