Genetically Modified Organisms—or GMOs—caught the public’s attention this year when the popular Mexican chain, Chipotle, became the first fast food restaurant to ban the use of all GMO ingredients in their food. Under their slogan “Food with Integrity,” this announcement ignited a debate in which some praised the international chain for taking an unprecedented stance to put people before profits, while others dismissed it as little more than a PR stunt. But the truth is the GMO controversy has been around for 20 years without many of us really knowing what exactly a GMO is.
To start, a GMO occurs when a gene is intentionally moved from one organism and placed into another to create some type of change, also referred to as a “transgenic” meaning the transfer of genes. Though scientists have been experimenting with this technology for decades, the dispute really began for the public in 1996 when agricultural giant Monsanto genetically modified soybeans. Today, more than 90% of all corn, cotton and soybeans are GMOs. These crops occupy more than 167 million acres of land and have catapulted GMOs to the center of the American diet.
Genetically modified corn and soy show up in everything from your cereal to salad dressing. To break it down, 75% of the food we purchase from the grocery store is processed, and 75% of all those processed foods contain GMOs. To get you up to speed, we took a look at both sides of the argument, broke down the most contentious issues and made you a guide.
The Safety Debate
The World Health Organization and American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) have declared all the current GMO foods on the market safe.
There are more layers to the safety stamp of approval that complicate this answer. Many anti-GMOers say they are not necessarily concerned about the human health risks from GMOs but rather the way GMOs are being tested. The testing is technically voluntary; however, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) can block any food from reaching the market, which makes it almost impossible for companies to bypass this regulatory hurdle.
Anti-GMO issues with the safety testing requirements
-The testing is performed by the company also responsible for the genetic modification rather than a third party. The FDA makes sure companies go through the process rather than evaluating if their testing is effective and there is no way to guarantee they are performing the right kind of tests.
-Companies are allowed to perform unlimited tests, and they are not required to present all of their findings to the FDA; therefore, they can technically show only favorable results.
The process of genetic modification can make food more nutritious. Scientists are now able to remove naturally occurring bacteria that cause diseases and swap it out for more vitamin rich genes that add to the food’s nutritional value. They are experimenting with adding genes that contain vitamin A and iron to foods like tomatoes and rice to increase their health benefits.
There’s too much we don’t know about transfer of genes. It’s possible that we could introduce new allergies to our food by swapping genes in and out. Individuals have different reactions to food, and adding a new gene could cause a totally new reaction. It’s also possible a known allergen could be placed in an unsuspecting food and cause a reaction where it is not expected (think genes from allergy-inducing peanuts being put in tomatoes).
GMO technology helps cut back on chemicals used in farming. GMO seeds such as corn and soy are made to be pesticide resistant by injecting a toxic gene into the seed. This enhances the productivity of large-scale industrial farming because farmers actually use less pesticide on crops.
This technology can create super weeds that become more resistant to pesticides and actually requires the use more chemicals to contain them.
GMOs are necessary to feed the world. We have a rapidly increasing population and decreasing supply of food and natural resources. This technology would make it possible to meet the rising food demands by creating crops that are disease resistant and harvesting them at a much more efficient rate. One successful case is the papaya. Genetic Modification was used to make the fruit resistant to the ring spot virus that threatened to wipe out the entire Hawaiian papaya industry in the mid-90’s.
They argue it’s not a problem with genetic modification itself; it is how the technology is being used. As of now, three companies control more than half of the global seed market. The company making the most waves in this arena is Monsanto. Anti-GMOers say they developed herbicide resistant soybeans to sell more of the weed killer Roundup, which is also produced by Monsanto. This overlap has created a monopoly of the food system that anti-GMOers worry is driven by corporate profits rather than public needs and desires.
Where we are now and what do both sides want?
They want the media to stop spreading fear of GMOs. Proponents of genetic modification say enhanced skepticism from the public is delaying the technical advancements needed to make GMOs more viable. They believe the entire industry has been stigmatized by Monsanto’s “Rockafeller-esque” image and tout there are several other successes that make GMOs not only safe but necessary.
They want to make labeling GMO products mandatory. Sixty-four countries already require GMO labeling, but so far nothing has been passed in the U.S. Anti-GMOers also want more independent research and testing to level out corporate control of genetically modified foods to place the stress on consumer safety over profits. In addition, they advocate for more transparency with the current testing. If more was known about the testing process, the public could make a better informed decision on their acceptance of GMO foods in their diet.
Whether you’re active in the debate or not, GMOs play a large role in our current food system and affect our lives far beyond what we put on our plate. And now that GMOs are not just the acronym left out of your burrito bowl, you can join the debate. For another health trend hack, check out our Gluten-Free breakdown.