The thick black letters “NON-GMO” were awkwardly scrawled in the sliver of a space above a bright sign cheerfully announcing “Sweet Corn” right off of US 52 on a late Saturday morning. The qualifier “NON-GMO” was stark against the natural rolling hills, lush farmland, and the perfectly cloud-speckled Minnesota sky. The words seemed an afterthought long after the original sign had been made—a hurried edit to reflect mounting public concerns about genetically modified food production and consumption.
GMO, the clunky acronym for “genetically modified organisms,” has been popping up just about everywhere, from the cereal aisle at Hy-Vee to local farm stands and glossy fast food campaigns. Over the last five years, GMOs have been the subject of intense debate and controversy ranging from health concerns to dire environmental impacts.
What are GMOs?
GMOs are the end-result of the genes (ie: DNA) of another animal or plant being engineered to include certain genes that do not naturally occur in the species. Transgenic modification is when genes are transferred from a different species of plant or animal. The goal of this genetic modification is to produce desired characteristics like resistance to disease or herbicides.
Now, before we start imagining all manner of creepy hybrid “Frankenfood” and crops, it’s worth noting that farmers since the dawn of human agriculture have been changing or modifying the genes of plants and crops through selective breeding. Imagine our earliest prehistoric ancestors choosing specific traits from a crop like maize and over time breeding plants to produce healthier, larger, and more nutrient-rich corn.
What makes today’s genetic modification distinct is that earlier selective breeding used natural reproductive processes of plants and did not mix or manipulate genes across different species. Advancements in agricultural science and technology have also drastically altered sustainable agricultural practices like selective breeding, carefully cultivated by farmers across time.
Common genetically modified foods include milk and dairy products containing RGBH (recombinant bovine growth hormone), sweet corn, and squash and zucchini. The majority of foods like seedless watermelon, oats, potatoes, major brands of soy milk, rice, and meat, fish, and egg products are actually GMO-free, despite common misperceptions.
So, are GMOs bad for us?
Long touted by supporters as a miracle agricultural technology sure to “feed the world”, GMO seeds can produce high yield crops that are resistant to disease, insects, herbicides, and even drought. But there’s a trade-off to these benefits. These outcomes are far from sustainable and in just one generation (10-15 years), production of GMO crops depletes the soil of vital nutrients. In addition, much of our GMO crops are engineered specifically to withstand the toxic herbicides and pesticides often doused on fields to kill weeds and repel insects.
GMO crops have actually increased the use of herbicides needed to kill resistant super weeds because farmers are more confident that the GMO crops will survive a heavier application of chemicals. The most infamous and widely used of these herbicides is glyphosate, popularized in farms across the U.S. since 1974 under the Monsanto Corporation’s “Roundup” product. The World Health Organization (WHO) and many cancer specialists worldwide now consider glyphosate a “probable human carcinogen.”
Over the last four decades, aggressive herbicide spraying has increased almost 20-fold in farms across the U.S. There has also been a rise in hearty, glyphosate-resistant weeds that can’t be killed by this popular herbicide, causing farmers to use even more herbicide or mix chemicals. Herbicides like glyphosate make their way into our soil, crops, and in run-off water. Spraying of these herbicides is also incredibly hazardous to farm workers and people living near treated farms who are often directly exposed to the chemicals. Beyond the environmental affects of herbicide use, GMO seeds have also resulted in dramatic changes in agricultural practices globally. Small farmers, in particular, have been at the mercy of market demands and the fools gold promises of GMO seeds.
In the end, most of us just want to know whether GMOs are bad for our health. Non-GMO foods have become a growing fad in healthy eating, pushing food companies to declare a food is “non-GMO” when it never had a GMO counterpart to begin with.
The U.S. scientific community, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, generally agrees there is little substantial evidence that genetically engineered foods themselves are harmful to human health. Still, some entities like the European Union have raised concerns over possible unknown long-term effects of GMO consumption. So while the verdict remains a little fuzzy, it is undeniable that the use of GMOs has an effect on agricultural practices, which in turn, can cause harm to our health, our environment, and our agricultural workers.
What’s in a label?
According to the People’s Food Co-op’s “Talking Points in GMOs”, consumers have a right to know what’s in their food. But what choices does this information help us make at the supermarket, farm stand, or restaurant? Rick Morris, a Land Stewardship Project member states, “GMO labels help you make a choice in that grocery aisle about whether you’ll support a system that is unsustainable, hurts our environment, and negatively impacts the economic stability and wellness of farmers not only globally, but here at home.”
On July 27, 2016, on the heels of a drama-filled vote in both the House and Senate, President Obama signed S. 764, or the “labeling preemption” bill into law. The law creates a national standard for GMO labeling, overturning any state regulations that may have already been in place. This new national standard will be implemented by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), who will require an on-package disclosure of GMO ingredients.
The labeling, however, does not need to be easily readable or even clearly identifiable. Food companies are allowed to simply include a digital barcode or link or just provide a phone number to call to request more information about GMOs in the item. Many critics of the new law believe that these lukewarm labeling measures are neither accessible nor actually helpful to consumers who want to know about GMO ingredients in their food.