Here’s a startling fact: Every day, most of us—even natural food enthusiasts—eat foods that contain ingredients whose DNA has been altered in a science lab. Whether it’s the string cheese kids pull apart at lunch or the popcorn you snack on after dinner, there’s a good chance the item in question includes genetically modified organisms, which some experts say could have harmful consequences for people—especially kids. Here, an in-depth look at GMOs’ effect on our health and the environment, plus how you can keep your family safe.
What are GMOs?
Genetically modified organisms, also known as genetically engineered (GE) food, have DNA that has been altered in a way that does not occur in nature. While natural selection and traditional agriculture can change a plant’s DNA structure over a long period of time (for example, quinoa has developed a soapy coating to repel insects, and farmers continually replant the seeds of their juiciest tomatoes to yield a juicer breed over time), the biotechnology responsible for creating GMOs is far quicker: In a lab, desirable genes are inserted into a plant’s cells, becoming a part of the plant’s DNA. The result is a new version of the plant.
What’s the advantage to speeding up or changing the natural course of a plant species’ development? Supporters of GMOs hail biotechnology as a solution to the problem of world hunger, claiming that the genetically engineered crops are hardier and produce higher yields than their conventional counterparts, though some research indicates GMOs haven’t actually succeeded in producing these mega-yields. “[The world hunger reasoning] has been a way to broaden GMOs’ appeal to politicians and consumers,” says Charles Benbrook, Ph.D., chief scientist at The Organic Center, a nonprofit focused on the environmental and consumer health benefits of organic food and farming. “The initial application of genetic engineering in crop production was to try to simplify the management of weeds and certain insects,” he says.
Today, there are two types of GE crops: Bt-insect protected crops, and crops created to tolerate the herbicide Roundup. Bt is short for bacillus thuringiensis, a biological pesticide; these crops, which make up about one-third of the land planted with GE crops, have a gene that allows the plant to create its own insecticide, reducing the need for farmers to spray crops with pesticides. More common are the crops created to tolerate Roundup, nixing the need for the cocktail of less-potent herbicides farmers previously relied on to protect plants from weeds and insects. GMOs were developed to work with Roundup, but it didn’t take long before a new species of resistant weeds emerged, prompting food producers to douse crops with even more of the chemical. “Now, the biotech industry is trying to combat the resistant weeds by trying to create plants that can tolerate multiple herbicides, so even more chemicals can be applied,” Benbrook says. “Even with the success of Bt crops, GMOs on the whole have dramatically increased—not decreased—pesticide use.”