Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) — also described as genetically engineered — are living organisms that have had a gene (or several) of another, unrelated species inserted into their own genetic code.
2What they aren’t
GMOs are not the same as crossbred organisms, like grapples or tangelos. Crossbred organisms are made the traditional way, by choosing the desired breeders and getting them to reproduce as they would in nature (think dog breeding).
3How they’re easier
GM breeding takes less time than the traditional route, allows for more precise selection of desirable traits, and for the combination of genes from organisms that would not combine in nature.
4Where they are
It is estimated that 60 to 70 percent of processed foods sold in stores have at least one ingredient that is genetically modified. In 2012, it was reported that 88 percent of corn crops, 94 percent of upland cotton crops, and 93 percent of soybean crops planted were in some way genetically engineered.
5Where GMOs aren’t (ish)
Unless you have your own personal lab, you haven’t eaten any GM animal products. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not yet approved GM animals for any uses, although they are looking into that possibility. However, many animal products come from animals that have eaten GM crops.
6How to avoid them
If you’re wary of eating GMOs, go organic. If a food has the “100 percent organic” USDA label, it can’t have any ingredients that are (or were fed) GMOs. The “organic” label means that 95 percent or more of the ingredients are GMO-free.
7Why GMOs might be good
Most GMOs are made so that they are more resistant to insects and more tolerant of herbicides. Some also grow faster and in a wider range of temperatures. Also, a 2010 study found that, without GM technology, prices of soybeans would likely increase about 10 percent and corn would go up about 6 percent.
8Why GMOs might be bad
GMOs have only been around for about 20 years, so people are concerned that they may have long-term health effects that we have yet to notice, like new allergens or the transfer of potentially harmful genetic material to our cells. In particular people are concerned that GMOs will spread their antibiotic resistance to us. The World Health Organization has said that this transfer is not very likely but they still encourage the use of GMO technology that avoids antibiotic resistance genes. To be clear, there is no confirmed health risk of GMOs right now. Another main concern about GMOs is that they may take the place of natural species, which would reduce the amount of genetic diversity in those species. Currently 62 countries restrict GMO products in some way, either through outright bans or labeling requirements.
Whole Foods has decided to label all of its GM foods by 2018. It is the first nationwide grocery chain to make such a deadline. The store already has Non-GMO Project verified foods, which have 0.9 percent or less GMO ingredients.
Senator Barbara Boxer, of California, and Representative Peter DeFazio, of Oregon, recently proposed a bill that would order the FDA to require the labeling of all GM foods.
Yu, T, “The Production and Price Impact of Biotech Corn, Canola, and Soybean Crops”
Press Release, Boxer, DeFazio Introduce Bill to Require Labeling of Genetically Engineered Foods