FAQs about Genetically Modified Organisms in Food

What are Genetically Modified Organisms?

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Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are plants or animals that have had their DNA modified by laboratory processes to have specific characteristics. When the first genetically modified (GM, also known as genetically engineered, GE) crops were introduced, the biotechnology industry claimed they would increase crop yields, decrease pesticide use, improve nutrition, and more. However, in the fifteen years since GMOs were first commercialized, they have delivered negligible benefits and raised significant environmental, public health, and food security concerns.

The vast majority of commercialized GM crops in the U.S. are engineered to survive being sprayed with glyphosate (an herbicide sold by Monsanto as Roundup) or to constantly produce Bt (an insecticide). The crops in the U.S. that have been genetically engineered are: corn, soybean, cotton, canola, sugarbeet, alfalfa, papaya, and squash.(1) Currently, 85% of corn, 93% of soybeans, and 82% of cotton in the U.S. is genetically engineered. (2) It is estimated that 75% of processed foods in supermarkets contain GMOs, since several common additives in processed foods are made from these crops (such as corn syrup and soybean oil).(3) Food products that are certified organic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture cannot contain any GMOs, among other regulations.

Why are GMOs important to shareholders?

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The GM crops grown in the U.S. do not enhance yields or nutrition; instead, they have been genetically altered so that they can withstand more pesticides or constantly produce their own (see “What are the effects of GMOs?”).(4) The companies that produce GMOs receive significant profits from selling the patented seeds and associated pesticides, yet they do not currently pay for the environmental and economic impacts of their products. These unaccounted costs are an example of the financial risk of GMOs.

Similarly, companies that make consumer food products are exposed to the risks associated with sourcing GM ingredients for products, as consumers are increasingly aware of the environmental, public health, and food security impacts of GMOs.

  • 90-93% of Americans support GMO labeling, according to several polls by national news and research organizations over the last several years.(5)(6)(7)
  • 39% of consumers avoid or reduce buying GMOs, a 56% increase since 2010 and a 254% increase since 2007, according to a 2013 Hartman Group survey.(8)
  • Package Facts predicts that the non-GMO food market will grow to $800 billion by 2017.(9)
  • Supermarket News successfully predicted an unprecedented upsurge in consumer awareness and concern about GMOs starting in 2010, suggesting that GMOs might become a new food “culprit” like trans fats and carbohydrates, which “defined the decade” for the food industry.(10)
  • Companies that opposed GMO-labeling ballot initiatives in California and Washington state suffered significant consumer backlash and reputational damage.(11)(12)

The food industry has begun to respond to widespread criticism of GMOs. After an intense consumer campaign, General Mills reformulated its original Cheerios cereal in January 2014. Other brands that have announced reformulation include Post’s Grape Nuts, Kellogg’s Kashi, Ben & Jerry’s (a subsidiary of Unilever), Boulder Brands’ Smart Balance, and Chipotle Mexican Grill.(13)

After shareholder pressure resulted in GMO labeling for all house brand products, Whole Foods Market announced that all foods in its stores would be subject to GMO labeling 2018.(14) Whole Foods provided an update(15) in September 2013 on the progress it has made with its many suppliers. The company sees this as an enormous brand differentiator and a clear win for investors and customers. The company also notes that Non-GMO Project Verified products experience a 15-30% sales increase.(16)

Local and state movements to regulate GMOs have been gaining momentum, increasing the financial risk for companies producing or using GMOs. See the next section (“How are GMOs regulated?”) for details.

How are GMOs regulated?

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While GMOs are labeled or banned in 64 countries including the European Union, India, Russia, China, and Japan, the U.S. federal government has no such regulations.(17) The Food and Drug Administration, Department of Agriculture and Environmental Protection Agency do not conduct or require long-term safety studies on environmental or health impacts.

In May 2014, Vermont became the first state to pass a “no-strings-attached” GMO labeling law(18), and two Oregon counties approved ballot measures to ban cultivation of GMOs.(19) These laws join GMO labeling laws in Connecticut and Maine that will trigger when other states (including New York) follow suit, and a GE salmon labeling law in Alaska. Food industry trade associations, including the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), have filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn the Vermont law.(20)

In July 2014, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced that GMOs and neonicinotoids (bee-toxic pesticides) will no longer be allowed in National Wildlife Refuges across the country, which account for over 150 million acres of federal land.(21)

In the European Union (EU), all GMOs are considered “new food” and subject to extensive, case-by-case, science-based food evaluation by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and authorization by the European Commission (EC). There are four categories of criteria for authorization: “safety,” “freedom of choice,” “labelling,” and “traceability.” If they are approved by the Commission, individual EU member states can ban individual varieties. As of April 2011, there were 22 active bans in place across six member states: Austria, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Greece, and Hungary.(22)

What are the effects of GMOs?

