You might have had the term "GMO" thrown at you before, most likely in an ominous context. In the 20-plus years GMO foods have been on the market, confusion, misinformation, and conflicting claims have run rampant. It's time to answer some questions: What does GMO stand for? Are GMO foods better for you than traditional foods? And, the most important question on many consumers' minds, are GMO foods safe?

What Is GMO?

GMO stands for genetically modified organism, and GMOs are essentially a plant, animal or microorganism that has undergone DNA modification. To eliminate the jargon, GMO foods are crops and animals that are developed to eliminate undesirable traits and introduce new, desirable traits that will benefit consumers. There are 10 GMO crops and one GMO animal that have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration and are currently on the market in the U.S.

growing corn crops

Origins Of GMO Foods

Before GMO foods, food producers used selective breeding to make their crops taste better, have a higher output, and be hardier and resistant to damage during the production process. This practice has been done for more than 10,000 years and is commonly referred to as "traditional breeding." This traditional method of crop production is basically a stepping stone to the DNA modification techniques used today.

Traditional breeding for crops is done by repeatedly cross-pollinating plants until genes are introduced into the offspring to achieve the most desirable collection of traits. Now, GMO foods work toward the same goals.

The Flavr Savr tomato was the first FDA-approved GMO crop sold in the U.S. Designed by Calgene Inc. in 1994, the Flavr Savr was genetically modified to stay ripe and firm for longer amounts of time. It did so by hindering a gene that makes tomatoes become squishy. The tomato was taken off the market in 1997 when Calgene was purchased by another company, Monsanto. Though there are no more Flavr Savrs, or any other GMO tomatoes, genetically engineered foods have continued to be created, approved and sold in the U.S.

Typically, foods are genetically engineered with a few goals in mind:

  • Enhance flavor
  • Enhance nutrition
  • Be more resistant to insect damage
  • Be immune to plant diseases
  • Have a higher output/yield
  • Reduce food waste by making crops resistant to bruising and rotting
  • Be drought tolerant
  • Be herbicide tolerant
fresh growing tomatoes

How Are GMO Foods Made?

To create a GMO food, a gene for a particular desired trait is isolated and added to a cell in a laboratory. Once the gene, which sometimes comes from an entirely different species, is added to the cell, a new organism is produced. Scientists use this method to eliminate undesirable genes from a crop or animal as well. The product is then evaluated by the FDA for safety before it is released to the public.

What Are Some GMO Foods?

As aforementioned, there are only 10 FDA-approved GMO crops grown and sold in the U.S.:

  • Corn
  • Soybeans
  • Cotton
  • Potatoes
  • Papaya
  • Squash
  • Canola
  • Alfalfa
  • Apples
  • Sugar beets

Out of these 10 crops, there are many different GMO varieties of each. For example, there are 33 different kinds of GMO corn produced in the country. Most of these GMO crops are used as ingredients in other foods that are sold to consumers, including cornstarch, canola oil, cereals, and mayonnaise.

corn growing in a field
Zeljko Radojko/Shutterstock

What About GMO Animals?

In the past, animals have been genetically engineered for various reasons. Many animals that have undergone genetic engineering are used for research. Some animals are also genetically engineered to improve their relationship with humans as pets, such as hypoallergenic animals. But when it comes to GMO animals as a food source, there is only one approved in the U.S. -- salmon.

In 2015, a genetically engineered salmon was approved by the FDA for consumption in the U.S., making it the first GMO animal food source in the country. The salmon are bred in Canada, raised in Panama and imported into the U.S. as food. The AquAdvantage salmon is engineered to grow larger and more quickly than traditional salmon because of an rDNA construct that was introduced that contains a growth hormone.

Are GMO Foods Safe?

For GMO foods to be approved by the FDA, they must meet the same food safety requirements as traditionally bred foods. Developers of GMO foods are also legally obligated to ensure the safety of their product, and each product goes through a lengthy evaluation process.

Ninety percent of scientists believe GMO foods are safe for consumption, according to a New York Times article. Numerous studies have been conducted on the safety of GMOs, and organizations including the World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the International Council for Science have all endorsed GMO foods as being safe.

GMOs are not only widely considered safe, but GMO foods have also been cited as having a higher output and a lower amount of toxins. There have been no proven links to GMO foods and any health issues.

However, the public is much less trusting of GMO foods.

produce aisle at grocery store

What Are The Arguments Against GMO Foods?

Since the conception of the very first GMO tomato, there have been people and organizations who condemn GMO foods as "Frankenfoods" loaded with chemicals that haven't been tested for safety and that provide no health benefits to the consumer.

Edited images of fish-tomato hybrids and tomatoes with syringes sticking out of them were the face of the emerging non-GMO movement, prompting fear from consumers who were uncertain about this new method of food production. These images, of course, were made to shock and are not accurate depictions of GMO foods and how they're made.

Non-GMO movements have claimed GMO foods cause cancers, autism, and allergies. They say GMO production has led to the declining bee population and kills off other pollinators, such as butterflies. There are also arguments that if livestock eat GMO foods, then GMOs are then present in meat, dairy, and eggs. However, there is no evidence to support these claims.

In 2016, a comprehensive 388-page report was published by the National Academy of Sciences that stated GMOs are just as safe to eat as non-GMO crops and have caused no harmful environmental impacts throughout their production.

apple with syringes in it
Images of fruits and vegetables injected with syringes have become popular in anti-GMO campaigns, despite being inaccurate depictions. | WHYFRAME/Shutterstock

How Can You Tell Which Products Have GMOs?

In 2016, Congress passed a law requiring food packagers to label products that contain GMO ingredients. However, implementation has been delayed while specifics about the regulation are being proposed.

If for any reason you've determined that GMO foods aren't for you, there are ways to make sure your diet is GMO-free, even without though mandatory labeling has yet to be carried out. When shopping GMO-free, here are some tips to keep in mind:

  • If a product is labeled as organic, it is also GMO-free
  • Many products that are GMO-free will be marked with a seal by the Non-GMO Project or the NSF GMO Certified logo
  • Avoid products with ingredients that contain the 10 GMO crops, especially corn, papaya, zucchini, yellow squash, and edamame
  • Frozen foods typically do not contain GMO ingredients
  • Shop local
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