Searching through the aisles of your local grocer, it’s hard not to get stuck staring at product labels. One of the more confusing terms in our food marketplace is GMO. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are living organisms whose genetic material has been deliberately manipulated in a laboratory setting to give the plant a desirable new trait such as resistance to both insects and the direct application of herbicides. These products are so prominent that the vast majority of soy and corn in the United States come from man-made technologically advanced seeds.


Large-scale commercial production crops are at the highest risk for being genetically engineered. These include alfalfa, canola, corn, cotton, papaya, soy, sugar beets, and zucchini. Since genetically engineered ingredients are also common in animal feed, eggs, milk, meat, honey, and seafood are also at high risk. Processed foods can be sneaky because you get a mix of different foods from a number of suppliers.


While other countries have placed significant restrictions on GMOs, the United States has fallen behind in taking a stance against them. How has the US ended up in this situation? To start, many, if not most, large agricultural corporations oppose labeling genetically modified foods out of fear that consumers might not buy them. Next, while President Obama did sign a GMO labeling law in July 2016 requiring all bio-engineered food be labeled, little headway has been made since then to establish final rules for implementation and oversight, which are required by July 2018. Moreover, to further highlight some of the confusion and potential challenges present in this law, animals that have eaten GMO feed, for example, will not require a label.  Consequently, in the absence of a nationally regulated labeling system, the Non-GMO Project was created to identify sources of Non-GMO products, establish the “Non-GMO Project Verified” label, and educate consumers. This non-profit organization is now the only third party verification and labeling for non-GMO foods in North America and, in the absence of national rules and regulations, is the best way to determine if your food selections are free of GMOs.


Since the introduction of GMOs, scientists have recognized a number of potential hazards of genetic engineering. For instance, some researchers have expressed concern that the combination of unique genes could result in the creation of new pathogens and toxins, the emergence of cancer causing allergens, the possibility of ecological damage, and other unpredictable adverse consequences. And along with concerns related to potential risk to human health, there is also the long-term possibility that any new allergens or toxins that accompany GMOs might alter the nutritional quality of food. Finally, from the producer perspective, another risk is the unintentional contamination of organic crops with DNA originating from genetically modified crops, which leads to economic losses for farmers who would lose both market-share and organic certification.


As a consumer, it’s important to remember if you only purchase USDA organic labeled foods, then these items do not contain GMOs due to the production standards required by organic producers (see the previous post “Buying Organic” for more details).  The conventional food category is the place a required non-GMO label would be extremely helpful in consumer purchase decisions. The big takeaway: buy organic or look for the Non-GMO Project Verified label when purchasing conventional foods. Next month, we’ll dive into what it really means to buy local and the benefits that surround it.