What Are GMOs? Here’s What You Need to Know About Genetically Modified Organisms


On Thursday, a Senate committee will vote on a bill that would allow states to forego adding labels to genetically modified foods, according to the Associated Press. The bill was drafted by Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts of Kansas, in order to block a Vermont law that will require labeling genetically modified foods. The legislation will create "voluntary labels" for companies who can opt out of using them or not.

"Congress must pass a national food labeling solution that offers farmers, families and food producers the certainty and access to the affordable and sustainable food supply they deserve," Pamela Bailey, head of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, told the AP. But Scott Faber, chairman of the Just Label It campaign has said that Roberts "is proposing to deny American consumers the right to know what is in their food."

But what are GMOs exactly? 

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According to the World Health Organization, genetically modified organisms, often abbreviated as GMOs, are plants, animals or microorganisms that have had their genetic material changed in order to take on characteristics that don't naturally occur. The technology used to create GMOs has the ability to select "individual genes to be transferred from one organism into another, also between nonrelated species." In other words, think of GMOs as "mutant" food. 

Take genetically modified plants, for example. Scientists might genetically engineer plants in order to increase nutrients for consumption, or to develop resistance against insects and other predators. According to the Food and Drug Administration, the most common genetically modified plants are corn, canola, soybean and cotton. 

An estimated 75% or more of all processed foods, from soup to crackers, may contain genetically modified ingredients, according to the Center for Food Safety


Critics of genetically modified foods claim that tampering with food sources pose health risks and environmental dangers. 

"The problem with concluding that GMOs are safe is that the argument for their safety rests solely on animal studies,"  Carole Bartolotto, registered dietitian wrote in a blog post for the Huffington Post in 2014. "These studies are offered as evidence that the debate over GMOs is over. Nothing could be farther from the truth."

"Ultimately, we need GMO labeling so we can do the epidemiological studies that are essential to determine their risk. Without long-term data -- in humans -- no one can make the claim that GMOs are proven safe," Bartolotto concluded.

But Joe Regenstein, a professor in the Department of Food Science at Cornell University, believes the GMOs are necessary for the future. 

"As we all think about climate change and population increases, and therefore less land for agriculture, we're going to have to use more marginal lands, we're going to have to use crops that do things differently, and we're going to have to do that rapidly," Regenstein said in a speech Friday, according to the Cornell Daily Sun. "We also need the ability to deal with certain diseases. We're talking about the possibility that we may no longer have oranges, and we may not have bananas."

Vermont will be the first state set to require labeling, but the fast -ood chain Chipotle and the supermarket chain Whole Foods have taken steps towards labeling GMOs. Chipotle has taken steps towards removing all GMOs, while Whole Foods announced their commitment to labeling all GMO products in their stores by 2018.