Do you really know what a GMO, or Genetically Modified Organism, is? I didn’t. At least not in the way the Non-GMO Project laid it out in a short film I saw last week. Sure, I had been paying attention to the recent protests over the potential and probable introduction of genetically modified salmon into our food system. I knew I didn’t like it, but why specifically?
This is the exact problem that the Non-GMO Project addresses. The biggest issue with fighting genetically modified food is that 1) people don’t really know what it is and what its effects are and 2) even if people are opposed to a GMO, they probably just ate it for breakfast.
A 2008 CBS/New York Times poll  found that 53 percent of Americans said they won’t buy food that has been genetically modified. But here’s why they probably do anyway:
- 91%* of global soy  is genetically modified (yep, that’s your soy milk, your tofu, your soy sauce, and your edamame beans, just to start)
- 85% of corn  is genetically modified (thanks to government subsidies, corn is in almost everything we consume now: high fructose corn syrup, but also hidden in corn derivatives like citric acid and xanthan gum)
- Because of the ubiquitous use of soy and corn and in so many products, it is estimated by the Non-GMO Project that more than 80 percent of the processed foods in typical supermarkets contain genetically modified ingredients. Luckily, fruits and vegetables are at low risk of containing a GMO.
So you might ask, “What’s the big deal? Scientists have studied this; they wouldn’t recommend it if it weren’t safe.”
What is a GMO?
First, let’s simply define what a GMO is: An organism that has been created through gene-splicing technology in a laboratory where DNA from one species is inserted into another species. These are combinations of plant, animal, bacteria, or viral genes that would not otherwise occur in nature.
A dramatic example is the Flavr Savr tomato , introduced by Calgene in 1994. An antifreeze gene was taken from an Arctic flounder and inserted into a tomato to help it withstand cold in the field, ripen longer, and have a shelf life of three months. Luckily, it didn’t taste very good and was pulled from the market within three years. Oh, and then Calgene was acquired by Monsanto . (If you haven’t seen it already, rent Food Inc. )
Pro: Many GMO advocates say we’re simply replacing one gene with another, and it is an isolated event that does not affect the greater DNA system.
Con: “Research shows that when you change DNA in one area it has unintended consequences on the whole system,” says Megan Westgate, Executive Director of the Non-GMO Project, “including turning on and off gene sequences.” Have you noticed the unprecedented rise in food allergies lately? Allergies are considered to be an unintended consequence of genetically modified food. 
GMO’s Not Bred for Health, But to be “Roundup Ready”
So where do those new allergens come from? GMO advocates argue that genetically modified super foods will “feed the world” ; that they’re bred to be resistant to increasingly high temperatures and droughts; they produce higher yields than traditional crops; and they have greater nutritional value. “It’s important to remember that none of that is true,” says Westgate. “GMO’s are bred for two traits: herbicide resistance and Bt insecticide in their DNA.”
- Herbicide resistance: 75% of GMO’s are bred to be “Roundup Ready”: essentially a crop field can be sprayed with an herbicide like Roundup (owned by Monsanto) so everything in the field will die but the herbicide-resistant crop. According to the Non-GMO Project, Roundup use has increased 15 times since the use of herbicide resistant crops began. This has caused a greater amount of herbicide to trickle down into our water and soil. Furthermore, its widespread use has caused the development of “super weeds” and “super bugs” that are becoming resistant to herbicides. Biotechnology companies then recommend using a stronger herbicide to combat this issue, which is clearly leading us down a destructive and unsustainable road.
- Bt insecticide in plant DNA: 25% of GMO’s are bred with Bt insecticide inserted directly into their DNA. When an insect eats the plant, it dies. Does that sound like something you want to serve your family?
GMO Rejected Throughout the World
It may seem like genetically engineered food is the norm because of its prevalence in the United States, but it isn’t.
GMO labeling is not required on food in the United States. In Europe, if the GMO content exceeds 0.9%, it must be noted on the label; which is why there are very few genetically modified foods in Europe, and GMO crops are banned in many EU countries. This demonstrates that if the public is made aware of the fact that its food is genetically modified, it will reject it, which is why GMO lobbyists are fighting hard to prove that genetically modified food is harmless and thus does not need to be labeled.
The most important issue to consider is that this technology and its so-called harmless effects have not been proven without a doubt. “A Japanese scientist said, ‘we’re going to watch the children in the United States for the next 10 years before we make a decision of whether or not to grow GMO’s,'” says Westgate. “We are the guinea pigs of the world when it comes to this technology.”
What the Non-GMO Project is Doing
The Non-GMO Project evolved when consumers started asking questions of their grocery retailers in San Francisco and Toronto. Curious, the retailers asked their vendors to disclose which, if any, of their ingredients were genetically modified. They quickly realized that there were no standards to monitor the use of genetically modified foods, as well as no independent monitoring or testing.
In response, the Non-GMO Project has created North America’s first third-party standard for non GMO products. A “verified seal” (pictured at top) is placed on food products that meet these standards. It does not guarantee GMO-free food since the food chain is so long and complex, with potential for contamination along the way (like pollen floating into a field), but it’s a close second. Furthermore, this labeling is a signal to the food industry that some of us don’t plan to blindly accept genetically engineered food as the norm.
What You Can Do
- You can see which brands are currently meeting Non-GMO standards here .
- You can talk to the manager of your local supermarket about whether they carry these brands and, if not, tell them that you’d like to see them stocked.
- Make your voice heard! That’s how the Non-GMO Project began.