Genetically Modified Food

What Do We Need to Know?

Test tube holder with different vegetables and fruits, studio shot
Thomas Northcut / Getty Images

I will spare you any suspense: I think genetically modified food can be good, bad, or in-between. Genetic modification is just a method, and it’s really the character of any given product that matters.

I also think it’s appropriate for information about genetically modified ingredients to be disclosed, because people generally want that information—and transparency is almost always a good thing. But the power of knowing brings with it the responsibility of understanding.

If you get information about GMO (this stands for genetically modified organism) ingredients and don’t know what to make of it, it could lead in the direction of worse decisions rather than better. Let’s explore the topic accordingly.

What Is Genetic Modification? 

What we now call genetic modification has been going on for centuries, and even millennia, under a different name: selective breeding. When plants are selectively bred to produce varieties with larger grains, more fruit, or prettier flowers, that really is genetic modification. Breeders may be focused on the properties they see, but the selection of particular plants is the selection of particular plant genes that can be passed along to the next generation of plants. Through a series of such selections, a whole suite of genes, and the corresponding characteristics, are transformed. The result is hybrid tea roses, or Gala apples, or tangerines.

This is not limited to plants, of course. The very same process of selective breeding based on visible traits, but ultimately related to genes responsible for those traits, has converted the wolf into every breed of our best friend, the dog, from Chihuahua to St. Bernard.

There are really just two major distinctions between what we now refer to as “genetic modification” and the time-honored practice of selective breeding of plants and animals alike.

The first is the obvious one: a focus on genes, rather than the traits imparted by the genes. This is simply a matter of evolving knowledge. Selective breeding existed before DNA and genes were discovered. Now that we know where the blueprints reside, we can focus our efforts on desired modifications right there, at the point of origin.

The second is that the modern version of genetic modification can traverse more than one species. For example, an anti-freeze gene from a frog (i.e., a gene that helps a frog survive in frozen mud at the bottom of a pond all winter, and emerge in fine shape come spring) might be inserted into the DNA that makes an orange, so that the citrus crop does not succumb to one very cold night.

However, even this aspect of genetic modification isn’t really new. Plant hybridization has routinely put together parts, and thus genes, from more than one species of plant. While doing this for animals in test tubes is fairly novel, doing it in nature is not. Diverse species of bacteria exchange genes routinely.

What all this means is that there is nothing sinister, bad, scary, or freakish about genetic modification, unless you feel the same about the family dog. This basic practice has been with us a very long time; we have just modernized the methods.

GMO Foods

That said, the products of genetic modification need to be judged on their own, individual merits. I’ll give you two examples: corn and soy (there is no GMO wheat on the market).

Prevailing varieties of sweet corn have been genetically modified to make them tolerant of an herbicide called Roundup, made by Monsanto; and to produce their own insecticide, called Bt toxin. If you Google “GMO corn,” you will readily find arguments against it by those generally opposed to GMO food, and arguments for it. Personally, I am concerned that Roundup is bad for both people and the environment, and that modifying crops so Monsanto can use ever more of it is worrisome.

I am also concerned that introducing novel proteins into foods may contribute to everything from food allergies, to behavioral disorders, to irritable bowel syndrome, to gluten intolerance. These dots are very hard to connect with certainty, but such connections are plausible.

If you can find and buy locally grown, non-GMO corn, I think it’s a good idea.

Soy is another story. Soybeans are a very versatile crop, generating everything from tofu to cooking oil. That cooking oil is, historically, very high omega-6 fat, an excess of which has long been implicated in major health problems in the U.S., notably heart disease. Through genetic modification, a new variety of soybean is taking over that produces oil very rich in the monounsaturated fat, oleic acid, that predominates in olive oil; rich in omega-3 fat and low in omega-6. This is much healthier oil, and in fact- might be one of the best cooking oils there is. This is clearly a case of genetic modification working as it should, to produce better products, and better health.

GMO Labeling

I side with those who favor GMO labeling, but with a proviso. It will be far easier for large companies with deep pockets, than smaller companies, to comply with such a requirement, and source non-GMO ingredients. But those products could well be GMO-free “junk,” just as there is low-fat junk food, low-carb junk food, and gluten-free junk food.

Smaller companies making genuinely good foods, but unable to source exclusively non-GMO ingredients, might wind up being punished—and your health could suffer, too. Some GMO products are excellent; some non-GMO products are terrible. This is why GMO labeling could lead to worse food choices as readily as better ones. It all depends on what you do with the information.

Making the Best Decision for Yourself

Here’s my brief inventory of recommendations:

  1. GMO foods should be labeled transparently. Oppose any legislation that would prevent this.
  2. GMO is a method, neither good, nor bad, any more than an assembly line is good or bad. It depends what it is making.
  3. GMO products can pose health risks at times, but can also help eliminate health risks. Avoid summary judgment and assess each product on its own merits. Getting unbiased information to inform such assessment is challenging, but you can find it if you look. WHO and the FDA provide some; USDA tends to have the most detailed information.
  4. Just as foods can be organic and still be junk, foods can be non-GMO and still be junk. Don’t fall for that. Choose foods that are nutritious and wholesome to begin with, and then superimpose non-GMO if so inclined.
  5. Shop along the “middle path.” What I mean is: don’t get caught up in the hype that GMO is bad because it deviates from nature. Every domesticated food in the modern supply was altered from some wild ancestor. But also, don’t assume that all innovation is a good thing. The law of unintended consequences certainly pertains, and any time a new food is engineered- there is some potential for new, unintended adverse effects.

We realize an “all good” or “all bad” verdict would be simpler—it would just be wrong. To make balanced and reasonable decisions about the place for GMO products in your diet, that’s really what you need to know.