You probably won’t notice the three new types of potatoes sitting next to the Idaho Russets, Kennebecs, and Fingerlings in the produce section later this year.
They’ll look the same as every other potato you’ve ever seen, but there’s one huge difference — they’ve been genetically modified.
Scientists created these new tubers to protect them from destruction by late blight, the same disease that caused the Irish potato famine. The Environmental Protection Agency and Food and Drug Administration approved the new potatoes in late February, saying they’re safe to eat and environmentally friendly. The United States Department of Agriculture previously approved the vegetables.
Genetically modified foods — also known as GMOs — have been sold in the United States for more than 20 years, but they remain the topic of fierce debate. Scientists say they’re safe, yet nearly 40% of Americans remain skeptical of so-called “frankenfoods.”
So, what is GMO? Let’s take a closer look at the debate, what foods are likely to be genetically modified and whether it’s the same as organic.
What Does GMO Mean?
The term GMO refers to a genetically modified organism — that is, any plant, animal, or other organism in which scientists change its DNA through methods like gene splicing.
Plants, for example, are modified to add more desirable characteristics. This could mean creating potatoes that can’t be destroyed by disease or corn that can’t be attacked by pests. It could also mean plants that have been engineered to grow in a new climate.
Scientific consensus says genetically engineered foods are perfectly safe. Thousands of independent, peer-reviewed studies confirm there are no health or environmental risks associated with GMOs.
Major organizations like the World Health Organization, National Academy of Sciences, and European Commission also confirm that GMOs are safe.
In the United States, all genetically engineered plants require rigorous testing and face strong regulations. Before a GMO is grown for the public and sold, it must be approved by the USDA, EPA, and FDA. Each of these agencies investigates a different part of the plant to make sure the new plant is environmentally friendly and safe to eat.
GMO Foods List
You’re more likely to find GMO foods at the drive-through or freezer section than in the produce section. This is because the vast majority of crops grown with GMO seeds are things like soybeans, corn, and sugar beets.
Products made from these plants include oils, cornstarch, corn syrup, and soy lecithin, which appear in just about every processed food.
Here are other foods that typically contain genetically modified ingredients, according to Popular Science:
- Firm cheese
What Does Non-GMO Mean?
Products that are non-GMO are exactly what they sound like — they are made without using genetically modified ingredients.
Many countries, including those in the European Union, require GMO labeling for foods containing these ingredients. The United States is not one of them — yet.
Former President Barack Obama signed a bill into law in 2016 that will require GMO labeling. The Department of Agriculture has until 2018 to write the rules, unless President Donald Trump blocks it. Some states — including Vermont, Connecticut, and Maine — already require GMO labeling.
Proponents say labeling gives consumers more choices, but critics say labeling wrongly paints GMOs as harmful and ultimately pushes those products out of the market.
Some companies are voluntarily labeling their food as GMO-free. The Non-GMO Project maintains a database of certified non-GMO products including food and other consumer goods, such as body wash and clothing.
Does Organic Mean Non-GMO?
You’ve probably heard the term GMO come up in discussions about organic produce. The two labels go hand-in-hand, but they’re not the same. All organic foods are non-GMO, but not all non-GMO products are organic.
Confused yet? Let me break it down.
Organic food has a long list of things that can’t be used, like pesticides and GMOs. Farmers can’t use GMO seeds to grow crops, animals can’t eat food made from genetically modified crops, and companies that make processed food can’t use any ingredients that have been genetically engineered.
Non-GMO foods, however, just need to not be genetically engineered. This means a farmer can use pesticides on their corn, which makes it non-organic. But as long as that corn hasn’t had its genes modified, it is still non-GMO.
So, should you seek out the non-GMO label the next time you’re at the grocery store? Probably not. Genetically modified foods are just as safe as their conventional counterparts.
If you’re concerned about healthy eating, you’re better off seeking out organic food. Just because a product is certified non-GMO doesn’t mean it is free of pesticides, herbicides, or other toxic chemicals.