How Much Do We Actually Know About GMO Foods?

woman grocery shopping

Should you buy that GMO canola oil? | iStock.com

Of the many food debates we hear about nearly every day, the one over genetically modified organism (GMO) foods might be the most hotly contested. Because both sides feel so strongly about their positions, it often ends up coming across as an argument without much real information. This makes it nearly impossible for the rest of us to figure out what’s truth, what’s fiction, and what’s still fuzzy. And yes, a lot of it is still fuzzy. Let’s dive right in, so you can figure out where you stand.

First of all, we need to go over what makes GMOs different from hybrid crops. When it comes to hybridization, humans have traditionally cross-bred two varieties of produce. With genetically modified foods, Scientific American says scientists select the specific genes from any species, plant or otherwise, they want to include in the new crop. While this is something that could never occur in nature, it’s a far cry from the toxic substances many people think of when they hear the term GMO. In fact, many of the most abundant crops in the U.S. are often genetically modified. Let’s use corn as an example. According to the USDA’s Economic Research Service, 92% of all the corn grown in the country is genetically engineered.

field of GMO corn

A lot of the stuff we eat regularly has already been genetically modified. | JEAN-PIERRE MULLER/AFP/Getty Images

Frankly, tons of the foods we eat are genetically modified. Business Insider highlighted some of the most common ones. In addition to corn, soybeans, sugar beets, and rapeseeds, which are used to make canola oil, are all more likely to be genetically engineered than not. Grocery store shelves are filled with foods made with these ingredients, so most of us eat GMOs on a regular basis without even realizing it.

Because the GMO process of selecting genes to transfer to a particular food is far different than traditional farming practices, a lot of people are concerned about the long-term health implications like the possibility of developing cancer. Such fears aren’t really supported by science, though. One review published in Advances in Nutrition found most consumers get their information about genetically engineered foods from around the web and various media outlets instead of relying on scientific understanding. The authors suggest most people would be less skeptical of GMO foods if they looked more carefully at research.

Two hands holding freshly harvested potatoes.

Right now it seems as though GMO’s are in the clear when it comes to adverse health affects. | iStock.com/stocksnapper

So, what exactly does the research say? An in-depth analysis published by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine reports they found no adverse health effects associated with consuming genetically modified foods. Many researchers fall under this camp, too. One review even highlighted how a study linking genetically engineered potatoes to gut problems was later deemed very flawed. That being said, there’s never a true guarantee of any food being 100% safe. If GMOs do lead to negative health problems, there’s a possibility we may not know about it for decades.

GMO proponents also argue certain modifications can help increase crop yields and lead to more nutritious foods. Unfortunately, we haven’t seen many advances on these fronts. Golden rice, for example, has been an ongoing topic for years. The idea is this type of genetically engineered, nutrient-rich rice, can help eradicate nutrient deficiencies in parts of the world where food isn’t as abundant. According to National Geographic, we’re still years away from seeing the product and some say it really isn’t going to do much to save malnourished people.

spraying pesticides on crops

Pesticides are not awful but they aren’t necessarily the best. | Sean Gallup/Getty Images

The story is similarly disappointing when it comes to crop yields. The New York Times conducted an analysis that concluded the U.S. and Canada, which both rely heavily on GMO crops, haven’t seen a significant increase come harvest time compared to Western Europe, which has largely shunned genetically engineered foods. One of the reasons why this may be the case has to do with how the foods are grown.

GMO proponents argue these crops can reduce our use of pesticides, but things sadly haven’t turned out the way they’ve hoped. Consumer Reports says, while the use of insecticides has decreased, herbicide usage is higher than ever. This has also led to an increasing number of herbicide-resistant weeds that threaten crop yields. Basically, we end up where we started.

Labels disclosing GMOs aren't mandatory

Those avoiding GMOS should look for the appropriate label. | ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

Finally, GMOs could put us in a situation where we have too much of a good thing, meaning these designed crops could have such an advantage, they end up overrunning other varieties. Harvard University’s Science in the News explains this could result in a loss of biodiversity, which is certainly no good for those who enjoy all the variation we see in our food. Imagine how boring it would be if you only had one choice of apple when shopping at the grocery store.

This doesn’t mean any proposed benefits aren’t possible down the road. It simply means, like most things, it’s a lot more complicated than researchers hoped. Because of this, some farmers have returned to traditional methods in lieu of continuing down the GMO path. Modern Farmer highlighted one of these stories.

Clearly, the GMO discussion is complicated and there’s no clear answer as to whether or not you should eat them. We need to individually weigh the pros and cons to make our own decisions. If you do want to forgo GMO foods, you’ll have to be a lot more selective about which products you choose since companies in the U.S. aren’t currently obligated to disclose if they use genetically modified ingredients. If you’re purely interested in health complications, there’s likely no reason to be worried. But remember, there are no guarantees.