Frequently Asked Questions About GMOs



What are GMOs?

GMOs (or “genetically modified organisms”) are organisms that have been created through the gene-splicing techniques of biotechnology (also called genetic engineering, or GE). This relatively new science allows DNA from one species to be injected into another species in a laboratory, creating combinations of plant, animal, bacteria, and viral genes that do not occur in nature or through traditional crossbreeding methods.


What is the difference between genetically engineered crops and plants altered through natural hybridization processes?

People have been modifying plant and animal DNA for centuries through intentional selection. This form of modification used methods that occur in nature (such as cross-pollination). In contrast, GE crops or GMOs can only occur in a laboratory using high-tech methods that physically alter the plant’s or animal’s DNA. Often, GMO’s involve inserting the DNA from a completely different species, and typically also include an antibiotic-resistant bacteria as part of the modification.


How common are GMOs?

According to the USDA, in 2012, 93% of soy, 94% of cotton, and 88% of corn grown in the U.S. were GMO (see USDA’s Recent Trends in GE Adoption). It is estimated that over 75% of canola grown is GMO, and there are also commercially produced GM varieties of sugar beets, squash and Hawaiian Papaya. As a result, it is estimated that GMOs are now present in more than 80% of packaged products in the average U.S. or Canadian grocery store.

Follow this link to the Non-GMO Project, for further information about “High Risk” GMO crops.


What are the health effects of GMOs?

There are no long-term studies on the health effects of GMOs, so we simply don’t know — when you eat GMOs, you are in essence part of a massive, uncontrolled experiment. Reviews of the short-term studies that have been done have raised very troubling questions.

A recent evaluation of studies on crops modified to produce Bt in India concluded that the studies did not meet international standards, “did not accurately summarize results, and ignored toxic endpoints for rats fed Bt brinjal: in particular, rats fed Bt brinjal for 78 out of 90 days (only one dose level) experienced:

  • Organ and system damage: ovaries at half their normal weight, enlarged spleens with white blood cell counts at 35 to 40 percent higher than normal with elevated eosinophils, indicating immune function changes.
  • Toxic effects to the liver as demonstrated by elevated bilirubin and elevated plasma acetylcholinesterase.

Major health problems among test animals were ignored in these reports. The single test dose used was lower than recommended by the Indian protocols. Release of Bt brinjal for human consumption cannot be recommended given the current evidence of toxicity to rats in just 90 days and the studies’ serious departures from normal scientific standards.

(Source: L. Gallagher, BT Brinjal Event EEa: The Scope and Adequacy of the GEAC Toxicological Risk Assessment: Review of Oral Toxicity Studies in Rats (2010). Read the full report here.)

Another recent review of the studies on GMO feeding trials similarly found that the trials were not conducted for a long enough time to determine if eating GMOs could cause chronic diseases, particularly in the liver and kidneys. The review also found that the studies used “controversial protocols” and ignored statistically significant results.

(Source: G. Seralini et al., Genetically modified crops safety assessments: present limits and possible improvements, Environmental Sciences Europe 2011, 23:10. Read the full study here.)

An article by Drs. Pusztai and Bardocz states: “Pryme & Lembcke (2003) reported a rather curious aspect of the results of health risk assessment studies using laboratory animals. It appeared that most independently funded research scientists who performed animal testing of GM crops reported some potential health problems, while the results of the studies sponsored by the industry indicated none. Further reviews confirmed the scarcity of GM risk assessment research, particularly research carried out independently of the biotechnology industry […].”

“Most GM crops are grown in America […]. It is therefore regrettable that effectively there is no regulation in the USA that would guarantee their safety. The […] FDA almost totally relies on voluntary notification by the biotechnology companies that they carried out their own safety assessment of the GM crops they want to release commercially and found them to be safe. The FDA has no laboratory of its own […]. It only accepts the assurances of the biotechnology companies that their product is safe. This, in most instances, relies on a safety assessment that is based on the poorly defined and not legally binding concept of substantial equivalence.”

“However, similarity in composition is no guarantee that GM food is as safe as conventional food. Thus, the content of proteins, lipids and carbohydrate components of a BSE cow (a cow suffering from a condition known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy) will be similar to that of a healthy cow but, obviously, these two cows cannot be regarded as substantially equivalent for consumer health. True, compositional analysis is an obligatory starting point in risk assessment but it cannot be its endpoint. Whether GM food is toxic or allergenic cannot be decided on the basis of chemical analyses but only by biological testing with animals.”

