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GMO101: Introduction to Genetically Modified Food & GMO Labeling

What are GMOs?

Art14_GMOGMOs stand for Genetically Modified Organisms. GM is also known as genetic engineering (or GE). GMOs are organisms created by using complex technologies, such as gene splicing, in a lab. The technologies combine genes from different species, such as bacteria and plants, to  create desired behaviors. Such processes do not occur naturally.

GM crops are intended to provide higher yield and better nutrition value while being more tolerant to drought, diseases and pests. Examples of GM crops with targeted traits include:

  • Pest-resistant corn: Bt corn contains the gene from a soil bacterium Bt. The gene causes the plant to produce an insecticidal compound called Bt toxin, which protects the plants from certain insects.
  • Weed-resistant soybean: Roundup Ready, or similar herbicide-resistant, soybeans have an inserted gene that makes the plant resistant to weed-killers.
  • Nutritionally enhanced crops under development: wheat that is gluten-free, vegetables high in vitamin E, and rice high in vitamin A and iron.

Transgenic farm animals are introduced with similar goals, namely providing food with higher nutritional value, being more disease-resistant, and offering pharmaceuticals.

Reference: Hybrid Seeds vs GMOs by Vicki Mattern; Genetically Modified Crops by Federation of American Scientists

What is the Difference Between GMOs, Hybrids and Heirlooms?

Traditional crossing using open-pollination takes a long time, such as 6 to 8 generations, to materialize. Many of the heirloom varieties are produced through open-pollination. Hybrids refer to the cross-breeding of usually naturally compatible varieties of the same species. This is an old school approach in which human steers the process to create desired traits, such as healthier varieties that can better withstand weather elements.

Modern hybridization relies on a fast-track process developed by Charles Darwin and Gregor Mendel in the mid-19th century. The new F1 Hybrids are ready in one generation. The problem with F1 Hybrids is that they are one-hit wonders. The traits of the first generation cannot be guaranteed for future generations. Contrary to the traditional process of saving seeds for the next planting, farmers using F1 Hybrids have to purchase new seeds and agricultural chemicals from seed companies every year.

Open-pollination, hybrids or GMOs are all processes that aim to produce a new generation of plants that carry desired traits. The difference is that the open-pollination and hybrids come from compatible varieties of the same species without advance genetic manipulation. The naturally occurring process and its results have stood the test for generations before us.

Reference: Hybrid Seeds vs GMOs by Vicki Mattern

What are the Products with GMOs in the US?

Art14_GMO_AdoptTrendWhile many GM crops have been approved, only a few are commercially grown. Several products were introduced to the market but later withdrawn due to market opposition. Approved crops include varieties of alfalfa, canola, chicory, cotton, creeping bentgrass, flax, corn, melon, papaya, plum, potato, rice, rose, soybean, squash, sugar beets, tobacco, tomato, and wheat. GM crops that are commercially grown currently include:

  • Corn (88% of US crop in 2011)
  • Soy (94% of US crop in 2011)
  • Cotton (90% of US crop in 2011)
  • Canola (90% of US crop in 2011)
  • Zucchini and yellow summer squash (25K acres)
  • Papaya (most of Hawaiian crop)
  • Alfalfa
  • Sugar beets (95% of US crop in 2010)

These crops have a profound impact on our whole food system. Many of these GM crops are used in processed foods and animal feeds. In the US, it is estimated that about 80% of our conventional processed food contains GMOs.

At this time, no GM meat or fish have been approved for market. However, Aqua Bounty Farm is petitioning the FDA to approve its GE salmon for market. On the other hand, due to contamination in feed, animal products can still pose a risk.

Reference: Countries with GM Crop Approvals by International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications; GMO Facts by Non-GMO Project

How are GMOs Being Regulated in the US?

In the US, GM crops are regulated by three federal agencies.

  • EPA regulates biopesticides under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act. If a GM crop contains biopesticides, such as a gene for Bt toxin, the developer needs to satisfy the safety requirement laid out by the EPA.
  • FDA regulates GM crops that are eaten. According to a policy established in 1992, FDA considers most GM crops to be "substantially equivalent" to non-GM crops, and so do not require pre-market approval. If it is determined that the GM variety contains foreign proteins that differ significantly from that of the natural plant, FDA may require pre-market approval.
  • USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services regulates GM crops under the Plant Protection Act of 2000. GM crops are regulated if they were created through gene transfer of a plant pest or with DNA from a plant pest.

The FDA is taking the lead in regulating biopharming in transgenic farm animals.

Reference: US Regulation of Genetically Modified Crops, USDA Regulation of Pharma Crops by the Federation of American Scientists

What are the Impacts of GMOs on Ourselves and Our Communities?

GMOs pose health, environmental, and social risks to our communities.

Health Impacts:

Due to the lack of testing of GE foods, the potential health impacts are hidden. The Center for Food Safety have identified six areas of potential health impacts.

  • Toxicity: The introduction of foreign genes to food may create toxins in the food. The toxicity may be associated with increased levels of known toxicants, new toxicants, or concentration of toxic substances from the environment.
  • Allergic reactions: When genes are being introduced into a food, allergens can be transferred in the process. New allergens can also be created as genes from non-food items are introduced to human diet.
  • Antibiotic resistance: GE foods contain antibiotic resistance materials. The antibiotic resistance gene, if introduced to the bacteria in the food chain, can make antibiotics less effective.
  • Immuno-suppression: Experiment has shown that animals being fed GE foods have suppressed immune function.
  • Cancer: GE rBGH used to increase milk production in dairy cows is found to lift the level of a hormone in the milk. The hormone is linked to the growth of breast, prostate and colon cancer.
  • Loss of nutrition: Review has shown that there is nutrient loss in GE foods.

