Science, Now + Beyond

Should I be scared of GMOs?

There is a clear divide between the public and scientists when it comes to GMO perception.

What do you think of when you hear genetic engineering? Scientists in lab coats? The splicing together of human and fish genes? Doctors trying to ‘play god’? Michael Crichton, the sci-fi author who wrote Jurassic Park, consistently advised against scientific and technological advances going unchecked by opening our eyes to fictional worlds where the scientific unknown always reigned supreme over us.

With those kinds of images, warnings, and -frankly- lack of scientific knowledge, it’s no wonder the public mistrusts GMOs and insists that a GMO label be attached to foods.

So what are GMOs?

GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, are living things that have been genetically changed in some way. This can be by mixing genes from other organisms or just manipulating the genes an organism already has.

Humans have actually been altering the genes of organisms for millennia. Seriously – we’ve been doing this for over 10,000 years. Selective breeding and domestication have given us modern day corn, pets, and cows that produce more milk. But GMOs are much more directly altered: scientists are straight up manipulating genetic material, not just selecting which two parents to breed to create certain offspring.

For example, scientists are able to locate desirable traits from one organism, grab them, and insert them into another organism. If a bacteria has a gene for pesticide resistance, it can be inserted into corn and Voila! Pesticide-resistant corn.

We use GMOs for food, medicine, and research. In the US, over 90% of some produce and processed foods are GMOs. Much of our produce has been genetically modified to resist pesticides, viruses, and infections. In 1994, the first-ever GMO was mass produced: a tomato that ripened slower, giving it a longer shelf life. We’ve even engineered food that holds more nutritional content. In a world where the threat of global warming is very real, scientists hope to engineer plants that resist drought. How cool would that be?

GMO labeling

A vast majority of American citizens want GMOs labeled, arguing it’s our right to know what’s in our food. That’s pretty fair.

The thing is, GMOs aren’t ingredients. A GMO label isn’t telling you anything more about what’s in your food. All it’s letting you know is that a certain product or ingredient was genetically altered. Still, GMO labels are a pretty harmless request if all you want is additional knowledge.

But it gets more complicated. I’m sure you’ve heard the various reasons why GMOs are bad for us: they cause cancer, they’re not regulated, they’re the reason gluten allergies exist … the list of GMO problems is endless. And none of them are backed by evidence. In fact, the consensus amongst scientists is that GMOs pose no greater threat to us than non-GMO foods. The World Health Organization and the American Medical Association agree that GMO foods are safe to eat and numerous studies have backed this up. Any new genetically modified food has to be checked and approved by the FDA, EPA, and US Dept of Agriculture before going on the market, so this isn’t a case of unregulated science. And we’ve been eating GMOs for decades.

The majority of scientists agree that GMOs are safe for human consumption, while the majority of American adults fear that they’re not. There is a clear divide between the public and scientists when it comes to GMO perception. Unsurprisingly, the fears have spread faster and quicker than the facts. And because of that, scientists worry that labeling is only going to increase the stigma related to GMOs. In fact, numerous Nobel laureates have come together to urge protestors (specifically Greenpeace) to reconsider their anti-GMO stance.

We certainly have a right to know what we’re eating, but if we aren’t even sure what the label truly means — what’s the point?

  • Sana Saiyed

    Science editor and writer. Raised in Kentucky and educated at Wellesley College and the University of Chicago. Studies the ways in which climate change influences animal behavior.