Whether or not you are aware of it, GMOs (genetically modified organisms) are likely a big part of your daily diet. Experts estimate that 60-70 percent of processed foods in the U.S. contain GMOs, most of which are invisible and totally indistinguishable to consumers. But the lack of transparency around GMOs is slowly changing: GMO labels may be coming soon to a grocery store near you! A growing number of states are beginning to pass laws mandating the labeling of products containing GMOs, and Whole Foods Market is currently undertaking a massive campaign to ensure that all non-GMO products sold in their stores are labeled as such.
But as the tide turns toward GMO transparency, a hefty layer of confusion and mythology still surrounds GMOs. The answers to the following questions will help you understand the GMO labeling you may soon encounter, and decide whether you want to factor this piece of information into your personal consumer choices.
What is the non-GMO label and who puts it on my food?
The non-GMO label is a certification granted by a third-party nonprofit organization called the Non-GMO Project. You can find the label on foods, supplements and, more recently, cosmetic and textile products that comply with the organization’s standards. The Non-GMO Project is not affiliated with the government. Rather, the Non-GMO Project was established and continues to be operated by retailers in partnership with Global ID Group, a food safety and quality control corporation.
What does the Non-GMO Project label look like?
This. This is what it looks like:
So the non-GMO label means that a product contains zero GMOs?
Not necessarily. The meaning of the non-GMO label is not that straightforward. In general, however, it means one of two things.
The first thing it could mean is that the labeled product contains less than 0.9 percent of ingredients that are likely to be genetically modified. For example, 94 percent of all soybeans grown in the U.S. are GMO, so if one of the ingredients in a product is soybean, there’s a good chance that particular ingredient is GMO. Other ingredients that are highly likely to be GMOs include corn, cotton, sugar, papaya, and others. If a product contains less than 0.9 percent total of these high-risk ingredients, however, the Non-GMO Project will grant the label with no questions asked.
In the case of a product that has more than 0.9 percent ingredients that are likely to be GMO, the non-GMO Project will investigate the origin of those ingredients and only grant the label if they find that the ingredients aren’t genetically modified.
To summarize, imagine a box of crackers with the non-GMO label. The label either means that the crackers are made up of so few likely-GMO ingredients (less than 0.9 percent) that the Non-GMO Project didn’t bother to check, or that the crackers have significant amount of ingredients that are typically GMO (greater than 0.9 percent), but these ingredients have been verified as non-GMO by the Non-GMO Project.
If something is non-GMO, that also means it’s organic…right?
Wrong. It is a common misconception that if something is non-GMO, then it is also organic—that is, raised in the absence of conventional pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, etc. But the truth is that the two have nothing to do with each other. The system for evaluating and labeling products as organic is totally separate and distinct from the one for labeling GMOs.
In fact, although we might tend to mentally clump organic and non-GMO together as being more green and ecofriendly, certain GMOs are more likely to be organic than their non-GMO counterparts. For example, many GMO crops are genetically engineered to be resistant to certain pests and therefore don’t require the use of sprayed pesticides. So if you’re interested in eating a diet that is both non-GMO and organic, you might have to pick your battles.
Are GMOs good for you?
Depends on what you mean by “good for you.”
Are GMOs just as healthy and safe to eat as any other food? All signs point to yes. Both GMO and non-GMO foods and products are regulated equally by the FDA, USDA, and EPA—that is, GMOs must meet the same standards for environmental and human safety as any other crop. Furthermore, no scientific study has ever shown GMOs to cause any negative health consequences in humans.
But while a GMO apple a day might keep the doctor away just as well as a non-GMO apple, that doesn’t mean they are equivalent in all the ways that matter.
The reality of the situation is that GMOs sit at the intersection of a number of incredibly complex issues that many people are willing to take a stand on for different reasons. Some people avoid GMOs because they oppose the business and legal practices of GMOs manufacturers like the much-villainized Monsanto Company, or disagree with governmental policies that allow companies to patent living organisms. Yet others take issue with the geopolitical consequences of introducing GMO crops to developing countries against citizens’ wishes and disrupting traditional systems of farming.
In short, the issues surrounding GMOs and acceptance thereof are extraordinarily nuanced.
When will the controversy over GMOs end?!
There seems to be no end in sight for the raging inferno of GMO-related hullabaloo.
One high-profile milestone occurred earlier this year, when 107 of the still-living Nobel laureates cosigned and published a letter lambasting Greenpeace for its opposition to GMOs. In their letter they pointed out that GMOs are just as healthy for humans and the environment as non-GMO crops, and called on the world to accept them. A day later, Greenpeace issued a response describing problems with imposing GMOs on developing populations and concerns with resilience in the face of climate change.
Incredibly, the two sides managed to talk past each other entirely, discussing different dimensions of the same problem without having a meaningful conversation on the matter. Both the cohort of laureates and the representatives of Greenpeace remained firmly and dogmatically seated in their respective camps, and life went on.
I don’t know if and when the dust will settle around GMOs. But if there is to be any resolution, people in power are going to have to stop talking past each other and really, truly engage.
Christine is a passionate social science scholar who works at a sustainable biotech venture capital fund. She spends most of her spare time tending to her dogs, cats, chickens, and vegetable garden.