Getting Real about GMOs

The Truth about GMOs

If you are not confused about GMOs, then you might be the only one on the planet. To be sure, the published information is contradictory with proponents calling them the answer to world hunger and opponents saying GMOs are a danger to the environment and animal and human health. So what’s the real story? 

While it is true there is not much clear science on the safety of GMOs for health—not much has really been done-- there is growing evidence that these ingredients are negative for the environment. Either way, there are some important facts that may help to clarify your own thinking.

First of all, what the heck is a genetically modified organism?

GMOs are living organisms whose genetic material has been artificially manipulated in a lab using genetic engineering.  Though crossbreeding of plants has been done for many years, this method creates combinations of genes from plants, animals, bacteria and virus’ that would never occur in nature or through traditional crossbreeding methods.

The vast majority of GMO crops have been engineered to increase their tolerance to herbicides, like glyphosate, a key ingredient in Monsanto’s weed killer Roundup, which has been declared by the World Health Organization as carcinogenic to humans (who wants to eat that). Use of such toxic chemicals has increased fifteen-fold since GMOs first came on the scene (U.S. farmers sprayed 280 million pounds of glyphosate on crops in 2012 alone, which is close to one pound per person--no kidding!).

Genetic modification is also thought to be responsible for the creation of uber weeds and super bugs resistant to the herbicides and have prompted the use of even stronger and more toxic chemicals in farming (Scary!).

Now, there’s growing evidence connecting GMOs with human health issues, environmental problems and a violation of the rights of both farmers and consumers. More than 60 countries, including all of the European Union, Australia and Japan, require labeling of products with GMO ingredients, and 300 regions around the world have issued an all-out ban on growing GMO crops.

There is research that claims GMOs are safe, but most of those studies were either performed or sponsored by biotech companies that are vested in the technology. In fact, there are actually no comprehensive studies investigating the potential effects of GMOs on human health. One peer-reviewed study did look at feeding GMOs to animals and found that roughly equal numbers raised concerns about GMOs or called them safe. This report also noted that those finding GMO foods safe were again performed by biotech companies or researchers associated with them.

If this concerns you or you’d like to see GMOs clearly labeled, you’re in good company. More than 90% of Americans consistently want to see products containing GMOs clearly labeled as such, and 72 percent are consistently looking to avoid these products. Sadly, a 2016 federal GMO labeling bill will not offer much help. GMO opponents feel the law falls far short of what consumers really expect--an at-a-glance disclosure of GMOs on product packages.

Instead, the rule, required on all foods in 2020, will give companies three choices: they can note on the package that the product contains a bioengineered food ingredient (a term that many people aren’t familiar with and may just add to the confusion); use a standard “bioengineered” icon; or show a QR code that directs consumers to a website for more information. Not exactly easy or consumer-friendly.

Given that the new law will probably create more confusion than it solves, if you want to avoid GMOs you really have to take charge yourself. Sorry about that! But there are some ways to help you stay away from GMOs in the foods you buy for your family. Here are a few tips:

Buy organic: It’s simple. Any products labeled with the USDA Certified Organic label cannot contain GMOs, so they are a safe bet. You know it-- it’s that green and white circle that says USDA Organic. This is the best way to support companies really doing things right.  Certified organic products cannot use GMO ingredients. What’s more, this certification prohibits use of other nasty things you might not want to eat, like use of synthetic or chemical fertilizers, pesticides, antibiotics and synthetic hormones. This seal is regulated and verified by the National Organic Program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It even covers personal care products—yep, there may be GMOs in your favorite body lotion too!

You might also see some products labeled as Non-GMO Project Verified or Non-GMO certified by NSF. These are both rigorous third-party verification programs for brands to guarantee their products do not contain GMOs. Organic is always best but these work if there are no organic options—just keep in mind, these certifications only cover GMO ingredients and do not offer the other guarantees from the organic seal.

Avoid highly processed foods:  GMO ingredients are very prevalent in commodity crops like sugar beets, soy, canola, cotton and corn, so they are most likely to end up in processed foods, such as corn chips, soy milk, canola oil and salad dressings. They also might be in crackers, cookies, ketchup or even meat substitutes and veggie burgers (who would have thought?!). Your best approach is to avoid these types of foods as much as possible—you know chips, crackers and cookies aren’t good for you anyway. When you do purchase packaged foods look for the good ones that are certified organic, made with simple, whole food ingredients that are good for your family. Think an energy power bar, vegan snacks and paleo foods, like great tasting Shift Bars.

Be picky about your produce: Although not that much fresh produce comes from genetically engineered crops, there are a few that are considered at risk of containing GMOs: zucchini, corn, papaya, yellow summer squash and edamame.  Again stick to organic when purchasing these fruits and veggies. Other crops have not been planted using GM seed, including family favorites, like broccoli, bananas, carrots, cucumbers and leafy greens.  So, if organic options are not available, don’t sweat it. You can be reasonably sure these items do not contain GMOs even if they aren’t organic.

Safe Seafood: Even seafood is not exempt. Feed for farmed fish is typically made with corn and soy so it can contain GMOs, and a farm-raised genetically engineered salmon is also available in some markets.  Because there is no organic standard for seafood, the best option is to purchase wild caught seafood—the only exception to this is farmed mussels, oysters and clams, which do not receive GMO feed. Check with your retailer for details and avoid those who cannot offer specifics about the origins of their seafood.

Be wary of meat and dairy: Most animals these days get GMO feed, so that means any of these products are likely to contain GMOs. Availability of non-GMO feed still remains low-- so your best bet is to stick with organic or non-GMO verified when you purchase products in these categories.

We hope this clears up some of the confusion. Whatever you think of GMOs, it is important to continue to push for clear labeling. And if you are concerned about these ingredients, please support companies that offer transparency about the ingredients they use by gaining organic certification or verifying their non-GMO status with an independent program. Over the long term, we believe you’ll be glad you did.


GMO Facts from the Non-GMO Project.

Glyphosate Resistant Crops and weeds: Now and in the Future, by SO Duke and SB Powles. AgBioForum 2009. 12(3&4), 346-357.

Glyphosate is spreading like cancer across the U.S. Mary Ellen Kustin, Environmental Working Group. April 7 2015.

Where GMOs hide in our food. Consumer Report 2014.

GMOs will soon require labels. What will those label say? Amy Harmon, The New York Times. May 2018.

How to shop if avoiding GMOs. Whole Foods Markets