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Every Question You Have About GMOs, Answered

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What are they, and why are they so controversial?

Anti-GM Crop Protest in Long Marsden, England Sion Touhig/Getty Images

The debate surrounding genetically modified organisms has swirled for years, but things are heating up considerably as Congress edges closer to agreeing on a national labeling standard for GMO foods.

Surveys show that people overwhelmingly want to know if their food contains GMOs — and restaurants like Chipotle have catered to those demands with anti-GMO marketing pushes — but most of them aren’t really sure why. So what exactly are GMO foods, why are they so controversial, and what’s this GMO labeling debate all about?

What are GMOs?

GMOs are genetically modified organisms — that is, plants or animals that have had their genes artificially altered. Such genetic engineering is done for a variety of reasons, including making crops more resistant to insects, viruses, or herbicides. Food produced from these plants or animals is known as GM food.

One important distinction to make here: GMOs and hybrid foods are not one and the same. While it’s true that farmers have been genetically modifying crops for centuries via selective breeding, the term GMO specifically refers to organisms that have had their DNA altered in a lab using biotechnology.


Are GMOs safe to eat?

The general consensus among mainstream science is yes, GMOs are safe to eat. Numerous studies done over the past 25 years have shown no adverse health effects from the consumption of GM crops. Many organizations including the World Health Organization and the American Medical Association have agreed that GMO consumption has not been linked to any adverse effects on human health. “Indeed, the science is quite clear: crop improvement by the modern molecular techniques of biotechnology is safe,” the American Association for the Advancement of Science said in a 2012 statement.

So why are they so controversial?

A minority group of researchers believes that more testing is needed before GM foods can be declared totally safe. Some argue that the use of GM herbicide-resistant crops leads to increased usage of such herbicides, which could lead to adverse health effects down the line. Some are also wary of deleterious environmental effects, such as the loss of genetic diversity.

But, at least as far as consumers are concerned, the majority of the anti-GMO backlash seems to be fueled by hype rather than actual facts. Genetically modified foods seem scary and unnatural, and vocal proponents of the “natural” foods movement (such as FoodBabe, the questionable but wildly popular blogger who led the charge for Subway to remove a so-called “yoga mat chemical” from its bread) encourage people to avoid them using pseudoscience and fear-mongering.

Food companies — as well as restaurants like Chipotle — further add momentum to this movement by catering to the backlash and slapping “non-GMO” labels on their foods.

Surveys have shown Americans overwhelmingly want to know if they’re eating GMOs, but it’s also clear that they’re not quite sure why: In a 2014 poll for the Wall Street Journal, research firm Nielsen found that “61% of consumers had heard of GMOs and nearly half of those people said they avoid eating them. The biggest reason was because it ‘doesn't sound like something I should eat.’”

Another part of the controversy stems from the fact that companies such as Monsanto have patents on GMOs that they create. Some argue that declaring ownership over seeds and living things sets a dangerous precedent.

GMO Protest

If GMOs are safe, then why are they banned in Europe?

It’s a common misconception that GMOs are banned in Europe. In fact, the European Union has approved dozens of GMOs for both human consumption and animal food; it examines each and every GMO on a case-by-case basis, meaning each one is subject to considerable research and testing — followed by a highly politicized (and lengthy) voting process that allows each EU member country to weigh in.

Just like in the U.S., the GMO debate in Europe is heated, and public opinion weighs heavily against them due to concerns about health and safety — but many argue that the opposition to GMOs is putting Europe behind the rest of the world when it comes to agricultural innovation.

Despite the fact that the European Food Safety Authority has testified to the safety of numerous GMO crops, several member countries have ignored the advice of the EU and opted out of having these crops cultivated in their countries, citing environmental concerns. The EU also has mandatory GMO labeling laws which have spurred food manufacturers to remove GMO ingredients from their products to avoid labeling them as such.

And while many EU countries refuse to grow GMO crops, they do import plenty of them — mostly for use as animal feed, because the labeling laws do not require disclosure for meat or poultry that’s raised on GMO feed.

How do I know if I’m eating GMOs?

At this point, you’re probably eating them without knowing it. There are currently no federal guidelines requiring food manufacturers to disclose the presence of GMOs in their products — and roughly 70 percent of processed foods sold in the U.S. contain genetically modified ingredients, often in the form of corn or soy ingredients.

One thing that’s for sure, however, is that no one’s eating genetically modified meat. At this point, no genetically modified animals have been approved for human consumption; that could change soon, however, as a new type of GM salmon is waiting in the wings. It’s already won initial FDA approval (and stirred up plenty of controversy in the process), but the agency has banned the sale of the product until it can figure out how it should be labelled.

However, some food manufacturers, including General Mills, have already voluntarily begun to add GMO labels to their products. Rather than creating costly special packaging for the state of Vermont, the company — which manufactures everything from Bugles to Wheaties — has chosen to go ahead and put GMO labels on packaging nationwide.

What’s the recent debate over GMO labeling all about?

The issue of how (or even if) GMO foods should be legally required to be labelled has been swirling for years, but in recent months the debate has majorly heated up in Congress. Spurred by Vermont’s new GMO labeling law, some food manufacturers — and their well-funded lobbyists — have argued that federal guidelines are needed in order to prevent a confusing “patchwork” of various GMO laws from popping up across various states.

After one controversial bill that would have made GMO labeling fully voluntary was shot down by the Senate, bipartisan legislation introduced in June has passed the Senate and is expected to sail on through the House as well.

A GMO label in Vermont

If made into law, what would this latest GMO labeling bill actually do?

This proposed law sets a national GMO labeling standard, but it’s considerably more lax than many had hoped: It would allow food manufacturers to use several different methods to disclose the use of GMOs in a product — besides a text label on the package, they could also use scannable QR codes, meaning customers could have to do their own investigation to figure out if the food they’re purchasing contains GMOs. Smaller food companies would also have the option of using 800-numbers or website URLs.

Meat, poultry, and egg products would also be exempt from the GMO labeling; while, as previously mentioned, no genetically modified animals are currently consumed for food in the U.S., many of them are raised on feed containing GMOs.

It would also prevent states from establishing their own GMO labeling laws — meaning Vermont’s new law would be null and void.

If this bill gets signed into law, who wins and who loses?

This proposed legislation is seemingly a pretty big compromise for folks on both sides of the GMO labeling debate, and neither is totally pleased: The Center for Food Safety called the bill “a blow to to the food movement and America's right to know,” while Daren Bakst of conservative thinktank the Heritage Foundation says mandatory GMO labeling “legitimizes bad science” by “by giving [consumers] the impression that there's something wrong with genetically-engineered food.”

Meanwhile, many food manufacturers are just relieved at the prospect of one federal standard that would prevent them from the costly measure of having to make different packaging versions for different states.