When it comes to genetically modified organisms (GMOs), the debate is highly contentious. With all that noise, it can be difficult to get to the core of the matter so as to understand for oneself what it’s all about. Here are some basics to get you started.

What Is a GMO?

A GMO is an organism altered in a lab through a gene-splicing technique that gives it a desired trait. A prime example of a GMO is Monsanto’s Roundup Ready Corn, which is modified to be resistant to the firm’s herbicide Roundup. Resistance is possible because the herbicide is spliced into the genetic makeup of the corn, allowing farmers to spray the herbicide on crops to kill destructive weeds without harming the desirable plants. Many have reacted negatively to GMOs, skeptical of their safety with regard to consumption and their impact on the environment, fearing contamination of non-GMO crops through cross pollination.  No long-term safety studies on GMOs have been completed.

Consumer Awareness

Central to the debate about GMOs is the question of labeling products that contain them. Currently, there is no universal label that designates a product as containing GMOs, though some seals indicate products are free of them. Part of the reason why is that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has determined that they do not in fact make food meaningfully different from non-GMO counterparts.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Certified Organic label requires that ingredients not be knowingly genetically modified and animals meant for dairy or meat not be fed GMOs. The Non-GMO Project Verified label specifically verifies that a product is free from GMOs, but is a third-party verification independent of the government, functioning as a 501(c)3 nonprofit. Both these labels are voluntary, requiring an extensive process to earn this status, plus fees.

Several states are working to change this in an effort to allow consumers to make an informed decision about what they are purchasing. Most notably, Vermont passed a mandatory GMO labeling law titled the Vermont Genetically Engineered Food Labeling Act (Act 120) in May 2014. The law mandates that raw produce and processed foods that are genetically modified or made with genetically modified ingredients be labeled as such, with the exception of animal products (e.g., meat and eggs), alcohol and dietary supplements or drugs (1). The law would also prohibit the use of the term “natural” on genetically modified product labels or advertising as it would constitute a form of deception.

The law is scheduled to go into full effect in July 2016. Some manufacturers are resistant to Act 120, fearing it will set a precedent for other states that will lead to a patchwork of differing state GMO labeling laws (2). A patchwork of laws would force manufacturers to undergo various levels of scrutiny and to create specific labels for states with the law and those without. Manufacturers could, of course, just create one label designating that their products have GMOs, but the ultimate fear is that consumers will stop buying those products and food costs will rise.

A federal bill titled the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015 (H.R. 1599) passed in the House of Representatives on July 23, 2015, directly challenging Act 120. Instead of requiring that GMO products be labeled, it merely gives manufacturers the option to voluntarily disclose GMOs in their products. If passed into law, H.R. 1599 will preempt any existing legislation on the labeling of GMO containing products, thus eliminating Act 120 in Vermont (3). Critics of H.R. 1599 have dubbed it the D.A.R.K. Act—Deny Americans the Right to Know.

Know Your GMO

Because consumers cannot be sure whether the products they buy are genetically modified, contain GMOs or have been contaminated by neighboring GMO crops, it is important to be aware of which products are most likely to be of the GMO variety. The Non-GMO Project lists the following crops as high risk of being GMO, based on December 2011 data:

• Canola (approximately 90% of U.S. crop) • Corn (approximately 88% of U.S. crop) • Cotton (approximately 90% of U.S. crop) • Papaya (approximately 988 acres, mostly in Hawaii) • Soy (approximately 94% of U.S. crop) • Sugar beet (approximately 95% of U.S. crop) • Zucchini/summer yellow squash (approximately 25,000 acres) • Alfalfa (first planted in 2011) (4)

GMO proponents are continuing to expand this list. On March 20, 2015, FDA approved genetically engineered apples and potatoes.  The apples, of Granny Smith and Golden Delicious varieties, collectively named “Arctic Apples,” were designed to resist browning. The potatoes, of Ranger Russet, Russet Burbank and Atlantic varieties, trade name “Innate,” were designed to reduce the formation of black spot bruises (5).

More recently, FDA approved the first genetically engineered animal intended for food; the AquAdvantage Atlantic Salmon. Designed by AquaBounty technologies, the fish is engineered to grow to market size at a faster rate. FDA determined that the salmon is safe to eat and that its production has no significant environmental impact (6). It will still be a few years before the fish will be available in stores, but AquaBounty already has its work cut out for it, as several retailers, including Whole Foods Market, Trader Joe’s and Target, have already pledged not to sell the GMO salmon (7).WF


1. Vermont Act 120 Rulemaking,http://ago.vermont.gov/assets/files/Consumer/GE_Food/Act%20120%20Public%20Presentation%20FINAL.pdf,accessed 12/2/15. 2. “What You Need to Know About GMO Labeling,” Oct. 8, 2015,www.consumerreports.org/cro/food/gmo-labeling,accessed 12/2/15. 3. “H.R.1599 — 114th Congress (2015-2016),”www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/house-bill/1599,accessed 12/2/15. 4. “What Is GMO?”www.nongmoproject.org/learn-more/what-is-gmo, accessed 12/2/15. 5. “FDA concludes Arctic Apples and Innate Potatoes Are Safe For Consumption,”www.fda.gov/NewsEvents/Newsroom/PressAnnouncements/ucm439121.htm, accessed 12/2/15. 6. “FDA Takes Several Actions Involving Genetically Engineered Plants and Animals for Food,”www.fda.gov/NewsEvents/Newsroom/PressAnnouncements/ucm473249.htm?source=govdelivery&utm_medium=email&utm_source=govdelivery, accessed 12/2/15. 7. “GE Salmon Faces Exclusion from Retailers,”www.wholefoodsmagazine.com/news/breaking-news/ge-salmon-faces-exclusion-retailers/WF657914, accessed 12/2/15.

Published in WholeFoods Magazine January 2016