The GMO Controversy: What You Need to Know

Genetic modification is a part of today’s life; don’t let it take you by surprise.

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are becoming more and more prominent in today’s marketplace, so it is important to understand what they are and some of the issues they raise. A GMO plant has been genetically altered using genetic engineering techniques, and is commonly found in crops such as corn, soybeans, cotton and canola. In general, these plants are modified to express a resistance to herbicide, which can be beneficial to farmers, allowing for less work so more crops can be harvested. As of 2006, there were 102 million hectares of GM crops worldwide, and that number has only increased, with a 10% jump from 2007 to 2008 alone. In fact, the United States alone recently neared 60 million hectacres (1).

It is important to be aware that, despite some advantages, there are numerous disadvantages that must be considered.

Food and Fuel
Supporters of GMOs believe such crops help increase yield, which could help curtail skyrocketing food prices. In addition, GMOs could potentially be influential in the gas crisis. Alternatives such as increased use of biofuels (made from GMOs) seem to be a positive advantage because they could lessen the nation’s dependence on oil as well as reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Although the use of biofuel has been expanding, many believe the full effects on the environment and elsewhere must be further researched.

The international “food vs. fuel” debate has been another topic of great controversy in and of itself. Critics of biofuel worry that investment into the sector has driven up the price of food. Creating biofuels requires massive amounts of raw material, and although the land used by GM crops is a huge percentage of land farmed, the question remains whether ultimately using it for food or fuel is the best use of it, time and money.

Genetic Pollution
One of the major problems with GMOs is that they have no boundaries. Once planted, they run the risk of contaminating any conventional crops planted nearby. A survey reports that in the Midwest, where there are millions of acres of GM corn and soybean crops, up to 80% of organic farmers reported direct costs or damages resulting from genetic trespass (2). This trespassing can occur in a variety of common, natural ways, which makes keeping the GMOs on their own fields impossible. For example, winds (particularly high winds, but even breezes can be problematic) and water runoff are full of seeds and spores, and can easily bring GMOs to fields where they are not purposely grown.

Often, these seeds and spores will then implant themselves into soil and produce plants that are genetically altered—with the farmer having no idea his crops have been genetically polluted. Other sources of GMO contamination include commingling during harvest and cross-pollination, which is particularly rampant with corn (2). Farmers often hire combines to harvest their food, instead of using their own, and if these have not been cleaned well enough, residual GM grains from previous harvests can contaminate the crop. Something as small as a particle on a tarp is enough to cause contamination. There has been some talk of creating GMOs whose offspring would be sterile, thus eliminating many of these plants; as of yet there has been no great move to implement the modification on a large scale.

Lack of Labels
Unlike the organic certification, there is no such thing as a GMO-free certification. In fact, products are not required by law to state whether or not they contain GMOs. In a world where 92% of the soybean crop is genetically modified and many products use soybean oil or corn syrup (GMOs comprise 80% of the corn planted), the chance of finding GMOs in food is incredibly high (2). Although it is impossible to tell by reading labels in your local grocery aisles, 65% of all their products have DNA-altered ingredients (3). Unfortunately, some organic products may even unknowingly contain GMOs, since U.S. organic rules do not require GMO testing. While all manufacturers are concerned with buying certified organic, not everyone knows about GMO contamination (2). Without requiring GMO labeling, knowing the true content of products can be difficult if information is disregarded or lost along the way.

A recent CBS/New York Times poll states that 53% of Americans say they won’t buy food that has been genetically modified; avoiding GMOs is not an easy task, however (3). Without labeling, it is impossible to know the extent of any biotech contamination. And in creating GMOs, the DNA is often spliced with DNA from other organisms that could be detrimental to those with serious allergies or even those who are vegetarians. The Brazil nut was combined with soybeans for a time, until it produced too many allergic reactions (4). Although this particular combination has ceased, there is no telling what others exist, particularly when no one is legally compelled to say anything.

While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and biotech giants claim there’s no evidence that GMOs are anything but safe, food safety advocates want to know: how would we know, if the food is not labeled? (3). Many people are concerned that the lack of long-term testing on GMOs will be detrimental to the population—and the environment—in the years to come. As it stands now, more examples of GMO problems can be found in Jeffrey M. Smith’s book Seeds of Deception, including gastrointestinal problems in humans (after similar issues found in the lab, though the GMO was passed) and the telltale sign of wild animals’ refusal to eat GM crops.

Even with the difficulties presented by the lack of GMO labeling, many natural retailers try to screen out any products that contain GMOs; check with your local retailer to learn more. WF

1. “GM cultivation almost at 60 million hectares.”, July 1, 2008.
2. “How Great is the Impact of GMOs on Organic?” The Non-GMO Report, June 2005.
3. “Poll: Many Won’t Buy Genetically Modified Food.”, May 11, 2008.
4. D.B. Whitman, “Genetically Modified Foods: Harmful or Helpful?” CSA Discovery Guides, April 2000.

Published in WholeFoods Magazine, September 2008