GMOs: Everything You Wanted to Know—But Were Afraid to Ask

Last Update: March 9, 2020

G-M-O. More than many others, these three letters may define the public outrage about our food system almost two decades into the 21stcentury.

Genetically Modified Organisms, or GMOs, have come to exemplify just how far humans have strayed from the ways our grandparents, or even our parents, ate, and the practices of the farms that grew their food. Just 37 percent of Americans believe foods containing GMOs are safe to eat. Almost everyone —93 percent of Americans, according to a 2013 New York Times poll—wants foods containing GMOs to be labeled. But what are genetically modified organisms, exactly, and why should we be worried about them?

What’s the problem?

Genetically modified organisms—genetically engineered, or GE, food is also used interchangeably—are organisms whose DNA has been altered or manipulated using biotechnology. These organisms’ genetic structure is manipulated to give humans more control over characteristics such as ripening time and breeding / mutation, to add nutrient content, and to add resistance to pests and pesticides.

Critics of GMOs oppose the practice of manipulating our food system for several reasons. They say the FDA doesn’t require the same safety studies of GE food that it does of new drugs, resulting in few reports from independent scientists on the effects of biologically modified foods. Plant biologists say the science on GMOs is far from settled.

“I now believe … that GMO crops still run far ahead of our understanding of their risks,” Dr. Jonathan R. Latham, who as a young plant biologist genetically engineered plant crops as part of his Ph.D in the early 1990s, wrote in a recent article.

Critics also say the proliferation of genetically modified, herbicide-resistant crops has led to the mutation of “superweeds” and insects that are impervious to herbicides and pesticides. This has led to an increase in the use of pesticides and herbicides, researchers have found, since GE crops were introduced in American agriculture. Some farmers who grow and sell organic produce have experienced cross-contamination from GE fields, leaving some unable to sell in countries that have strict bans on the sale of GE food or require modified foods to be labeled.

Why should you care?

Many of the foods we eat every day have been modified and manipulated—and we have no idea which ones. Today, roughly 85 percent of corn, 91 percent of soybeans, and 88 percent of cotton produced in the U.S. are genetically modified. Other common GMO foods include canola, sugar beets, Hawaiian papaya, alfalfa, and squash (zucchini and yellow). The FDA is currently in the process of approving the first GE fish—the AquAdvantage salmon—which was engineered to grow faster, be resistant to disease and more temperature tolerant, and grow larger muscles.

Given the lack of solid research into the health effects of GE foods, the proliferation of this technology throughout our food system should concern us. That many of these foods are not labeled, and big food companies are fighting such labeling measures tooth and nail, should worry us. But we should also be worried when a legitimate and potentially useful technology like genetic modification is being used principally to help a few large corporations like (Monstanto, Dow, and Bayer) consolidate more control of the food we eat.

What can you do?

Many have pushed for state-level laws mandating GE food labeling, citing the right to know whether their food has been modified. Currently, 64 countries require GE foods to be labeled, but the U.S. and Canada do not. Three U.S. states—Connecticut, Maine and Vermont—have passed labeling laws. Currently, a federal act is before Congress that would make GMO labeling voluntary, while nullifying any of the local labeling initiatives that have passed. As this act would essentially kill any hope of a national labeling law, contacting your elected officials to let them know how you feel about the so-called “DARK Act” (Denying Americans the Right to Know) is one short-term step you can take.

When consumers stand up en masse and begin to demand change, food companies often listen. Educate yourself on which of the foods in your pantry contain genetically modified ingredients, and make substitutions where you can. Thrive Market is a great place to shop for those alternative products, as all the products we sell are GMO-free. Making a personal decision to avoid buying GE foods for your family—and encouraging your friends to do the same—is probably the best thing you can do to fight GMOs.

Illustration by Karley Koenig

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Steve Holt

Steve Holt's stories about food, nutrition and food politics are found at Civil Eats,, Boston Magazine, and elsewhere. He's been featured in the Best Food Writing anthology. Follow his tweets and Instagrams @thebostonwriter.

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