You Need to Know: The Facts and Debate About GMOs

GMOs, or Genetically Modified Organisms, have frequented news headlines over the last few years. But you still may be asking yourself: "What exactly are GMOs?" Here is the basic rundown of all you need to know:

What are Genetically Modified Organisms?

GMOs are plant, animal, insect, bacterium or yeast that have undergone genetic modification or genetic engineering, meaning their genes have been mutated by altering or removing a gene, or adding a gene from another organism. The result is a completely original organism known as a GMO.

How much of our food is genetically engineered?

Every year, farmers plant $15 billion worth of GMO seeds around the world. The main GMO crops are alfalfa, canola, corn, cotton, Hawaiian papaya, soybeans, sugar beets, yellow crookneck squash and zucchini. Nearly half of all U.S. cropland grows GMO products. In fact, in the U.S., 90 percent or more of all corn, cotton, canola, sugar beet and soybeans are grown from genetically engineered seeds.

What are the benefits of GMO seeds?

One of the most expensive, time consuming and dangerous parts of farming is the use of herbicides and pesticides, which maintain a clean and productive field. Altering crops to fit farmer and consumer needs may have several benefits. GE crops require less harmful chemicals, which is great for farmer health, soil erosion, and potential water contamination. These cops also provide higher yield at lower costs, resulting in a boost in farm income and security. Some say GE foods can be more nutritious and that we can even create trees that fight pollution. There is also potential benefit to developing nations and other areas where crop growth is a challenge by modifying plants to grow in difficult climates.

Well that seems like a win-win. So what's the drawback?

The drawback to GMOs relate to the long-term effects of altering crop genetics. While the crops may be able to fight off insects and weeds now, there is some evidence that these changes are simply speeding up the evolutionary process, and creating super weeds and super insects unresponsive to the roadblocks engineered within the crop. In some cases, this is causing farmers to use even more herbicides than before. Additionally, there is some fear of GMO affects on human health, as some evidence has shown that bacteria can transfer these modified genes into the consumer (though there's also evidence otherwise). Furthermore, limited testing has been done to evaluate the harm on humans or the environment, and many are concerned that if problems arise, there is no way to contain the GE crops, as wind carries seeds from one farm to another, cross-contaminating.

Here you've hit on the main debate. Since the science on GMOs is still developing, the main arguments today have to do with labeling: should GM foods be labeled, like Kosher or USDA Certified Organic food? In recent years, the option to require GMO labels has been presented in several elections. In 2012, California's Prop 37, which mandated labeling of all GMO products, was narrowly defeated. A similar plot line played out in 2013 in Washington State when The People's Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act was also voted down. Both times, large food companies, such as Monsanto, heavily campaigned and donated against GMO labeling. Still, both Connecticut and Maine have passed their own GMO-labeling bills, and many hope more states will follow suit. Genetically engineered foods are labeled in over 60 other countries, but the debate about labeling in the United States continues.

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