What’s a GMO?

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Few things spark alarm in enlightened consumers more than the subject of GMO’s—or Genetically Modified Organisms, particularly if related to the food they eat and feed their family.  Because of this fear, consumers can find numerous products sold with a specific label of “GMO-Free” or Non GMO Project Verified.  While an internet  search reveals numerous definitions for GMO, this tox-topic will define them the way many non-scientists think of them.  Specifically, GMO is a term used to describe a plant, animal, or microorganism that has had its genetic material (DNA) altered through a process called genetic engineering (GE).  The US Department of Agriculture (USDA), one of three federal agencies charged with review and approving GMO foods, defines genetic engineering as “Manipulation of an organism’s genes by introducing, eliminating or rearranging specific genes using the methods of modern molecular biology, particularly those techniques referred to as recombinant DNA techniques.” Typically, genes are taken from one type of organism (e.g., a bacteria), and put into another (e.g., a crop plant) in order to give the plant a desirable trait.  Desirable traits include herbicide tolerance, insect resistance, disease resistance and delayed browning. The ten crops currently in use in the United States and the traits introduced through genetic engineering are:

Crop Desirable Trait(s)
Corn, Soybeans and Cotton Herbicide Tolerance, Insect Resistance
Squash and Papaya Disease Resistance
Alfalfa, Sugar beets and Canola Herbicide Tolerance
Potato Disease Resistance
Apple Delayed Browning

GMO Safety: Human health effects and the potential environmental impacts of GMO crops are intensively assessed by three regulatory agencies before each is approved.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration: FDA regulates most human and animal food, including GMO foods. In doing so, FDA ensures that foods that are GMOs or have GMO ingredients meet the same strict safety standards as all other foods. FDA sets and enforces food safety standards that those who produce, process, store, ship, or sell food must follow, no matter how the foods are created.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: EPA is responsible for protecting human health and the environment, which includes regulating pesticides. EPA regulates the safety of the substances that protect GMO plants, referred to as plant-incorporated protectants (PIPs), that are in some GMO plants to make them resistant to insects and disease. EPA also monitors all other types of pesticides that are used on crops, including on GMO and non-GMO crops.

https://www.fda.gov/food/agricultural-biotechnology/how-gmos-are-regulated-food-and-plant-safety-united-states

U.S. Department of Agriculture: The USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) protects agriculture in the U.S. against pests and disease. APHIS sets regulations to make sure GMO plants are not harmful to other plants, and USDA’s Biotechnology Regulatory Services implements these regulations.

https://www.usda.gov/topics/biotechnology/how-federal-government-regulates-biotech-plants

The safety and public concerns of GMOs extends beyond U.S. boundaries.

The European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) conducts detailed health and environmental assessments of each GMO food.  They assess potential and theoretical risks.  (http://www.efsa.europa.eu/en/panels/gmo). Their success has dramatically eased GMO concerns in the European Union. Opposition to GMO foods was once believed to be 90% was reduced to 66% in 2010 and currently at about 27%. (https://allianceforscience.cornell.edu/blog/2019/08/eu-opposition-gmos-overstated-new-survey-reveals/)

The World Health Organization (WHO) offers a well-developed, highly credible “Frequently Asked Questions” on GMOs. They conclude: “GMO foods currently available on the international market have passed safety assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health.”  (https://www.who.int/foodsafety/areas_work/food-technology/faq-genetically-modified-food/en/)

The Society of Toxicology (SOT), an international organization of scientists from academia, government, and industry representing scientists who practice toxicology concludes that the safety of GMO foods is equivalent to that produced from traditional breeding practices.

https://www.toxicology.org/pubs/statements/SOT_Safety_of_GE_Food_Crops_Issue_Statement_FINAL.pdf#search=%22gmo%22

GMO Labels

As people become more health conscious and link their health to what they eat, they are more inclined to scrutinize the labels on the foods they buy. Various surveys estimate that anywhere from 40% to 77% of consumers dissect and understand food labels. Food labels require manufacturers to list ingredients (in order of volume, highest to lowest), nutrition, use by date and other aspects.

What consumers have seen is the Non-GMO Project label (above). Participating companies pay an annual fee to be part of the program, plus an additional fee for each item that will display the label. This Project currently claims to have 3,000 participating brands displayed on over 50,000 items.

An aspect of the Non-GMO Project label that can be confusing is that companies can put the label on whatever they want, even if the product could not possibly contain GMO ingredients.  You can find it on products where there currently are no GMO based ingredients, such as orange juice, cranberries, or vanilla extract. You may also see it on products that will never contain GMOs, such as salt. Salt only contains minerals; there is no DNA to modify. It is also on some cat litter.

 

On January 1, 2020 the USDA introduced the bioengineered label (above). The law that requires this label will be fully implemented by Jan. 1, 2022. Any product containing GMO products or byproducts must display carry this label.  After Jan. 1, 2022, if the product does not contain this label, it has no GMO ingredients.  This new label is the most reliable way for consumers to differentiate foods containing GMOs from those that do not.

https://www.canr.msu.edu/news/new-food-label-denoting-bioengineered-ingredients

For Additional Reading:

https://www.fda.gov/food/agricultural-biotechnology/science-and-history-gmos-and-other-food-modification-processes

https://www.fda.gov/food/agricultural-biotechnology/gmo-crops-animal-food-and-beyond

https://msutoday.msu.edu/feature/2018/gmos-101/