6 Things You Should Know About GMOs

Photo by Thosh Collins / These non-GMO seeds are from an indigenous garden in Salt River, Arizona.

Chelsey Luger

Are GMOs dangerous? How do they impact food sovereignty?

What, exactly, are GMOs?

Genetically engineered organisms, commonly referred to as “GMOs,” are plants or animals whose DNA has been altered in a laboratory. In general, the science of food and plant modification is called “biotechnology.” Creation of GMOs is a biotechnological process which usually entails the insertion of genes from distant species into cells using bacterium or other tools.

Some believe that GMO modification is no different from selective breeding, which humans have been doing for thousands of years (for example: dog breeding). But make no mistake, GMOs are *not* the same as selective breeding. The main difference is that selective breeding can be found in nature, and can be accomplished with no biotechnology. GMOs require laboratories, entail artificial processes, and would be entirely impossible to create in nature.

How long have GMOs been around?

Since 1996, American farmers have been growing GMO crops. Today, GMOs are growing on about 200 million acres of American farmland, but not without controversy. They are used primarily to produce higher crop yields. Proponents look to the economic benefits. Opponents point out their health risks.

Are GMOs dangerous?

That all depends on who you ask.

A review by the National Academy of Sciences of over 20 years of research and 900 studies did not find definitive evidence that GMOs pose a hazard to human health. But 20 years isn’t all that long in the grand scheme of things, and without real long term studies, many find it difficult to accept this conclusion as truth.

Groups like the Non-GMO Project and Food and Water Watch point out, however, that at least 50 nations have either outright banned or at least severely restricted the use and sale of GMOs due to health risks, and that the only reason GMOs continue to be so widely used in the U.S. and Canada is that the same corporations who are creating and profiting from them are funding and influencing the very scientific studies, which are used to convince the public and government that they are safe.

The entire GMO conversation is so tied up in politics and big corporate money that it’s essentially impossible to find a straight answer about anything regarding them. A simple Google search will lead you in circles, and a thorough look into scholarly literature won’t get you much further.

One giant factor that tends to get lost in the shuffle is that while GMO foods themselves might not have been proven dangerous yet, they also haven’t been proven safe. Further, a lot of things that are directly associated with GMO agriculture have been proven dangerous. For example, according to a Harvard University study, many GE crops are specifically engineered to either self-produce or tolerate high levels of pesticides and herbicides. Some ingredients in the most common herbicides, (like glyphosate in Roundup), are known carcinogens.

How do I avoid GMOs?

If you know exactly where your food comes from (who grew/hunted/captured/caught or gathered it) and exactly how it was processed, then you will automatically know whether or not any genetic modification was involved. Eating organic, real foods from the earth is the safest bet. The trouble is, most foods in North American grocery stores are totally devoid of information about their origins or production processes.

Some people are at work to change that. Despite heavy pushback by opponents, President Barack Obama signed a GMO food labeling law in July of 2016. You may or may not have noticed an orange butterfly floating around on food packaging in recent years. This is the non-GMO label, and it’s becoming the standard on grocery shelves.

Proponents of the labeling law argued that Americans deserve to know exactly what’s in their food, but opponents have argued that groups like the Non-GMO project are unscientific, consistently espousing invalid claims. Decide for yourself.

Do GMOs have the potential to solve world hunger?

While the global population continues to grow at a rapid rate, many nations are already struggling (and failing) to feed their people. The United Nations Food and Agriculture organization estimates that nearly 800 million people the world over are currently suffering from undernourishment. As a result, many are thinking ahead: how will we survive, and how will we feed our future?

Some have argued that biotechnology and GMOs have the potential to solve food insecurity, but others remain staunchly unconvinced. While the technology could produce massive food supplies in certain circumstances, it’s certainly not so cut-and-dry. This analysis provides a good picture of the debate, offering a variety of expert opinions.

GMO impact on tribal food sovereignty and indigenous seeds

While the health hazards involved with GMOs technically remains up for debate, one thing does not: GMOs, the chemical processes associated with them (like spraying of pesticides and herbicides), and the ever-encroaching influence of the entire corporate agriculture industry pose a serious threat to tribal food sovereignty and to the wellbeing of the environment in general.

Many indigenous communities are working to keep their original foods safe and free from contamination or cross-pollination with GMO seeds, and to keep indigenous seeds out of the hands of corporations like Monsanto who could potentially exploit and commercialize them. As ICMN contributor Darla Antoine pointed out, “standing against GMOs is standing for sovereignty.”

This story was originally published on August 24, 2017.