For the past several years, GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) have been dominating the health news headlines. But what are GMOs, really? What do they do? What kinds of foods contain them? And—most importantly—are they really safe to consume? Let's set the record straight on these common questions about GMOs.
Q: What are GMOs?
A: Genetically modified organisms, or GMOs (also called GE or GM foods), are the result of a laboratory process in which the genetic material of living organisms is manipulated and then artificially inserted into the genes of an entirely unrelated plant or animal. The foreign genes can come from bacteria, viruses, animals, insects or even humans. GMOs are known as ''transgenic'' organisms because they involve the transfer of genes.
Q: Are GMO and Cross-Breeding processes the same thing?
A: No. In cross-breeding (also known as hybridization), genetic material is spliced from two related species. You may have heard of a hybrid tomato, in which features from one tomato (such as color or size) are transferred into another tomato’s genes to create a third tomato species that now contains desirable features of both.
Q: Why are GMOs used?
A: Nearly all GMO plants are developed and marketed to increase crop protection and yield in two main ways. First, they make the plants more resistant to plant diseases caused by insects or viruses. These plants contain the toxin-producing gene from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), which is already currently used as a conventional insecticide and is safe for human consumption. Plants containing this toxin require lower quantities of insecticides. Virus resistance works much in the same way; the GMO plants contain genes from viruses which cause disease in plants. This resistance makes plants less susceptible to the diseases that are caused by these viruses.
Second, GMOs make the plants more tolerant of herbicides. These plants contain a gene from a bacterium that conveys resistance to the herbicides. In growing these crops, farmers have been able to reduce the amount of herbicides used in situations where weed growth is high.
Q: What plants contain GMOs?
A: The most commercialized crops in the United States include alfalfa, soy, canola, cotton, sugar beets, corn, Hawaiian papaya and zucchini and yellow squash. Common ingredients made from GMO-containing crops include amino acids, flavorings, high-fructose corn syrup, lactic acid, aspartame, molasses, sucrose, yeast products, ascorbic acid, vitamins, ethanol and monosodium glutamate.
Q: Are GMOs safe?
A: While studies have been conducted on lab animals, the effects on humans consuming GMOs are unknown and have not yet been thoroughly studied.
Q: Is there a way for consumers to know which products contain GMOs and which ones do not?
A: Look for the ''Non-GMO Product Verified'' seal on products that are GMO-free. If a product contains the seal, it means that it has gone through the Non-GMO Project’s verification process and that the product has been produced according to practices that avoid using GMOs.
If you want to learn more about GMOs, the Non-GMO Project has a wealth of information, along with a list of verified products.
GMO Awareness. ''GMO Risks,'' accessed August 2015. www.gmoawareness.com.
Institute for Responsible Technology. ''GMOs in Food,'' accessed August 2015. www.responsibletechnology.org.
Institute for Responsible Technology. ''GMO Myths and Truths,'' accessed August 2015. www.responsibletechnology.org.
The Non GMO Project. ''GMO Facts, Frequently Asked Questions,'' accessed August 2015. www.nongmoproject.org.
World Health Organization. ''Frequently asked questions on genetically modified foods,'' accessed August 2015. www.who.int.