(Source: Arpad Pusztai and Susan Bardocz, Potential Health Effects of Foods Derives from Genetically Modified Plants: What Are the Issues?, TWN Biotechnology & Biosafety Series 14 (2011). Read the full report here.)


What are the environmental effects of GMOs?

For farmers, growing GMOs may pose environmental health threats: read an informal study conducted by Howard Vlieger, an Iowa farmer.


Who are the companies producing GMOs?

Monsanto, Dow, Bayer, Dupont, Syngenta, BASF (in conjunction with Monsanto). Follow this link for a break down of the seed and pharmaceuticals owned by each company.


What is GM alfalfa and why should I care?

The GM alfalfa at issue has been engineered to be resistant to Monsanto’s flagship herbicide, Roundup. Alfalfa is the nation’s 4th largest crop, planted on over 21 million acres. Alfalfa hay is used for livestock feed, and alfalfa meal is used as a soil amendment. Alfalfa sprouts constitute an important sector of the salad market, and the crop plays a major role in honey production nationally. GM alfalfa is the first perennial crop to be genetically engineered, making it even more likely to be widely dispersed through escapee plants as well as bee pollination. Contamination threatens both organic farmers (since the organic standards prohibit GM crops) and conventional farmers (since most overseas governments and alfalfa importers reject GE-contaminated crops).


How is glyphosate or Roundup related to the issues with GM crops?

Many genetically modified crops are genetically engineered to withstand the application of glyphosate, a non-selective herbicide (which means it kills a wide range of plants). Roundup is the trade name for glyphosate with specific additives.

Note that not all genetically engineered crops are designed to withstand glyphosate. Some GM crops are engineered to produce their own pesticides, as is the case with Bt corn, which will kill a variety of different insects.

For the crops that are modified to survive the application of glyphosate (usually referred to as “Roundup Ready” crops), the effects are two-fold: they increase the amount of glyphosate being sprayed because it can be used throughout the growing season, and they result in feed crops, such as corn and soy, being sprayed with glyphosate.

A recent Canadian study found that the CryAb1 BT toxin was present in 93% of the pregnant women’s blood and 80 % of them passed the toxin on to the baby’s blood.

(Source: A. Aris and S. Leblanc, Maternal and fetal exposure to pesticides association associated to genetically modified foods in Eastern Townships of Quebec, Canada, ReprodToxicol(2011),doi:10.1016/j.reprotox.2011.02.004. Read the full study here.)

This finding is extremely troubling since low levels of glyphosate have previously been found to cause damage to human embryonic and placental cells.

(Source: N. Benachour et al., Time- and Dose-Dependent Effects of roundup on Human Embryonic and Placental Cells, Arch. Environ. Contam. Toxicol. 53, 126-133 (2007). Read the full study here.)

The increased use of glyphosate due to GMO crops has also led to the development of weeds that are themselves resistant to glyphosate. Rather the recognizing the fundamental flaw with herbicide-resistant crops, the biotech companies are instead developing new GMo crops that are resistant to other herbicides. There are several crops currently in the approval process that are engineered to be resistant to the chemical 2, 4-D, one of the main ingredients in Agent Orange.


What about genetically modified animals?

Genetically modified salmon are on a fast track to being the first GM animal approved for human consumption. But the Food and Drug Administration, while moving ahead with the approval, does not have a way to fully evaluate the impacts of GM salmon on human health or the environment. GM salmon could threaten public health, wipe out wild salmon populations, diminish biodiversity of marine environments, and further drive the unhealthy trend of producing fish in overcrowded, unhealthy factory fish farms rather than the open ocean. Get the latest news and take action.


How can I avoid eating GMOs?

Since most corn, soy, canola, and sugar beets raised in this country have been genetically engineered, your best protection is to avoid buying foods with these ingredients. Since the majority of packaged foods contain GMOs, that means buying fresh foods instead – preferably from your local farmers! If you do buy packaged foods, look for certified organic products or products certified by the Non-GMO Project. More detailed information is available at link to our What Can I Buy? page.