What are GMOs and why is labeling them important?

Updated on 27. Dec. 2018

Genetically modified organisms, often called GMOs, are living organisms that have had the genes of another organism implanted in it. This is often done to with the hopes of a higher yield, herbicide resistant plant, pesticide containing plant, or to make the organism hardier. These genetically modified plants are sold to farms as a way to increase their yields and limit the risk of loss due to diseases, droughts, and pests.

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Genetic modification is not a modern practice, in fact, it has been practiced for thousands of years. Humans have been selectively cross-pollinating plants to get the desired traits. One of the first genetically modified organisms was corn, which started out as a small type of grass with a very low yield of small ears. It was then bred over years and years to become what we recognize as corn today. Genetic modification is not specific to plants, animals have a long history of modification. The dogs so many of us have as pets are descendants of wild wolves, which were bred for specific genes.

In 1974, scientists first transplanted a gene from one animal to another after the technique was used to do the same in bacteria a year earlier. There was concern from the public, government, and many scientists about the safety of genetically modifying organisms, and because of this, a year-long moratorium was placed on GM experiments. The moratorium ended after a conference, called the Asilomar Conference, convened to discuss the safety of these experiments. The attendees of the conference (which included government officials and scientists) decided that, with the inclusion of strict regulations, GM projects should be allowed to continue.

After the conference, scientists began to work on GM projects which led the Supreme Court to make a 1980 ruling that allowed companies to patent their genetically modified organisms. This caused a spike in the research of GMOs because they could now be used for profit,  which led to the first genetically modified food crop to be approved by the USDA in 1992. The Flavr Savr Tomato was modified to have a longer shelf life.1

This research and production of GMOs have continued since then, with large companies like Monsanto leading the industry in genetically modified crop seeds. As of right now, it is fairly difficult to purchase a processed item from the grocery store that does not contain at least one GMO ingredient. Surprisingly, though, there are not that many crops commercially available that are genetically modified. The ‘high-risk’ crops, as listed by the Non-GMO Project includes just 8 plants. Alfalfa (the kind used for animal feed), canola, corn, cotton, papaya, soy, sugar beets (used to make sweetener), and summer squash are the crops on that list.2 If you are eating whole foods and avoiding packaged, processed foods it should not be terribly difficult to avoid GMOs if it is important to you.

One of the most popular arguments in favor of the use of GMOs is that they have the potential to help the hunger issues plaguing our world. Much of the current research on genetically modifying crops focuses on making them more nutritious and resistant to drought, both of which would help make them an integral part of the solution to world hunger.  One of the first crops to directly address this issue was golden rice, created in 1999 by Ingo Potrykus. The rice was yellow because it contains high levels of beta-carotene, which contains vitamin A,  an important nutrient for strong immune systems and healthy eyesight. The idea was to develop this rice and then give it to farmers in impoverished communities for free.3 While golden rice is still going through the regulation process, it has become an important part of the argument in favor of GMOs and the work they could do to help the malnourished communities around the world.

There are currently more than 60 countries with either a ban, labeling rules, or strict regulations in regard to GMOs. In Austria, France, Italy and Switzerland GMOs are banned from being cultivated. While places like the European Union put strict labeling regulations on genetically modified foods. These differences of opinions in regards to the use, growth, and labeling of GMOs have some worried about possible trade disputes. While the regulations and negotiations regarding the possible trade difficulties associated with GMOs are still in the works, it will be important to see what implications GMOs and GMO labeling laws have on global trade.

A big argument against the cultivation and consumption of GMOs is the environmental and health issues that may arise from them. People are worried that GMOs may cause cancer, lead to super insects and weeds, and harm the environment. There has been ongoing research about the impact of genetically modified crops, but there have not been any proven negative health implications. Earlier this year, the National Academy of Science released a comprehensive study about GMOs and found that there is no additional health risk to humans when compared to traditional crops.

In addition, people are worried that GMO crops can travel, typically via the wind, contaminating traditional or organic crop fields nearby. There are not many GMO crops that pollinate through the wind, and aside from those, studies have found that the percentage of crops contaminated by GMOs is fairly low. In some cases, the use of GMO crops has lead to a reduced use of pesticides and herbicides. This is important because many pesticides and herbicides pollute our water systems through stormwater runoff, so limiting their use is very beneficial to the environment.

The United States does not currently have a far-reaching law that requires companies to label food products that contain GMOs. That could soon change, as the small state of Vermont recently passed a law requiring GMO-containing products to be labeled saying so. While it is currently unknown whether the law will stand-up to lawsuits and appeals, it is a step in the right direction towards proper labeling of GMOs. A 2014 survey found that over 90% of the US population is in favor of labeling GMOs, and for many of those polled, it is likely the idea of knowing what they are eating and what they are feeding their kids that have led them to this.

While there is still a lot of work that needs to be done regarding the health and environmental impact of long-term consumption and use of GMOs, the current research shows that there is no evidence to support claims they are hazardous to our health and the health of the environment. With that said, it is still a good idea to be as informed as possible when purchasing food and know where it is coming from.

  1. Ragel, Gabriel. “From Corgis to Corn: A Brief Look at the Long History of GMO Technology.” Science in the News. Harvard University, The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, 09 Aug. 2015. Web.
  2. ‘What is GMO?” Non-GMO Project. The Non-GMO Project, n.d. Web.
  3. Nash/Zurich, J. Madeleine. “Grains of Hope.” Time. Time, Inc., 23 July 2000. Web.


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