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Independent peer-reviewed research documents the impacts of GMO usage on the environment and public health, and the growing risk to America’s food security. Food security “exists when all people of a given spatial unit, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life, and that is obtained in a socially acceptable and ecologically sustainable manner.”(23)

The use of genetically engineered crops have increased health risks from pesticides, created a crisis of pesticide-resistant weeds and insects, increased pollution, and endangered public health.

Effects on Agriculture and the Environment

  • Research from the University of Canterbury shows that “the biotechnologies used in North American staple crop production are lowering yields and increasing pesticide use compared to Western Europe,” which uses little GM seed.(24)
  • Several studies have demonstrated that use of Monsanto’s “Roundup Ready” GM crops, which are engineered to tolerate Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup, has led to an epidemic of herbicide-resistant weeds, which require an ever-increasing amount of herbicides to combat them.(25)(26)
  • The United States House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform held hearings in 2010, titled “Are Superweeds an Outgrowth of USDA Biotech Policy?”, to investigate herbicide-resistance and crop contamination.(27)
    • Troy Roush, an Indiana farmer who is Vice President of the National Corn Grower Association, testified that “bigger farms with multiple herbicide resistance problems are in great danger… The increased ease of use and convenience of herbicide tolerant crops enabled many farmers to significantly increase crop acreage which helped to offset higher production costs and, in some cases, lower yields. Biotech companies encouraged farm expansion by offering discounts for buying seed in bulk… Farmers who expanded farm size are now finding it difficult, if not impossible, to manage the larger operations now that additional time is required for weed management.”
  • Contamination is a major impact of GM crops. As of January 2011, there were more than 300 reported cases of contamination incidents worldwide in which genetically modified seeds or crops were found in fields of products for which they were not intended. Some of these cases have resulted in major worldwide trade disruptions and have cost farmers, food processors and supermarkets billions of dollars.(28)
    • Bayer, one of the world’s chemical and biotech companies, stated in a trial that even the best practices cannot entirely stop GMO contamination.(29)
  • In 2013, the New York Times reported that the corn disease Goss’ Wilt is “a tidal wave washing across the Corn Belt” and plant pathologists suspect the biggest factor is genetically modified corn.(30)
  • Newsweek reported in 2014 that “one of industrial agriculture’s biggest GMO crops may have just backfired” because “corn-destroying rootworms have evolved to be resistant to the Bt corn engineered to kill them.”(31)
  • In response to the serious and growing problems generated by Monsanto’s Roundup Ready crops, Dow Chemical has announced new GM crops resistant to 2,4-D, a toxic herbicide used in the Vietnam War-era defoliant Agent Orange. 2,4-D is prone to drift, and is already responsible for more episodes of crop injury than any other herbicide.(32)
    • Many researchers believe that the chemical arms race is impossible to win, making disengagement from herbicide-resistant crops the only sensible policy.(33)
  • GM crops exacerbate the agricultural practice of monoculture, in which a single crop is grown over a wide area for many consecutive years. Monoculture is used widely in modern industrial agriculture; its implementation has allowed for large harvests from minimal labor, but has also led to the quicker spread of pests and diseases, because uniform crops are more susceptible to pathogens.(34) Advocates of polyculture (a principle of permaculture) and organic farming contend that greater crop diversity and pesticide reduction (or elimination) create more secure and healthy agricultural systems.(35)

