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Genetically Modified Foods (GMO’s) – What’s the Big Deal?


The outcry about genetically modified organisms (GMO’s) is escalating as consumers become more vocal in the fight for mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods. We have been eating GMO foods for years now. Corn , and soybeans are the top genetically altered foods in our country; add squash, tomatoes and beets to the “modified” list as well. Genetically modified, or engineered, tomatoes take longer to ripen and last longer, making them highly desired by growers. And according to the Pew Trusts organization, since 2005, 85 % of soybeans grown on U.S soil have been genetically modified. Soybeans and soy products are in many of our foods. Chances are we have all consumed significantly quantities of food containing at least one modified ingredient.  Some estimates are that 60%-70% of all processed foods in the US are genetically modified.  Some of the risks of genetically mofidifed foods, according to WebMD.com, are:

  • Introducing allergens and toxins to food
  • Accidental contamination between genetically modified and non-genetically modified foods
  • Antibiotic resistance
  • Adversely changing the nutrient content of a crop
  • Creation of “super” weeds and other environmental risks

The topic has gained traction in part due to a national campaign by Chipotle, the Mexican food chain. Their whimsical video, paired with the act of posting labels on their website, is leading the way with other companies pledging to follow suit. Chipotle acknowledges using ingredients that have been genetically modified in a lab—soybean oil, corn product and other ingredients are listed. The company is pledging to eliminate these from its food products. It was a bold move that is winning the company praise for its openness.

One of the main issues in this controversy over modified foods is the absence of mandatory food labels that would specify when a product contains genetically modified ingredients. Food labeling is standard in most developed nations. A recent petition, with over 1.2 million signatures, has been submitted to the FDA calling for mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods. An overwhelming majority of American citizens support labeling. Critics, consisting mainly of consumer packaging goods companies, and companies like the Grocery Manufacturers Association, are opposed to GMO food labeling.

“As public awareness is growing about GMOs, consumers are increasingly demanding to know what they are eating,” said Elizabeth O’Connell, campaign director for Green America, an environmental group based in Washington.

The critics say labeling is an unfair burden to businesses and retailers—alarmist thinking with no scientific backing.  The emphasis here is on corporate earnings. We don’t know the long-term impact of genetic engineering on our foods. And, there is something unsettling about eating products that are no longer ‘natural’, foods that have been tweaked in the laboratories to produce prettier, longer lasting, and plumper foods.

Frito-Lay and PepsiCo are now involved in lawsuits for using labels saying, “made with all natural ingredients”.  The wave of concern and lawsuits are sure to intensify as this issue grows. It is reaching a new high with the anticipated FDA approval of a genetically modified salmon,  after years of review.  This would become the first genetically modified animal to be approval for human consumption.

The salmon, produced by AquAdvantage,  “consists of an Atlantic salmon containing a growth hormone from a Chinook salmon and a gene from the ocean pout, an eel-like fish. The result: A fish that grows to market size in about half the time as regular salmon.”  AquAdvantage claims its product is safe and that it will help reduce over-fishing of wild salmon, protect the environment and give a boost to the world’s food supply.  Safety issues notwithstanding,  it just seems a little weird to be eating a genetically engineered fish or animal .

Whole Foods, Trader Joes and Target have pledged not to sell the fish; Safeway is indicating a similar course of action. This approach is viewed as the only practical solution, a partial one at best, if the FDA goes ahead with its anticipated approval.

Most of us are likely consuming products with genetically modified ingredients on a regular basis. The only way to avoid GMOs is to eat organic and homegrown food, buying from known sources. The debate is still on as to whether the opponents of genetically modified foods are being too fearful.  Only time will tell, but, from a common sense, lay person’s viewpoint, it seems like attempts to alter nature in this fashion may increase the possibilities for unwanted side-effects.

Headline Image Source: (CC BY 2.0) Wikimedia Commons/Lindsay Eyink


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  1. Matthew says:
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    If years of cancer and unknown problems with peoples lives, means, “We don’t know the long-term impact of genetic engineering on our foods.” (taken from above) THE GROCERY MANUFACTURERS ASSOCIATION IS BS!

