The topic of GMOs has become a hot-button issue in recent years. Having only existed for a few decades, there is still so much to learn about genetically modified organisms and how sustainable and safe they are for the planet, for people, and for animals.
Read on for a breakdown of everything you need to know about the controversial topic, and how sustainable GMOs are — or aren’t.
What Are GMOs in Food?
A GMO, or genetically modified organism, is a plant or animal whose genes have been modified in a lab by introducing a gene from another organism; this gives the organism a new trait, resulting in an organism that is not found in nature, and cannot be created with typical crossbreeding methods.
Typically, scientists create GMOs to give an organism a trait that makes the plant “better” in some way — for example, most GMOs have been manipulated to be resistant to pesticides, meaning they can be sprayed with endless amounts of pesticides and stay alive, as per the EWG. Other GMOs have had their genes manipulated to be resistant to things like insects, browning, frost, or diseases.
How Do GMOs Affect the Environment?
GMOs are linked to a number of negative environmental effects — and when an unnecessary process is harmful to the environment, that generally makes it unsustainable. As mentioned above, most GMOs are designed to be resistant to herbicides — namely, glyphosate. The most common name-brand version of glyphosate is Roundup, which is produced by Monsanto (now owned by Bayer).
To make glyphosate more effective, Monsanto developed “Roundup Ready” crops that can be sprayed with boundless quantities of Roundup and still flourish. As per a study published on NCBI, the U.S. has sprayed more than 1.6 billion kilograms of glyphosate between 1974 and 2016. Glyphosate is a strong chemical that can add to the degradation of wildlife habitats and kill native plants, which reduces biodiversity; it can also remain in soil for up to six months, the National Pesticide Information Center (NPIC) points out. That means large quantities of glyphosate are perpetually sitting in American soil and waterways.
One species significantly affected by the increasing glyphosate use in the U.S. is the monarch butterfly. As explained by Make Way for Monarchs, a study conducted at Michigan State University found that glyphosate kills milkweed, a plant that butterflies rely on, and this may be linked to the decline in butterfly populations. And because butterflies are pollinators, they are extremely important to our ecosystem.
Are GMOs Sustainable?
Genetically modifying a crop is not inherently unsustainable — but when you consider the fact that most GMO crops are genetically modified so that we can spray herbicides and pesticides with reckless abandon, then yes, overall, GMOs are unsustainable.
That said, the GMO debate is highly controversial. According to The New York Times, 90 percent of scientists think GMOs are safe, and the American Medical Association, the National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the World Health Organization all reportedly agree. But on the flip side, only about one-third of consumers are under the impression that consuming genetically modified food is safe, according to ScienceDaily.
Since GMOs are only a few decades old, we don’t have all the answers on the topic yet — time will continue to tell how GMOs are really affecting our society.
Are GMOs Bad for You?
On top of the negative environmental effects, glyphosate can also impact public health — mostly, the health of people who work with the pesticide. In fact, there are currently about 42,700 plaintiffs who are suing Bayer after developing cancer while using Roundup, according to Bloomberg.
Two people have already successfully sued the corporation, including Edwin Hardeman, who used Roundup on his property for 26 years and developed non-Hodgkin's lymphoma (a form of cancer that originates in the lymphatic system). After a three-year lawsuit, the jury agreed that Roundup was one of the causes of Hardeman’s cancer, and since the product is not labeled with a cancer-causing warning, Bayer was ordered to pay him $80 million, CNN reported.
According to Fortune, the World Health Organization classifies glyphosate as a carcinogen, meaning it can potentially cause cancer. However, most of that evidence is in relation to people who have worked directly with the chemical — there is less definitive science regarding the effects of consuming foods that were sprayed with glyphosate.
Are GMO Foods Organic?
By definition, organic foods are ones that have not been treated with chemical pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, or genetic modification — meaning that GMO foods (and processed foods containing GMO ingredients) are not organic. If a food is labeled USDA organic, that means it is not genetically modified, and looking for a USDA organic or non-GMO label is generally a reliable way to avoid eating GMOs.
That said, for a processed food product to be labeled USDA organic, it actually only has to include at least 95 percent organic ingredients; and if a product has 70 percent or more organic ingredients, it may claim “made with organic ingredients” on its packaging, according to the Center for American Progress.
Should I Avoid GMOs?
Choosing whether or not to steer clear of GMOs is up to you. The most important thing to do is the research — always being mindful of the source — and see how you feel about it.
If you do decide to avoid supporting Bayer and other companies profiting from the GMO industry, it’s generally pretty easy to steer clear of GMO crops.
Which Foods Are GMO?
Foods that are most commonly genetically modified are: alfalfa, aspartame, canola, cotton, corn, cow's milk, papaya, soybean, sugar beet, soy, sugar, yellow squash, and zucchini — so consider looking for organic or non-GMO versions of these foods. Check out the Dirty Dozen and Clean 15 for some more guidance on avoiding foods with detectable traces of pesticides. However, eating GMO produce is certainly better than not eating any produce — so never be afraid of eating conventional plant foods, even if GMO versions are the only ones you have access to.
Interestingly, according to a study published on NCBI, more than 70 percent of harvested GMO crops are used to feed livestock (mostly soy and corn). This means that when we eat meat, dairy, and eggs we are increasing the demand for GMO crops — so eating plant foods instead of animal products is a great way to reduce your financial support of GMOs, glyphosate, and Bayer (and to live more sustainably in general).
All in all, the real point of GMOs is to make crops cheaper. The central incentive for corporations and agriculture industries to use GMOs is increased profits. It can be hard to adequately analyze an industry with so much money at stake, so it will be interesting to see how science on the topic of GMOs continues to develop.