Effects on Public Health

  • In July 2013, the EPA raised the maximum allowable residues of glyphosate in our food, despite receiving over 10,800 comments against the proposed change in regulation. Through the EPA’s new standards, the allowable amount of glyphosate on oilseed crops has increased from 20 ppm to 40 ppm. The EPA also increased the allowable levels for several other crops, including sweet potatoes (from 0.2 ppm to 3 ppm) and carrots (0.2 ppm to 5 ppm).(36)
  • In 2013, two studies from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology studies linked glyphosate (the main component of Roundup) residue on food to gluten intolerance(37) and “a range of health problems and diseases, including Parkinson’s, infertility and cancers.”(38)
  • Research from the University of Caen found that “Roundup’s inert ingredients amplified the toxic effect on human cells — even at concentrations much more diluted than those used on farms and lawns.”(39)
  • In 2010, the U.K. Food Standards Agency reported that 5.6% of 107 bread samples contained glyphosate residues. Three samples had 0.5 parts per million (ppm) of glyphosate, a relatively high level compared to the other pesticides found in these bread samples.(40)
  • According to a 2012 report on glyphosate residues in food in the UK, residues as high as 1.1 ppm were detected in whole wheat flour. Lesser residues were detected in a wide range of breads. Residues of 0.6 ppm were found in dried lentils and peas, 2.7 ppm in dried beans, and 11 ppm in dried chickpeas.(41)(26)

Effects on Farmers and Small Business

  • The companies that sell genetically modified crops have driven consolidation in seed markets, reducing choice and increasing costs for the average American farmer. Economists characterize an uncompetitive market when the concentration ratio of the top four firms (CR4) is 40% or higher. In seed, the top four firms account for 50% of the proprietary market, and 43% of the commercial market. The lack of competition has led to increased seed prices, increased herbicide prices, and fewer conventional seed options, harming small- and mid-size farmers and rural communities.(42)

Do we need GMOs to feed the world?

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There is broad consensus that genetic engineering is not helpful or necessary to feed the world’s population, in the near- or long-term future. The United Nations recognizes that undeveloped nations face a myriad of issues that stem from poverty (including hunger) which must be addressed by “sustainable development.” This term rose to significance after the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development’s Burntland Report defined it as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”(43) Amartya Sen’s Nobel Prize-winning research demonstrated that hunger is not typically caused by a lack of food, but rather poor food distribution or governmental policies in the developing world.(44)

Similarly, many research institutions and international organizations report that organic, non-chemical, and non-GMO farming practices are more beneficial to food security, public health, and the environment.

  • The Rodale Institute’s 30-year study found that organic farming used less energy, produced less greenhouse gas, and outperformed chemical and GMO farming during droughts.(45)
  • A study from the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization contends that “organic agriculture has the potential to secure a global food supply, just as conventional agriculture does today, but with reduced environmental impact.”(46)
  • The 2008 International Assessment of Agriculture Science and Technology for Development, which was initiated by the World Bank and the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, concluded that GMOs are unlikely to address persistent hunger and poverty. Instead, the report describes comprehensive policies to reorient local and global food systems towards greater social equity and ecological sustainability.(47)
  • The U.N. Commission on Trade and Development’s 2013 review concluded that transformative changes are needed in food, agricultural, and trade systems to increase biodiversity, reduce pesticides, support small-scale farmers, and strengthen local food systems.(48)
  • A 2012 Center for Food Safety report demonstrated that increased agricultural yields and declining soil erosion from the 1970s on were spurred by strong financial incentives to adopt soil conserving farming practices, and that GM crops have slowed or eliminated these positive trends.(49)

Where can I learn more?

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For more research and other resources related to GMOs, visit our Resources page.


