10 Common Myths About GMOs

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Despite being heavily researched, genetically modified organisms—commonly called GMOs—have many myths and falsehoods surrounding them. Most of these myths are based on consumer fears and flawed scientific reports about purported health risks of GMO foods.

Often referred to as “Frankenfoods” by worrisome consumers, GMOs are actually safe to consume and hold promise to be beneficial for both the environment and the economy. They may even provide health benefits, such as in tomatoes bred to be extra-rich in antioxidants.

Myth 1: Most Foods Are Now Genetically Modified

The truth is that there are currently only 10 genetically modified crops grown and sold in the U.S. They are corn, soybeans, cotton, potatoes, papayas, summer squash, canola, alfalfa, apples, and sugar beets.

Even then, many GMOs on the market today aren’t consumed by humans. Field corn, alfalfa, and soybeans are used more for animal feed than for anything else. Others have industrial uses in the production of textiles, ink, and adhesives.

While it’s true that selective breeding of crops has existed for centuries, that’s not what genetic modification (GM) really means. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), GM foods are “derived from organisms whose genetic material (DNA) has been modified in a way that does not occur naturally,” which references a technology much more sophisticated than simple selective breeding.

Myth 2: GMOs Hurt the Environment

It may be easy to assume that something described as genetically modified is harmful to the environment, but the opposite is actually true. Genetic modifications allow farmers to grow more crops using less land and fewer pesticides.

GMOs can preserve biodiversity by improving agricultural productivity, reducing chemical use, and allowing farmers to adopt conservational tillage methods.

GM crops generally require less land, and certain GMOs—like herbicide-tolerant (HT) crops—aid in soil moisture retention. That means GM farms use less water than non-GM farms, aiding conservation efforts. Some GMOs are also drought-tolerant, which helps farmers preserve water in periods of drought.

GM farms also lead to improvements like less time spent on tractors to till soil, reducing emissions. PG Economics estimates that farmers in the United States who use no-till systems in corn and soybeans experience 45% to 55% savings in fuel usage as opposed to conventional systems.

Additionally, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is part of a coordinated group that reviews every GM crop on the market. This framework also includes the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). So, rest assured that no GMO will be farmed without careful evaluation of its effects on the environment and health. 

Myth 3: Growing GMOs Is All About the Money

While GMO crops might prove to be cost-effective, genetic engineering actually began as a way to combat the three main factors that prevent a good yield: insects, weeds, and weather.

GMOs are designed to exhibit insect resistance, drought tolerance, disease resistance, and herbicide tolerance. More recent GMO qualities include reduced browning and black spotting in food crops.

GM plants that are resistant to herbicides make weed control easier, allowing for less tillage and less soil erosion.

GMOs that are resistant to insects have an internal defense that repels only certain insects that would destroy the crop, which means fewer insecticides. These qualities make farming more efficient and bountiful.

There are no conspiracies or government coercion that forces farmers to grow GMO crops. Farmers are free to choose whether they grow organic, hybrid, conventional, or genetically modified seeds. Farmers choose what seeds to grow based on what is best for their farms, market demands, and the local growing environments.

Myth 4: GMOs Aren’t Safe and Haven't Been Studied

GMOs have been heavily studied and there is no clear and definitive evidence that eating GMOs harms humans. In fact, we’ve been eating GMOs for more than 20 years, probably before many people knew what GMO meant.

The first FDA-approved, commercially available GMO food was the FLAVR SAVR tomato. Released in 1994, scientists found a way to make this type of tomato last longer by using an altered copy of a ripening gene.

Genetically modified crops have gone through more scrutiny and evaluation than any other group of plants that humans consume. There are no peer-reviewed studies that show GMOs are harmful, but there are studies that show they’re safe to consume.

In addition, nearly every major food safety authority in the world has released a statement on the safety of genetically modified crops.

The American Association for Advancement of Science (AAAS) says that “consuming foods containing ingredients derived from GM crops is no riskier than consuming the same foods containing ingredients from crop plants modified by conventional plant improvement techniques.”

This statement goes on to say that scientific evidence proves that GM potatoes, rice, soy, and corn are just as nutritious as their non-GM counterparts.