See Health Risks by Institute for Responsible Technology for examples of health impacts.

Environmental Impacts:

  • With over 80% of GM crops being herbicide tolerant, the most immediate environmental impact is the increased use of herbicides. Since the introduction of GM crops, the use of toxic herbicides has increased by 15 times. This increase has led to the emergence of super weeds, which in turn created the domino effect of needing to use even more toxic herbicides.
  • This increased use of herbicides, and pesticides as well, can be harmful to non-target insects and plants.
  • At the same time, without the means of isolation, GMOs pose the risk of contaminating our natural habitat.

Social Impacts:

  • The introduction of GMOs has fundamentally changed the traditional farming business model. The patents enjoyed by the biotech companies prevent farmers from saving seeds for replanting, which has been a means of self-sufficiency for farmers for centuries.
  • Even non-GMO farmers are not exempt from the impact. Not only are they exposed to the risk of contamination, they are also exposed to the risk of being sued by the biotech companies for the contaminated crops.
  • From a financial perspective, farmers can be hurt by the restricted importing limit imposed by countries that are concerned about potential GE content in US products.

Reference: GMO Facts by Non-GMO Project; GE Food & Health and GE Food & Farmers by Center for Food Safety.

Why Is GMO Labeling Important?

The support for labeling is widespread. Advocates include community groups, environment organizations, natural food markets, natural healthcare organizations.

  • From the consumers' perspective, labeling will allow them to make the choice themselves.
  • Labeling will also help farmers pick the right seeds. This issue has become particularly relevant in Washington due to a recent mishap in Spokane. The crop of a non-GMO farmer was found to be contaminated and was rejected for export. Labeling would help to prevent GMO seeds from  mixing in with other seeds.
  • Labeling provides the means for tracking the potential health impact of consuming the food items

What Is the Current GMO Labeling Requirement in the US?

National: Currently, there is no nationwide mandatory labeling requirements. States are working on such initiatives individually. Some anti-GMO advocates are in favor of having nationwide requirement over a patchwork of state laws.

State: At the state level, 23 states currently have pending labeling bills or upcoming ballot initiatives, including Washington. 2 states (Maine and Connecticut) recently passed labeling bills, which however will only come into effect if other states including neighboring states also pass labeling requirement. California's Proposition 37 was narrowly defeated 51% to 48% in 2012.

Washington's I-522:  The initiative is written to conform to common global labeling standards. Under I-522, GE crops and meat and dairy from animals that are themselves genetically engineered would require labeling. Meat and dairy from animals that only ate GE feed would not require labeling.

Private sector: In the private sector, some corporations, such as many natural food markets, are voluntarily adopting GMO labeling on an individual basis.

At the same time, the non-GMO label is taking off. The label was approved by the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service recently. The label is being administered by the Non-GMO Projects, a third-party certifier. So far the group has certified more than 10,000 products.

Reference: With Recent Victories, Movement to Label GMOs Gains Steam by Helena Bottemiller

Who Support and Who Oppose GM Labeling?

Art14_GMO2In the case of California's Prop 37 (GE Foods Labeling), the opposition out spent the supporters by 5 times, with $45 million for the "No" campaign and $9.2 million for the "Yes" campaign.

  • The primary contributors to the "No" campaign are large seed/plant biotechnology companies and food giants. Monsanto led with an $8.1 million contribution.
  • The primary contributors to the "Yes" campaign are natural health and food proponents. Mercola.com led with a $1.2 million contribution, and was closely followed by Kent Whealy at $1 million.

Reference: CA Prop. 37 Funding Profile by MapLight

In the case of Washington's I-522 (GMO Labeling), as of mid-October, the opposition out spent supporters by about 3 times, with $17.2 million for the "No" campaign and $6.1 million for the "Yes" campaign.

  • As in the case of California's Prop 37, the primary contributors to the "No" campaign are large seed/plant biotechnology companies and food giants. Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) leads with $7.2 million. The GMA contribution is a collective amount from various food manufacturers, with over half came from 3 food giants -- PepsiCo, Nestle USA, and Coca-Cola. The second largest contributor is Monsanto at $4.6 million.  
  • The funding for the "Yes" campaign primarily came from natural products, foods and health proponents. Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps contributed about $1.8 million, which made up 30% of the amount raised thus far.

Reference: WA Public Disclosure Commission Report; Grocery Manufacturers Association Discloses Donors to Anti-GMP Label Effort by Christina Salerno

What Are Other Countries Doing About GMOs?

Over 60 countries have regulations either requiring GMO labeling or banning GMOs. See Center for Food Safety's GE Map for detail. Many countries impose import restrictions on food products that have GE content.

What Can Consumers Do to Avoid GMOs?

Following these general guidelines to avoid GMOs. See the Non-GMO Shopping Guide for details.

  • Buy organic products
  • Avoid products with ingredients that are derived from the most common GMOs
  • Purchase products with non-GMO label
  • Vote Yes on I-522 (or similar GMO labeling initiatives in other states)


Related Resources:

All About 522: An interview with Dr. Frank Springob, author of "Bugs in My Brain, Poison on My Plate" and Elizabeth Larter, Communication Director of Yes On 522.