GMOs. Are they going to cure world hunger? Or will they send us into a apocalyptic state of super weeds, monstrous pests and cancer-creating food? It’s no doubt that what we eat is important to our individual health and wellbeing as a society, which is why this is such a hot topic. Some say that GMOs are to be avoided at all costs, others say that GMOs are totally safe. Both sides of the debate are circulating on the world wide web, and we hope to make some sense of this muddled topic.
In order to get some expert advice, we’ve contacted Jessica Marcus, MS RD. Jessica has had an extensive career in health and nutrition. From heading up the nutrition department for the Institute of Integrative Nutrition to manipulating DNA of viruses as a research fellow at the National Institutes of Health to her current project launching a healthy snack company with Joy Bauer, the TODAY show health expert, Jessica has pretty much done it all.
It’s clear from our interview that there are a lot of conclusions made about GMOs from insufficient information. So let’s get to the eight things that you should know about GMOs before making your own definitive stance on their place in your diet.
1. GMO stands for….
Genetically modified organism. It sounds scary, right? The name itself is cause for a lot of buzz–take it from the number of popular Vampire and Zombie TV shows, we have a fear of the almost-human. This fear carries over into ideas about food. Is a GMO banana to an organic banana the same as a zombie to a human? Not quite. Keep reading.
2. Are GMOs unhealthy?
We don’t really know yet, hence the hype. According to Jessica Marcus, “GMOs are a relatively new type of biotechnology, and the jury’s still out on how they impact our health and the environment. Because their implications are unknown, the use of GMOs is a bit like a human science experiment.” While some research studies say that GMOs can cause cancer, there just isn’t enough research done to conclusively make this claim.
3. Do GMOs have any health benefits?
GMOs are usually thought of in the context of food and the environment, but genetically modified organisms can affect far more than our nutritious intake. GMOs are not only used for our food supply, but in scientific research. Jessica Marcus says, “GMOs are also enabling unprecedented leaps and bounds in world health by, for instance, producing vaccines in genetically modified bananas.” (So much for zombie bananas.)
4. Are GMOs really going to overtake non-GMO crops due to contamination from pollination?
But what about the environment? GMOs receive a lot of pushback not only for our human concerns, but also for concern about the ecosystem. Marcus says: “The use of GMOs can certainly change the ecosystem in which a crop grows. For instance, giving a crop an enhanced ability to harvest water from the soil might make it outcompete certain native plant species, which can affect the habitats of insects and animals that rely on those species. Genetic engineering is a relatively new technology, and only time will tell whether it is harmful to the environment.” It’s this “only time will tell” reality that causes so much fear and hype in the media.
Not only can GMOs alter an ecosystem, but GMO crops can easily overtake non-GMO crops. There is a real fear of organic food supply becoming extinct due to cross-pollination. Marcus says it is up to the farmers here: “It’s true that it can be difficult to control cross-pollination, but it will really depend on how many farms are using GMO seeds. The more GMOs planted, the higher the risk for cross-pollination. In Europe, where GMO crops are much more rare, for example, the risk of contaminating non-GMO seed is relatively low.” Seems like cross-pollination is a valid concern, but not something already out of the control of farmers.
5. Do GMOs help produce enough food to feed a hungry world?
Some of the main supporters for genetically modified food say that GMOs will help to solve world hunger. But is this really the case? Jessica weighs in with this: “It’s undeniable that the use of GMOs can help increase the world’s food supply. They can offer crop advantages like the ability to grow bigger, taste different, have a higher protein content, grow in drier soils, or make them resistant to insects and herbicides,” she says. Whether or not we are able to harness this new technology is up to us, but the potential is certainly there.
6. Is it possible to avoid GMO foods completely? Are GMOs always labeled?
Depending on what you’re thinking right now, you may be wanting to know how to avoid GMOs. This is where we get into a sticky situation. There is a lack of labeling that can make it difficult for consumers who choose to eat only GMO foods. Jessica Marcus says that GMO products are usually unlabeled. “Some estimates suggest 80% of foods grown in the US contain GMOs, and to many people, this is concerning. It’s not possible to avoid them if you don’t know where they exist,” she says.
However, there is a solution. While products that contain GMOs are not labeled, non-GMO products are almost always labeled. “That’s why non-GMO labeling – which is voluntary – is becoming more common as consumers demand more transparency,” Marcus says. “Third party organizations like the Non-GMO Project are created so that food companies can go out of their way to follow non-GMO practices, test their products, and show they’ve done so by stamping a trusted verification seal on the packaging.”
Marcus also has tips for those on the quest for GMO-free foods. “It’s also worth noting that, by definition, organic foods cannot knowingly contain GMOs,” she says. “Although, testing is not required to show organic foods are GMO-free. When in doubt, it’s best to look for a third party verification that does require testing if you’re trying to avoid GMO”.
7. Why are there significant restrictions on GMOs in several developed countries, but not in America?
Another common red flag for consumers is that restrictions on GMO foods seem to be utterly lacking in America compared to European legislation on GMOs. Jessica says: “The European Union has some of the strictest regulations on the use of GMOs. Here in the US, our regulations are less stringent, but this has fueled a public demand for more transparent labeling. At this point, deciding the best practice uses of GMOs is a matter of opinion and case-by-case assessment.”
In classic American fashion, the push is for more clear labeling so that individuals may make their own choices about food. Whether or not our lack of legislation about GMOs is something to fear, we are pushing towards more transparency so that American consumers have the freedom to choose whether on not to consume GMO foods.
8. When should GMOs be avoided and when are they ok to eat?
To sum it up, there just isn’t enough available information to make overarching conclusions about GMO food. In Marcus’ words, “There are no proven guidelines on which GMOs are safe or unsafe. The research is not there yet, so it’s something that should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis by the consumer.”