What You Really Need To Know About GMOs

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This article was last updated on April 16, 2022


Usually when something is high-tech, we consider it to be a good thing. But when it comes to what we eat, it’s not so cool. As we gain more awareness about our food sources, the concern over how it’s produced continues to rise. Nowhere is this more evident than in the case of GMOs.

Most of you have heard of these so called frankenfoods, but there are still some who are unclear on just exactly what GMO foods are. Here’s a little primer: “GMO stands for genetically modified organismsand the acronym refers to plants or animals that have undergone genetic engineering — the transfer of genes from one organism to another to confer desired traits,” explains Marion Nestle, professor of Nutrition at New York University, founder of the site Food Politics, and author of Eat, Drink, Vote: An Illustrated Guide To Food Politics (out September 2013).

So the big question then is, why on earth would we ever start Matrix-ing our food? Well, because farmers need to create quite a lot of crops to reach demand, plus Mother Nature (i.e. insects and other natural forces that wreak havoc on a food source) can make reaching that quota damn hard. “Scientists working for agribusiness companies realized that they could engineer corn, soybeans, cotton, and sugar beets to resist certain pesticides or insects,” says Nestle.

But the potential long-term, negative health effects of consuming GMO-based foods have many up in arms. And for good reason: GMO foods require being sprayed with crazy-toxic pesticides (such as Monsanto’s Roundup Ready crops). But, even if you wanted to go GMO-free, it’s not that easy. Currently,the U.S. does not require brands to label foods that contain GMOs (Meanwhile, European nations do and Whole Foods will require any brand in their store to do so by 2018, the company announced this April). 

And then, of course, there are the health concerns of being exposed to foods treated with highly toxic pesticides — that includes allergies, infertility, birth defects, digestive issues, imbalances in gut bacteria, and even certain cancers and tumors. However, despite the uproar over possible health repercussions, right now there isn’t a large amount of conclusive scientific evidence to back all that up from a research standpoint. A 2012 French study showed that rats fed GMO-corn developed tumors, organ damage, and were more likely to die prematurely compared to those who were fed non-GMO corn. But the results received quite a bit of backlash from the scientific community because of how the study was done and did not receive the full support of all experts. 

This is exactly why many say more research on GMO foods is needed. “Studies on all aspects of GMO foods give mixed results, are difficult to interpret, and the point of view on them differ widely depending on training and outlook,” says Nestle. Regardless of the lack of science at this point in time, many health experts still don’t advocate eating GMO foods and, at the bare minimum, say that proper labeling is crucial so that people at least know what they are consuming and can decide for themselves.

“If you are eating packaged or processed foods, you can bet that there is probably either GMO soy or corn in there,” says Samantha Lynch, R.D., founder of Samantha Lynch Nutrition. “Even so-called health foods contain GMO ingredients — if a food contains corn or soy ingredients and is not organic or does not have the non-GMO-verfied label, it is safe to assume it contains GMOs. If you start to read labels, you might be shocked to find out how much soy and corn you actually consume in a day.” According to the documentary Genetic Roulette , 88 percent of corn is GMO and, according to the Non GMO Project, 94 percent of soy is genetically modified. 

Currently, the FDA has approved over 40 types of GMO foods and, while corn and soy are the most massively produced, that list also includes tomatoes, canola, sugar beets, Hawaiian papaya, alfalfa, zucchini, and even salmon. The reasoning for each differs, from being resistant to certain herbicides to being tolerant to others, or in the case of the papaya, to almost becoming extinct.

GMOs have been around for almost two decades, so you may be asking yourself, why is this issue suddenly getting so much attention? Because a Senate spending bill that has nada to do with GMOs (or farming for that matter) was just passed that protects the GMO-producing bigwigs (such as pesticide-maker Monsanto) and could totally change the GMO landscape for the worse. As always, John Stewart and The Daily Show writers did an absolutely spot-on report with the kind of outraged incredulity this particular political circus-act merits.

According to Alexis Baden-Mayer, political director at the 
Organic Consumers Association

 in Washington D.C., the anti-GMO community was basically blindsided by what went down because they only got word of this sneaky GMO add-on to the bill days before it was presented (cue shady, corrupt politics).

Here’s why you care: It will basically help fast-track the approval of a slew of new GMO crops — and they could be even scarier than the classic GMOs currently out there. Why? Because weeds have become resistant to Roundup (the well-known and widely used pesticide), which gives Monsanto and other agri-chemical companies an excuse to turn farmers onto genetically engineered crops designed to be used with stronger, and more toxic herbicides. This includes 2,4-D, which has dioxin as a byproduct, “one of the most horrible chemicals ever synthesized by man — used in Agent Orange — that never degrades or breaks down, but lingers in the environment and has been shown to cause severe birth defects,” says Baden-Mayer.

There is some (kind of) good news: “Luckily, this bill is only in effect for six months — until September 30, 2013 — so it can then be taken out,” says Baden-Mayer. However, she says, once something like this gets into legislation, they just keep duplicating it, making it very difficult to make even minor changes. “And even if it is taken out, it could be too late by then — this Monsanto Protection Act says thatif the courts say the USDA has illegally approved a new GMO crop, if farmers have already started growing it, they can keep growing it,” explains Baden-Mayer.

Plus, there’s still the original concern with GMO crops, which is contamination of non-GMO seeds. “Once these 2,4-D resistant crop varieties are planted, it is very difficult to recall them entirely,” she says. “So, in the next six months, we could have those new GMO crops approved and in the environment and in our foods supply and there is nothing that the courts can do about it.”

The bottom line: GMO foods have been on the market for nearly 20 years and are most likely here to stay, but hopefully what will change in the not-too-distant future is being able to know what is — and isn’t — in our food with proper labeling. So, we say, let’s get on it.

Illustrated by Gabriela Alford

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