  2. Marcuscassius says:
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    Hey, we’ve been smoking for years. it’s not addictive. it doesn’t cause cancer. Hey, we’ve been using asbestos for years. there’s no scientific studies showing it causes leukemia or cancer. Hey try thalidomide, it works great and there’s scientific studies that prove it’s safe. Greg, you are simply doing the bidding of the same forces that have been poisoning us for profit for generations. Go home and try to write decent stories.You won’t have to sell out like this again.

  3. Donna says:
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    Since the salmon by AquAdvantage contains a growth hormone and gene from other fish and not a chemical growth hormone it may be safe to eat.

  4. Aram says:
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    Whether you like it or not, GMO is the future of our diets and the solution to hunger. There just isn’t enough resources to conceivably feed the 10 billion people of the future on organic farming alone. It’s far more important to prevent someone dying of hunger and malnutrition when they’re 10 than to pretend we’re preventing someone from dying of cancer when they’re 70.

  5. June says:
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    @Aram, it is NOT the future. Studies have linked GM foods to infertility. Lower sperm count in men, as well as drastically decreased fertility and pregnancy in women. The #1 most popular doctor in the U.S. is the fertility specialist, it wasn’t like that before. It is a misconception that our planet does not have the resources to sustain us. If we took care of our planet, and invested our efforts it is possible. But we are a hungry nation that has demands for cheap food, made easy and ready, which GM food can easily satisfy. Declining health, cancer, infertility…are you really ok with that being the future?

  6. Sarah S says:
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    My husband recently educated ourselves in this area and are now trying to cut out GMO’s as much we can. We avoid corn based products (which is 90% of groceries) and we buy organic from Trader Joes, Sprouts, Whole Foods, Local Farmers Markets etc. We recently purchased an organic, grass fed cow and pig and had to buy a large freezer to store the meat. The total came to about 6$ per pound which is a fantastic price for eating humanely treated, grass-fed organic meat. There are options out there for those who care about what they are putting into their bodies. VOTE WITH YOUR WALLET – it’s the only way to be heard by monsanto. . .

  7. Puja B says:
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    @ Aram maybe if you stopped consuming all those cows that take up most of the worlds crops and is the #1 cause of global warming we would have more then enough to sustain the world… go Vegan you will lead a much more healthier guilt-free and peaceful life

  8. Charlotte says:
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    As a veteran who was poisoned by Monsanto products while serving at Ft. McClellan AL I want rigorous labeling of all foods.

    I am not asking for the banning of anything.

    I just want to be able to make informed choices which should be my RIGHT as an American citizen. The list of foods that I have to avoid gets longer every year as they GMO more and more things. Yet our government REFUSES to require such labeling.

    In addition to GMO foods I also do not eat or use Chinese made/grown things. I do this because I will not give the Chinese one cent.

    If more of us would rise up and demand labeling it could happen. Labeling is a perfectly rational thing and would allow people to make decisions based on facts.

  9. Gregorio Saturno says:
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    I hate to actually add science to this discussion but here it goes.
    Be forewarned, the following is based on the biological concept of ‘Natural Selection” which the layman would refer to as ‘Evolution’.
    So if the concept of evolution is disagreeable to you, don’t bother to read any further.
    What people don’t realize is that we ONLY eat ‘GMO’ food.
    Unless you gather wild varieties of edible plants while foraging in virgin forests, EVERYTHING we eat are ‘GMO’.
    Every plant food we buy (& most meats) have been genetically modified.
    You think the wheat we have been eating the last few thousand years is ‘natural’?
    There is not one plant we eat that has not been domesticated over the thousands of years since the fist farmers.
    Wild wheat had small grains and husks that were difficult to separate.
    Civilizations first farmers, originally gathers, noticed differences in grains and wheats and selected those with the traits that were more conducive for farming.
    Whether these traits were bigger fruits, bigger roots for tubers or more drought or pest resistant, all were selected for the desirable traits until we had the plants we have today.
    Farmers and botanist still select and to speed up the process create hybrids of plants for taste, etc.
    What does all this mean about GMOs?
    Well the changes that took place in plants that were then subsequently selectively chosen and propagated by farmers were due to RANDOM genetic mutations.
    Yes some genetic random mutation, by chance, affected the characteristics of a plant, was noticed by an ancient farmer and chosen to gather and plant for the next growing cycle.
    So we have been eating and farmers growing plants that are the way they are due to absolutely random mutations in that plants genes.
    Later we hybridized plants which was not a totally random event.
    So what is the difference between the non-GMO food we eat today and GMO food.
    The difference is that GMO foods were not randomly created as some scientist actually found out what gene can express a desirable trait and inserted that trait into a p[plant.
    By the way that desirable trait may be one in which hungry people in drought regions can now use to grow crops that they could not have grown before.
    Theoretically any one of those traits found in GMO plants could have happened, given enough time, millions of years, ‘naturally’ by random mutation.
    So know where our food came from in the first place before you condemn GMOs.

