The topic of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is a contentious one, fraught with political, humanitarian, and environmental concerns. If you have had trouble understanding the GMO debate, you are not alone. As always, our goal is transparency and honesty, which is why we’ve done the research to shed some light on this important debate.
What is a GMO?
A genetically modified organism (GMO) is one in which the genetic material has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination.
First, some basics: Genes are segments of DNA molecules which code for certain proteins. Proteins in turn form the physical structures of cells, act as enzymes that catalyze biochemical reactions, carry out intracellular signaling, and govern physiological processes from outside the cell. In short, genes contain the instructions that guide the development and functioning of living organisms.
The goal behind genetic engineering is to cut and splice the DNA of an organism in a way that will result in ideal characteristics or traits for that organism. (For example: disease resistance, longer shelf life, or increased nutritional value.) In theory, the resulting organism will be identical to the non-genetically modified original, except that it will have the new trait conferred by the new gene. In practice, most commercially-available GMOs are engineered to produce insecticides or tolerate herbicides.
Why would we want to genetically modify foods?
Reasons for genetically modifying crops include: improving quality and taste, reduced risk of disease and crop failure, added nutritional benefits, and reducing herbicides and pesticides used in farming, among others. While these goals are certainly desirable, it is not clear whether genetically modifying foods will prove to be the safest and most efficient way to achieve them.
Isn’t genetic modification the same as breeding?
GM technology is different than classical breeding, in that it involves the construction of new synthetic genes that do not exist in nature. Traditional breeding does not produce crops that may be sprayed with herbicides or that produce insecticides, however most commercially available GMOs are engineered for this purpose.
Why would I want to avoid GMOs?
The fact that GMOs are “unnatural” and artificial does not automatically make them dangerous: It is the lack of current understanding and assessment of potential risks that are of concern.
The control of gene function consists of a highly complex network of interactions, which scientists do not fully understand. A single disturbance in gene organization or function can affect multiple gene systems, which in turn affect cellular function and health. Some speculate that unintended results of genetic modification could lead to toxins and allergens in our food, decreased nutritional value, or that they could be harmful to the environment.
Genetically modified foods are not extensively tested and strictly regulated before being introduced to our food system. Many fear that the release of GMOs into the environment will be irreversible: once a modified organism is released into the ecosystem, they can’t be recalled and may continue to pass on their genes in unpredictable ways. Non-GMO advocates feel that the tests that have been done may be biased (for example, most are funded by the companies who wish to sell GMO seeds), and do not reliably prove safety. A chemical company’s ability to patent certain GMO seeds is another point of contention between pro-GMO and non-GMO advocates.
Because of these reasons, among others, many individuals choose to avoid genetically modified foods.
What is the Non-GMO Project?
The Non-GMO Project is a nonprofit organization that was created in 2007. They are committed to preserving and building sources of non-GMO products and educating consumers.
The Non-GMO Project supports the idea that everyone has a right to know what is in their food and deserves access to non-GMO choices. They aim to preserve the integrity of our diverse genetic inheritance, support the rights of farmers to save and plant their own seeds, and protect our supply of non-GMO seed.
They do this by performing ongoing testing of ingredients throughout the food production process. Their Product Verification Program creates efficiency for an industry where sharing of co-packers and ingredient suppliers is common. By engaging a critical mass of companies, from seed growers to manufacturers, they can achieve the economy of scale that makes long-term non-GMO sourcing possible.
How can I avoid GMOs?
Look for the USDA Certified Organic or Non-GMO Project Verified labels to ensure that your food is GMO-free.
The use of genetic engineering is prohibited in foods bearing the USDA Certified Organic label. As the USDA website explains “This means an organic farmer can’t plant GMO seeds, an organic cow can’t eat GMO alfalfa or corn, and an organic soup producer can’t use any GMO ingredients. To meet the USDA organic regulations, farmers and processors must show they aren’t using GMOs and that they are protecting their products from contact with prohibited substances, such as GMOs, from farm to table.”
The Non-GMO Project Verified label means that a product has been tested for GMO residue at multiple levels of production. Be aware that Non-GMO verified products can still be grown conventionally (non-organically), so your best bet is to look for both labels when you shop. This chart helps explain the differences between these labels in further detail.
Also be wary of labels that use the term “non-GMO” without the Non-GMO Project Verification or USDA Certified Organic seal, as this term is not regulated and means very little. Likewise, the term “natural” on a label is no guarantee that the item is not genetically modified.