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  1. United State Department of Agriculture and Economic Research Service, 2014, Genetically Engineered Crops in the United States, http://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/err-economic-research-report/err162.aspx
  2. Op. id. United State Department of Agriculture and Economic Research Service, 2014
  3. Op. id. United State Department of Agriculture and Economic Research Service, 2014
  4. Center for Food Safety, 2012, Going Backwards: Dow’s 2,4-D-Resistant Crops and a More Toxic Future (Food Safety Review, Winter 2012), http://www.centerforfoodsafety.org/reports/1787/food-safety-review-going-backwards-dows-24-d-resistant-crops-and-a-more-toxic-future
  5. New York Times, July 27 2013, “Strong Support for Modified Foods,” http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/28/science/strong-support-for-labeling-modified-foods.html?_r=3&&gwh=D5B7AC4AB592DE4BB119357F93E99FB8&gwt=pay
  6. Consumers Union, 2014, “New Consumer Reports Poll Shows Consumer Demand for Strong Federal Standards for Genetically Engineered Food,” http://www.commondreams.org/newswire/2014/06/09-2
  7. Center for Food Safety, 2012, “GMO (GE) Labeling Polls,” http://www.cga.ct.gov/2012/ENVdata/Tmy/2012HB-05117-R000222-Fairfield%20Green%20Food%20Guide,%20LLC—Analiese%20Paik5-TMY.PDF
  8. The Hartman Group, 2013, Sustainability 2013, http://hartbeat.hartman-group.com/article/452/Sustainability-2013
  9. Package Facts, 2013, Non-GMO Foods: Global Market Perspective, http://www.packagedfacts.com/Non-GMO-Foods-7822141/
  10. Supermarket News, Dec. 7 2009, “Stakeholders in GMO Debate Prepare to Clash Again,” http://supermarketnews.com/blog/stakeholders-gmo-debate-prepare-clash-again
  11. Green America, Dec. 6 2012, “GMO Inside Campaign: Cheerios Facebook Page Flooded By Anti-GMO Comments” [Press Release], http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/gmo-inside-campaign-cheerios-facebook-page-flooded-by-anti-gmo-comments-182410021.html
  12. Seattle Post Intelligencer, Oct. 17 2013, “GMO Labeling Moms React to GMA Money-laundering Lawsuit,” http://blog.seattlepi.com/videoblogging/2013/10/17/gmo-labeling-moms-react/
  13. National Public Radio: The Salt Blog, July 22 2014, “Some Food Companies Are Quietly Dumping GMOs Ingredients,” http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2014/07/22/333725880/some-food-producers-are-quietly-dumping-gmo-ingredients
  14. Whole Foods Market, March 8 2013, “GMO Labeling Coming to Whole Foods Market”, http://www.wholefoodsmarket.com/blog/gmo-labeling-coming-whole-foods-market
  15. Whole Foods Market, Sep. 18 2013, “GMO Labeling Update”, http://www.wholefoodsmarket.com/blog/gmo-labeling-update
  16. Whole Foods Market, March 8 2013, “GMO Labeling Coming to Whole Foods Market”, http://www.wholefoodsmarket.com/blog/gmo-labeling-coming-whole-foods-market
  17. Center for Food Safety, 2014, “International Labeling Laws”, http://www.centerforfoodsafety.org/issues/976/ge-food-labeling/international-labeling-laws
  18. CNN, May 8 2014, “Vermont governor signs GMO food labeling into law,” http://www.cnn.com/2014/05/08/health/vermont-gmo-labeling/index.html
  19. Reuters, May 21 2014, “Rural Oregon voters back ban on GMO crops amid U.S. labeling uproar,” http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/05/21/usa-oregon-gmos-idUSL1N0O706420140521
  20. Triple Pundit, June 23 2014, “Big Food Battles Vermont Over GMO-Labeling Law,” http://www.triplepundit.com/2014/06/big-food-battles-tiny-vermont-save-gmo/
  21. United States Fish and Wildlife Service, July 17 2014, “Memorandum: Use of Agricultural Products in Wildlife Management in the National Wildlife Refuge System,” http://www.peer.org/assets/docs/fws/FWS_Memorandum.pdf
  22. Wesseler, J. and N. Kalaitzandonake, 2011, “Present and Future EU GMO policy,” in Arie Oskam, Gerrit Meesters and Huib Silvis (eds.), EU Policy for Agriculture, Food and Rural Areas, Second Edition (Wageningen Academic Publishers)
  23. International Assessment of Agriculture Science and Technology for Devopment, 2008, Agriculture at a Crossroads, http://www.unep.org/dewa/agassessment/reports/IAASTD/EN/Agriculture%20at%20a%20Crossroads_Global%20Report%20(English).pdf
  24. Jack A. Heinemann, Melanie Massaro, Dorien S. Coray, Sarah Zanon Agapito-Tenfen & Jiajun Dale Wen, 2013, “Sustainability and innovation in staple crop production in the US Midwest,” (International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability), http://sustainablepulse.com/wp-content/uploads/Jack.pdf
