Are GMOs Bad for You?
Here's what you need to know about the debate around GMOs.
The term genetically modified organisms (better known as GMOs) has a not-so-stellar reputation in the U.S. and other countries. Many people consider them a bad-for-you product. Is this reputation deserved or are GMOs just misunderstood? Here’s a look into GMOs and if they really are as bad as society makes them out to be.
What Are GMOs?
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are “organisms that have been altered using genetic engineering methods,” says Dr. Taylor Wallace, the Principal and CEO of the Think Healthy Group, Inc. and an adjunct professor in the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies at George Mason University. Wallace explains that the key steps involved in genetic engineering are identifying a trait of interest (like drought resistance), isolating that trait, inserting that trait into the desired organism, and then propagating that organism. It is a common misconception that these genes are created in a lab. The genes are actually isolated from other organisms. “For instance, plant A may be resistant to a certain pest and therefore scientists are able to isolate that trait and insert it in plant B that was not originally resistant,” says Wallace.
Where Can You Find GMOs?
Amy Myrdal Miller, MS, RDN, FAND, and president of Farmer’s Daughter Consulting in Carmichael, California says that “experts estimate nearly 80 percent of foods in U.S. supermarkets contain ingredients that come from genetically engineered crops. These crops can be converted into a wide range of ingredients, like vegetable oils and sweeteners that are used across the food supply.” Although this sounds like a lot, there are only 10 crops available from GMO seeds in the U.S. including apples, potatoes, field and sweet corn, canola, alfalfa, soybean, rainbow papaya, cotton, sugar beets and summer squash. According to Myrdal Miller there are also foods that have undergone gene editing, such as Artic Apples® and Innate Potatoes® (where the browning gene was turned off in both), Pink Pineapple (the genes that control flesh color were changed) and AquaAdvantage® salmon (genetically altered salmon to gain weight faster) are genetically engineered and approved for sale in the U.S., but they are not currently grown or produced in the U.S.
Why Do Farmers Use GMOs?
Farmers choose seeds based on what is best for their farms, market demand and local growing environments. Farmers select GMOs for various reasons like reducing yield loss or crop damage from weeds, diseases, and insects, or extreme weather conditions, like drought. Farmers may choose to use GMOs in order to reduce costs and the impact of agriculture on their environment. They may also choose GMOs seeds to save a crop, which is what happened with papaya from Hawaii that was threatened by disease.
Are GMOs Bad?
According to Myrdal Miller, “Genetically modified organisms are neither good nor bad. They give farmers options for dealing with insects, weeds, bacteria and other 'pests' that can decrease crop yields.” In addition, they offer farmers numerous benefits like decreased pesticide application. “For example, conventional sweet corn is often sprayed with pesticides every 3 to 4 days, whereas GMO sweet corn is sprayed just 3 to 4 times during the growing season, which is a wonderful environmental and cost benefit for the grower,” says Myrdal Miller. “No grower wants to apply pesticides unless it’s necessary to protect the crop. GMO sweet corn has given the grower the option to use less pesticides.”
Wallace says “I often joke that nutrition science is not black or white, but rather grey … except in the case of genetic engineering (GMO technology) for which there is conclusive indisputable rigorous scientific evidence that it is completely safe on all fronts.” Wallace states that there are more than 280 global governmental, scientific, medical and environmental organizations, in addition to 30 years of research, that confirm this fact.
Why Is There So Much Pushback?
Many food companies are touting “GMO-free” on their labels and consumers are literally eating it up. Myrdal Miller believes that “there is an abundance of information provided by activists who use misinformation and fear to make people think GMO foods are dangerous. And once fear is planted in someone’s brain, it is difficult to help them believe something is not harmful or bad.” She recommends watching the documentary Food Evolution which tells the story of activist communication strategies that have instilled fear and have manipulated data and people. Wallace says that these anti-GMO messages have become lucrative to “natural food” companies. “To date, Whole Foods exceeds Monsanto (now Bayer) in dollars spent on the public GMO debate.”
For example, many folks believe that GMOs cause disease and sicknesses from autism to cancer. Myrdal Miller says, “None of the well-done, thoughtfully-reviewed peer-reviewed research supports these assertions. But again, once fear is implanted in our brains we have a difficult time easing the fear and trusting the evidence that supports the overwhelming safety of genetic engineering our food supply.” In addition, Myrdal Miller brings up an interesting point about medications: “More than 85 percent of medicines used in this country — including the insulin I’ve taken every day since I was nine years old — comes from genetic engineering, yet no one questions this.”
Another common myth about GMOs is that people think that GMO wheat causes allergies and celiac disease, but this is misinformation as there is no GMO wheat that is grown commercially anywhere in the world.
Wallace agrees and says, “There is no data to indicate that there are negative health effects of GMO foods. This technology represents perhaps the greatest hope for a more sustainable and healthful future.” This year, for example, the FDA is expected to approve a new GMO non-allergenic peanut and the possibilities are endless.
There is plenty of evidence that GMO crops and food produced from these GMO crops are safe to eat. Farmers choose to use GMO seeds for various reasons from environmental to costs to health benefits. Fear and cultural pressure can be strong marketing tools and cause confusion. However, this technology and others to come, hold much promise in our agricultural future. The choice to eat GMO or GMO-free foods is ultimately up to you.
Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, is a registered dietitian and consultant who specializes in food safety and culinary nutrition. She is the author of The Greek Yogurt Kitchen: More Than 130 Delicious, Healthy Recipes for Every Meal of the Day.
*This article was written and/or reviewed by an independent registered dietitian nutritionist.