What Are GMOs?

Surrounded by controversy yet lacking in scientific data, genetically modified foods are the subject of much conversation. Are they safe to eat? Are they safe for the environment? And where are they in our kitchens? We investigate.

| September/October 2014

  • GM crops have increased the use of pesticides despite claiming the contrary.
    Photo by Getty Images
  • GMOs have been in the news a lot lately. Find out what the cause for concern is and how you can avoid them in your food.
    Photo by Fotolia/Alexey Stiop

With the FDA likely nearing approval of genetically modified (GM) salmon for human consumption and recent uproar over the discovery of Roundup Ready wheat in an Oregon cornfield—although the wheat has not been approved for U.S. farming—genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have been in the news a lot lately. Yet despite all the controversy, finding real data on their safety can be challenging. And with no requirement that GM foods be labeled, consumers are left on their own to figure out how many GMOs are in their diet, whether they want them there, and how to go about getting rid of them. Although there aren’t many clear-cut answers, we’re here to help you sort out the facts so you can make informed decisions.

Learn how to keep GM foods out of your diet in How to Avoid GMO Foods.

What Are GMOs?

In the simplest terms, a GMO is an organism that has had a gene added or taken away through laboratory manipulation. A GMO could be a genetically engineered plant, microbe or animal. Scientists’ first efforts at genetic modification in the lab occurred with microbes because of their simple genetic structure. Researchers have genetically modified bacteria to produce insulin to treat diabetes, to create clotting factors to treat hemophilia, and to produce human growth hormone to treat some forms of dwarfism.

Thus, the impetus driving genetic modification has often been to improve human life. With the case of GM foods, scientists have looked to genetically engineer crops to improve pest resistance, to prevent plants from dying when sprayed with herbicides, or to give crops traits that might allow them to thrive in environmental conditions outside their native range—for example, developing crops that could thrive in drought conditions.



Chemical giant Monsanto first used genetic modification techniques on corn about 30 years ago, intending to help crops survive when sprayed with its herbicide Roundup (the active ingredient of which is glyphosate). One of the company’s stated goals was to decrease pesticide use. Unfortunately, today U.S. pesticide use is higher than ever before.

Nearly 90 percent of all U.S. corn, more than 93 percent of soybeans, and large percentages of some other crops such as canola, cotton, alfalfa and sugar beets are GM. The U.S. is the world’s largest producer of GM foods and requires no labeling for foods containing GM ingredients. The European Union has banned their import from the U.S., and much of South America has stricter guidelines regarding their use and sale. Yet the governing bodies that oversee GMOs—the FDA, USDA and EPA—assert that GM foods are not significantly different from their non-GM counterparts, and require no independent safety testing of these foods. Safety tests submitted for permits are conducted by the patent-holding companies themselves.



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