Genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, are plants or animals that have had biotechnology applied to change the DNA of the plant or animal in ways that do not occur in nature. Should you feel concerned about GMOs?
Examples of GMOs
There are not many GMOs grown in the United States. However, the few products that are genetically modified are very common.
For example, 92% of the corn planted in 2020 was genetically modified. In that year, the average American ate just over five pounds of corn — but more than 36 pounds of corn products, including corn syrup and cornstarch.
Nearly all the sugar we eat is GMO, but the Sugar Association states that the molecules of sugar that reach our food supply are identical, whether they were produced with biotechnology or not.
Soybeans and canola, used to make canola oil, are other examples of GMO products which are very widely used in the typical American diet.
In addition to these items, there are other GMOs that are grown and used in smaller quantities, such as papaya, summer squash, and pineapple.
How are food products genetically modified?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) work together to regulate GMOs in the United States. GMOs must meet the same safety requirements as non-GMO foods.
GMOs are genetically modified in a laboratory. That means they are not created just by, for example, crossing two species of tomatoes in order to select a disease-resistant tomato. Instead, a specific gene is inserted into a cell. The cell is treated with hormones that cause it to divide and eventually it grows into a new plant or animal (or bacteria or fungus). See more information on the process.
In most cases, the process is designed to increase a crop’s resistance to pests or diseases.
Can you tell when food is GMO?
Since the beginning of 2022, GMO food has required special labels for any food with detectable amounts of engineered genetic material. This means, for example, that sugar does not have to be labeled as GMO. Since the sugar we eat does not contain detectable amounts of GMO material, even though virtually all U.S. sugar is GMO, it does not have to be labeled as bioengineered.
The cookies in the photo below, on the other hand, have a statement saying “Contains a bioengineered food ingredient.”
You might also see this seal:
This labeling allows you to know when you are serving your family genetically modified foods.
Are GMOs safe?
This is a controversial question. Both the National Academy of Sciences and the Food and Drug Administration are quite confident that all GMO foods sold in the United States are safe. Studies on the subject overwhelmingly show that GMOs are indeed safe.
Yet many other countries limit GMO foods, including imports from the United States. Some people worry that it is too soon to know for sure that GMOs are completely safe, since GMO crops have been widely available only since the 1990s.
At this point, the FDA has made sure that we can tell whether the foods we eat are genetically modified or not. If you have concerns, you can make the choice of whether to serve bioengineered foods to your family.