A Plea for Informed Consumers Amidst the GMO Controversy

The debate around GMOs has sparked controversy, consequently driving a market for “non-GMO” products. However, many of the concerns around the implications of consuming genetically modified organisms is unfounded, or at a minimum, misunderstood. For thousands of years, the technique of cross-breeding plants and animals has been used to maintain specific traits and thereby breed more high-yield products.  In fact, many of the staples in the average Americans diet are genetically modified. Take corn, for example, the most widely grown crop in the United States. According to a study conducted by the USDA in 2017, ninety-six percent of the country’s corn is genetically modified. So, what does it actually mean for a crop to be genetically modified and where does the concern come from?

The process of cross-breeding plants and animals described above results in selected traits becoming more and more pronounced over generations. Many of the plants and animals in existence today are dramatically different than their ancestors who predated human-induced domestication. While the outcomes of cross-breeding are entirely dependent on chance, modern scientists have evolved genetic engineering to selectively breed for certain traits to remove the element of uncertainty. With modern technology, fruit can be bred to be larger, sweeter, or even immune to certain pesticides, creating a more efficient alternative for farmers in an increasingly competitive market. For example, by genetically modifying certain plants to be herbicide resistant, farmers can spray herbicides over their fields to kill the weeds while the crops remain unaffected.

In order to create herbicide resistant plants, scientists studied bacteria alongside plants and discovered that an enzyme, called EPSP, is present in both though works slightly differently between organisms. The EPSP enzyme in bacteria provides immunity to the glyphosate ingredient in herbicides, but plants with the enzyme will still die if exposed to glyphosate. Therefore, by removing the EPSP enzyme in bacteria and adding it to plants, scientists can genetically modify the plants to be immune to herbicides. Similar techniques have been used to grow crops resistant to insects using the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis that lives in the dirt.

These modifications have given rise to products with a longer shelf life and have also proven to be safe for human consumption. In fact, the majority of scientists support the use of genetically modified foods and a study conducted by the USDA proves just how prevalent modification has become in American-grown products that are staples to our diet: 94% of soybeans, 94% of cotton, 95% of sugar beets (a main source of sugar), and 90% of canola oil are genetically modified. However, the growing prevalence of this phenomenon is met by greater concerns from opponents who fear the uncertainty of the genetic modifications’ long-term effects. Recent scientific advancements have allowed for the manipulation of nearly all of our primary food sources at an alarming rate, preventing groups outside of the biotechnology sphere to verify their safety.  

Groups, like the Non-GMO Project, completely reject science-backed approval of genetically modified foods, citing the research as biased and oversold by biotechnology companies who are largely responsible for producing and commercializing GM plants. On the website of the Non-GMO Project, one can find thousands of certified non-GMO products divided into different categories ranging from dairy products to pasta to pet products. Many consumers, informed or not, prefer these products because they can be certain that the product does not contain GMOs. However, even this information can be misleading as companies are obligated to report when their products contain fewer than 0.9% of GMOs. Many popular health food companies have perpetuated a misleading conception of GMOs and sworn against them in their company message. Whole Foods, for example, has capitalized on the non-GMO trend -- their 365 Everyday Value brand promises to rely on food sourced specifically to avoid genetic modification. In fact, one can navigate their homepage to find an in depth lesson to “smart” shopping. The page includes an instructional video titled “How To Shop if Avoiding GMOs,” followed by brief written instructions particular to avoiding GMOs in various food groups. Interestingly, however, Whole Foods does not inform consumers about what their concerns are around GMOs and why they have invested deeply in avoiding them. Therefore, it is more important than ever that consumers are making informed decisions. While there may be valid concerns surrounding the consumption of genetically modified food, the ability for companies to manipulate consumers’ decisions is becoming easier with a constant presence of ads and media, both of which are biased towards companies’ respective aims. At the end of the day, most companies will prioritize profits over truth.