the trouble with gmo's

gmo corn being harvested. photo by scott olson/getty images.
gmo's (genetically modified organisms) and gmo foods have made quite a stir lately. in the news, california's proposition 37, if passed next week, will require all vendors of food made with gmo ingredients to label them. even though almost every other first-world country requires labeling of gmo foods of gmo foods, it is not currently required in any state in the united states.

genetically modified foods are edible organisms that have had their dna spliced with the genetic code from another organism. they arrived on the scene in the us around 1996, and they really took off. after fifteen years with no gmo labels on our foods, though, many grass-roots groups are advocating for all that to change. so why the big fuss now?
the fuss
gmo foods in the us are limited to a list of just a few species, but pervasive ones. according to the institute for responsible technology, "currently commercialized gm crops in the u.s. include soy (94%), cotton (90%), canola (90%), sugar beets (95%), corn (88%), hawaiian papaya (more than 50%), zucchini and yellow squash (over 24,000 acres)."

in the united states, corn, soybeans and canola are some of the major building blocks from which food scientists construct many processed foods. in fact, the center for food safety says gmo's make up about 70% of processed foods sold in the us (source). it's sometimes hard to document exactly which ones they are, though, because they're not labeled.

the current legal gmo's haven't been genetically modified to produce higher yields, better nutrition or even drought resistance. according to the non-gmo project, "virtually all commercial gmo's are engineered to withstand direct application of herbicide and/or to produce an insecticide."

the existence of herbicide-resistant crops means that farmers can spray weed killer directly on the food and still have a harvest to yield; and that's exactly what our friends at the monsanto corporation have been doing for over a decade (see monsanto's description of round up-ready crops).

ingesting round up on a regular basis sounds to the untrained ear like a recipe for disaster; and there's some evidence that it is. thirty peer-reviewed animal studies found that gmo foods caused problems in the liver, kidneys and blood, along with  the development of abnormal immune responses and reproductive abnormalities in the animals that ate them.

more importantly, a lifetime study on rats released last month in the peer-reviewed journal food and toxicology suggested a new side effect of gmo foods - cancer. the rats that consumed gmo foods from the monsanto corporation along with the herbicide normally sprayed on them (round up) developed large tumors in various places in their bodies.

gmo studies like the ones mentioned above are very controversial. the usda considers a lengthening list of genetically modified foods to be safe for consumption. the companies that develop the crops consider them great for profit margins. more than that, there aren't any long-term studies that specifically focus on the physiological reaction or human beings to gmo's. could 70% of our processed food really be cancer-causing without us knowing about it?

guinea pigs
rats develop must faster than humans, and gmo's have not been around long enough for us to see the lifetime effects on human beings... yet. true, as many scientists and chemical company representatives have pointed out, much of the most conclusive evidence linking gmo's to cancer comes from just one study. and yet, this one study is the only peer-reviewed study that has run long enough to test if gmo's and their complimentary herbicides (like round up) cause cancer when ingested. time, and many, many more studies will have to tell if the results have will be duplicated.

for the moment, however, we are right in the middle of a lab experiment of our own. the american food system is so inundated with genetically modified foods that it has become taboo to label them. we, the uninformed consumers, are the test group; the control will be certain western european countries that won't touch the stuff. and in fifty years...

more conclusive studies need to be done before we can say whether gmo foods are safe for human consumption. in the meantime, however, you may be interested in escaping the grand-scale experimentation at play, there are ways to diminish the genetically modified foods in your diet.
here's what you can do
want to avoid getting cancer from the food you eat? though gmo foods are un-labeled in the store, you can get get a pretty good idea of what is and isn't gmo if you follow the following guidelines:

  • go to the farmers' market!
    here's a great chance to talk with the farmer who grew your food. ask him or her how they feel about gmo's, and find out if they use gmo seed or animal feed. there's an online list of 120 oregon farmers markets here.
  • buy organic at the supermarket.
    if the food you're buying has a usda organic label, it is legally required to have 95% organic ingredients. you can find more info on the national organic program website. while gmo's officially cannot be marketed as usda organic, there is no system in place to test for gmo contamination in already certified foods.
  • do a little readingmany companies in need of a little marketing boost have voluntarily paid for a certification process to ensure their foods are gmo-free. the non-gmo project has a list of gmo-free products here. you can also check out the center for food safety's non-gmo shopper's guide.


  1. Great information! Thanks for writing this!

  2. @mom: thanks, that's encouraging.