What are genetically modified organisms (GMO)?
Genetically modified organism (GMO or GM) refers to any plant, animal, or other organism whose genetic makeup has been altered or modified using genetic engineering or genetic alteration technology of some kind in order to give it a new property. This could be, for example, alterations that provide increased resistance to disease, pests or drought, or to increase crop productivity.
Why it matters
GMOs are a divisive topic which remains controversial. In the EU, 19 member states have voted to either partially or fully ban GMOs, whereas genetically modified ingredients are widely used across the US and Asia.
Advocates of genetically modified organisms argue that GMOs have significantly improved crop yields and drought tolerance, decreased likelihood of crop failure, and increased nutrients, all factors necessary to feed a rapidly growing global population. They also point to the fact that technically, farmers and agricultural scientists have been genetically modifying the foods that we eat for centuries through the selective breeding of crops and animals.
Critics, on the other hand, worry that GMOs may be harmful to human and/or animal health, could lead to the substantial reduction of plant diversity as farmers increasingly favor herbicide resistant soy and corn, and are damaging to ecosystems and soil health. There are also concerns that because GMO crops are engineered, the rights to their use and distribution is controlled through patents owned by biotechnology corporations which could threaten the independence of farmers and have broader implications for food security.
Why you might want to choose GMO free products
While the jury is still out on whether GMO products themselves are harmful to human health, one thing is clear – the introduction of genetically modified crops has led to a 100-fold increase in the use of glyphosate, a common herbicide labelled by the World Health Organization as “probably carcinogenic to humans”. This has led to the creation of so-called superweeds which has, in turn, resulted in farmers spraying more toxic herbicides, in addition to glyphosate.
The arguments over genetically modified organisms are complex and go well beyond whether GMOs are safe to eat. There are a number of reasons why you might want to avoid products containing genetically modified ingredients, whether that be because you’re looking to avoid excess chemical consumption, are concerned about biodiversity of food supplies, or are against the impact of big-agriculture.
To be considered GMO free, a product:
- Cannot contain ingredients or materials derived from genetically modified organisms
What you can do
In 2018 the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) passed regulation on the labeling of GMO products called the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard (NBFDS). NBFDS has come under criticism for employing an overly narrow definition of the term “bioengineered”, allowing companies to provide disclosure electronically, rather than mandating the information be displayed on packages and exempting many ingredients from having to be disclosed as genetically modified. It’s important to note that under this legislation, brands opting to provide on-package labels must say “bioengineered food”, rather than the more commonly used term “genetically modified”. A product lacking a bioengineered food label does not necessarily mean it is free from GMOs.
With this in mind, if you are looking to avoid genetically modified ingredients, an easier and more robust approach might be to opt for products that are certified organic as organic certification in both the US and EU bans the use of GMOs.
We’ve compiled a list of GMO free products, as well as organic products and brands. You can also read more about what GMO means and the benefits of organic farming. If you’re looking to cut out as many excess chemicals in your life as you can, take a look at our natural products.