Myth 5: GMOs Are Full of Toxic Herbicides

Actually, genetic engineering of crops has led to less insecticide and herbicide spray use. GM farming has reduced overall pesticide spray by an average of 37% while boosting crop yields an average of 22%.

Insect-resistant GMOs specifically have led to a massive reduction in the active ingredient in insecticides between 1996 and 2015.

However, there is conflicting evidence that purports an increase of a specific type of herbicide—one that plants have begun to show a resistance to. Just like bacteria exhibit antibacterial resistance in humans, plant pests can mutate to resist pesticides.

Myth 6: GMOs Cause Cancer

The thought of eating purposely mutated food can certainly sound concerning, but current research on the health risks of GMOs is inconclusive. There is no evidence that GM foods have caused cancer in humans or animals.

To some degree, almost everything we eat is genetically altered, because animals and plants have been selectively bred for centuries. The WHO classifies substances as either carcinogenic, probably carcinogenic, possibly carcinogenic, or not classifiable due to lack of evidence.

Only one known substance was previously classified by the WHO as “probably carcinogenic to humans.” That substance was caprolactam, which is used mostly in making nylon products like yoga pants and toothbrushes. It was moved to the "not classifiable" group in 2019.

To reduce your risk of cancer, it's good practice to:

  • Eat a healthy diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and minimal in processed meats and packaged foods.
  • Quit smoking and/or using tobacco products.
  • Protect yourself from the sun.
  • Get regular medical care to catch any signs of cancer early on.

Myth 7: GMOs Cause Health Problems

Again, no scientific evidence concludes that GMOs cause health issues such as allergies, autism, celiac disease, or any other health problem.

Theoretically, genetic engineering could result in mutated proteins that cause new allergic reactions. However, all GMO crops are comprehensively and extensively evaluated before distribution, so this is unlikely.

An allergy is an immune response that occurs when a person comes into contact with an allergen, which is often a protein that a person’s body recognizes as a harmful foreign body.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the WHO, the structure of any new proteins in GMO crops is compared to known allergens in previous versions of the crop. This practice makes it unlikely that a new allergen would make it to the market.

To date, no new allergens have been detected in approved GMO foods.

Myth 8: GMO Research Is Biased

About one-third of all GMO research is independently funded, according to GENERA, a searchable database of peer-reviewed GMO research.

A separate literature review found that more than half (58.3%, or 406 out of 698 studies) of the scientific literature surrounding GMOs have no conflicts of interest. The same review reports that 25.8%, or 180 of the studies, presented conflicts of interest because of author affiliations or funding.

Myth 9: GMOs Increase Food Costs

Studies show that GM farming has actually contributed to reducing the cost of food, especially when it comes to principal crops like corn and soybeans.

Other research suggests that getting rid of GMO crops would substantially increase food costs because of lower yields and negative environmental consequences. (GM traits such as insect and disease resistance and weather tolerance help minimize crop loss.)

Myth 10: There Are No Long-Term Studies on GMOs

GMOs are consistently and extensively tested for both consumer and environmental safety. All GMO tests are reviewed by the USDA, the FDA, and the EPA, as well as other internal organizations.

There are several reviews of studies that report the same evidence as the statements from food safety authorities: there isn’t any evidence that shows GMO crops present adverse effects on human health or the environment.

How to Watch Your Consumption of GMOs

If you’re concerned about eating GM crops, there are several ways you can curb your intake.

  • Be aware of the most common GMO crops. Soybeans, cotton (for textiles and cottonseed oil), canola (for oil), squash, sugar beets (for sugar), potatoes, and rice are all commonly modified.
  • Buy organic foods. Organic foods are grown from non-GMO seeds.
  • Buy meat and dairy from grass-fed animals. A lot of livestock is raised on GMO alfalfa and other modified feed.
  • Buy foods labeled as non-GMO. The Non-GMO Project is a nonprofit organization that provides a rigorous verification process for brands to get the non-GMO label.
  • Shop locally. It’s very unlikely that your local farmers’ markets sell GMO crops. Most GMO foods are grown on large-scale commercial farms and shopping locally allows you to ask the farmers about their crops.
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