    • Greg Webb says:
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      Gregorio – great comments. Makes sense to me, but I am wondering if we are comparing apples to apples, or apples to softballs. You may be correct and your points are convincing. I wonder if it is that simple. Perhaps. Thanks for the comments.

  10. Mike Gower says:
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    @ Gregorio – at least no one has brought religion into the discussion yet…

  11. Pete says:
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    Can someone tell me what chemical in the GMO foods is causing infertility… or cancer… or whatever other malady is being blamed on GMO. Speaking scientifically, what’s the actual compound, i.e. the new molecule that causing this wide array of different health problems… I think that’s what we need to identify in order to determine if there’s danger in GMO.

    Basically, we cross DNA from different plants (or animals). Then that new organism winds up being broken down by our stomach acid. We don’t absorb new DNA into our bloodstream – it breaks down in our stomach. In the same meal, if I were to eat a Chinook Salmon, Atlantic Salmon, and one of those eel-like fishes that make up the new engineered salmon, then would the combination of digesting proteins, fats, nutrients, etc in my stomach be materially different from the engineered fish? This should be easy to answer by any chemistry PhD.

  12. gregorio saturno says:
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    new gene whether created by a random mutation, hybridization or genetic manipulation exerts itself by causing proteins to be manufactured that in turn cause different cellular reactions.
    of course many of those ‘new’ proteins, especially in the case of random mutations are ‘nonsense’ proteins with no affect on the cell.
    & like pete said most of these proteins are denatured (digested) by stomach acids.
    some of these new proteins however may cause other chemical reactions to take place making other chemicals that may not be digested.
    but given the rate of random mutations in plants from generation to generation, there are many such chemical compounds present in these plant cells.
    what is to say that only the ones from genetic manipulation may be dangerous.
    it would be just as likely that chemical compound resulting from random mutations are also dangerous.
    so what are we to do?
    analyse every plant, every generation, for safety.
    plants that are consumed for food are on the government’s GRAS (generally regarded as safe) list.
    that is they do not require testing for safety.
    it’s been said for years that if we actually tested the chemicals in the plants we eat for safety as we do with other chemicals, many of the ‘natural’ food we eat would not past testing (peppers anyone?)
    that testing includes giving huge amounts of a chemical to a few amount of mice and then looking for lesions.
    so, as pete said, what are these chemicals people say are dangerous and toxic?
    we don’t know & they haven’t been tested and if we did test them then we should also test the thousands of other chemical in foods as well as the hundreds of new ones formed every day by random mutations.
    people, as our society advances we all think we can ‘control’ our destinies by our knowledge of foods & eating.
    this is not the case.
    we can’t micromanage everything like ‘helicopter’ parents.
    humans have been naturally selected (evolved) as foragers.
    that means we eat lots pf all different kinds of stuff we find.
    you can never control & test every single chemical you put into your body.
    be reasonable, wash vegetables and fruits that have been exposed to known dangerous chemicals like pesticides or buy those that have not been.
    rather than fret about GMOs one should rather focus on losing weight (are there any obese people in Virginia, lol) eating an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables and exercise.
    there is no more danger in eating GMOs than eating any other foods.
    GMOs are not unique in containing new or different chemicals.

  13. Joe McDaniel says:
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    What I wonder when considering GM is where do we draw the line? Is a hybrid tomato GM? It is almost like the “traditional marriage” thing — there is no simple definition of “a man and a woman.”