  25. Benbrook, Charles M, 2012, “Impacts of genetically engineered crops on pesticide use in the U.S. — the first sixteen years,” (Environmental Sciences Europe) http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/10/121002092839.htm
  26. Food & Water Watch, 2013, Superweeds: How Biotech Crops Bolster the Pesticide Industry, http://documents.foodandwaterwatch.org/doc/Superweeds.pdf#_ga=1.128841160.579824097.1403638483
  27. House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Jul. 28 2010, “Are ‘Superweeds’ an Outgrowth of USDA Biotech Policy? (Part I),” http://oversight.house.gov/hearing/are-superweeds-an-outgrowth-of-usda-biotech-policy-part-i/
  28. Friends of the Earth, 2010, The Socio-Economic Effects of GMOs, http://www.foeeurope.org/sites/default/files/publications/FoEE_Socio_economic_effects_gmos_0311.pdf
  29. Bloomberg, Nov. 4 2009, “Bayer Blamed at Trial for Crops ‘Contaminated’ by Modified Rice,” http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=newsarchive&sid=aT1kD1GOt0N0
  30. New York Times, Sep. 20 2013, “A Disease Cuts Corn Yields,” http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/01/science/earth/a-disease-cuts-corn-yields.html?_r=0
  31. Newsweek, Mar. 18 2014, “Worm Now Thrives in GMO Corn Designed to Kill It, Study Says” http://www.newsweek.com/worm-now-thrives-gmo-corn-designed-kill-it-study-says-232276
  32. Op. id., Center for Food Safety, 2012
  33. Mortensen, D.A. et al, 2012, “Navigating a Critical Juncture for Sustainable Weed Management” (BioScience), http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.1525/bio.2012.62.1.12?uid=3739560&uid=2&uid=4&uid=3739256&sid=21103567216211
  34. Altieri, M.A., 2000, “Modern Agriculture: Ecological impacts and the possibilities for truly sustainable farming” (Agroecology in Action), http://nature.berkeley.edu/~miguel-alt/modern_agriculture.html
  35. Hanzi, Marsha, 2000, “Polycultures in the Brazilian Drylands” (Office of Arid Lands Studies, University of Arizona), http://ag.arizona.edu/OALS/ALN/aln48/hanzi.html
  36. Washington Times, “EPA raises levels of glyphosate residue allowed in food,” Jul. 5 2013, http://communities.washingtontimes.com/neighborhood/world-our-backyard/2013/jul/5/epa-raises-levels-glyphosate-residue-allowed-your-/
  37. Samsel, Anthony and S. Seneff, 2013, “Glyphosate, pathways to modern illnesses II: Celiac sprue and gluten intolerance” (Interdisciplinary Toxicology), http://sustainablepulse.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/Glyphosate_II_Samsel-Seneff_Toxicology_FNL-1.pdf
  38. Samsel, Anthony and S. Seneff, 2013, “Glyphosate’s Suppression of Cytochrome P450 Enzymes and Amino Acid Biosynthesis by the Gut Microbiome: Pathways to Modern Diseases” (Entropy), http://www.mdpi.com/1099-4300/15/4/1416
  39. Benachour, N. and G.E. Séralini, 2009, “Glyphosate Formulations Induce Apoptosis and Necrosis in Human Umbilical, Embryonic, and Placental Cells” (Chemical Research in Toxicology), http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/tx800218n
  40. United Kingdom Health and Safety Executive, Expert Committee on Pesticide Residues in Food (PRiF), Pesticide Residues Committee, Pesticide Residues Monitoring Report: Third Quarter, Mar. 10 2010, http://www.pesticides.gov.uk/Resources/CRD/igrated-Resources/Documents/Other/2010_Q3_Report.pdf
  41. GM Freeze, Glyphosate Residues in UK Food 2011, 2012, http://www.gmfreeze.org/site_media/uploads/publications/glyphosate_residues_in_UK_food_final.pdf
  42. National Family Farm Coalition, Out of Hand: Farmers Face the Consequences of a Consolidated Seed Industry, 2009, http://farmertofarmercampaign.com/Out%20of%20Hand.FullReport.pdf
  43. United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development, Dec. 11 1987, Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, http://www.un.org/documents/ga/res/42/ares42-187.htm
  44. Oxford Scholarship Online, Accessed Mar. 26 2014, “Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation,“ http://www.oxfordscholarship.com/view/10.1093/0198284632.001.0001/acprof-9780198284635
  45. Rodale Institute, 2011, The Farming Systems Trial: 30-Year Report, http://rodaleinstitute.org/our-work/farming-systems-trial/farming-systems-trial-30-year-report/
  46. United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, 2007, “Meeting the Food Security Challenge Through Organic Agriculture,” http://www.fao.org/NEWSROOM/EN/news/2007/1000550/index.html
  47. Op. id., International Assessment of Agriculture Science and Technology for Development, 2008
  48. United Nations Commission on Trade and Development, 2013, Trade and Environment Review, http://unctad.org/en/PublicationsLibrary/ditcted2012d3_en.pdf
  49. Op. id., Center for Food Safety, 2012

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