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The GMO Debate

Submitted By Amy Sercel MS RD

Edited By Marcia Bristow MS RDN CSSD CD

Last weekend, President Obama signed a law creating national standards for labeling foods that contain Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).  This new law will replace Vermont’s GMO labeling law, which went into effect about a month ago.  While Vermont’s law required labels to explicitly state whether that food contained GMOs, under the national law food manufacturers do not have to include any text on their labels.  Instead, they can add a phone number to call, website to visit, or QR code to scan with a smartphone, which will allow consumers to learn if the food is made with GMOs.  Although there is some concern that the law will make it harder to find out if your foods contain GMOs, the national standards will make it easier for companies to sell food in multiple states without having to create a separate label for each state that might enact its own labeling law.1,2

GMO plants have been in the food supply since the 1980s.  GMO plants can breed and grow just like conventional ones, but their original seed’s DNA structure was modified to make the plant grow more effectively.  Right now, the most common type of genetic modification is called “transgenic,” which occurs when part of the DNA from one plant or animal is inserted into the DNA of a crop.  Most of these genetically modified plants are able to resist either herbicides or pests.  A newer method of genetic modification involves “editing” a plant’s DNA without adding other genetic traits.2,3

While you might have heard of GMO apples that don’t turn brown when sliced4 or GMO salmon that grow more quickly than conventional salmon,5 most of the GMOs in the grocery store are not as exciting.  The majority of the corn, canola, and soy products grown in the United States are genetically modified, so it is likely that any food product you eat containing one of these contains GMOs.  It’s thought that up to three quarters of processed foods are made with at least one genetically modified ingredient.3

So, if GMOs have been around for so long and make up such a large percentage of the food in the grocery store, why are people now concerned about labeling them?  There has been some fear that GMOs might have a negative impact on the environment and human health; however, a large, impartial review of over 700 studies about GMOs found that they do not create any health or environmental problems.  Genetically modified plants have the same nutritional profile as non-GMOs, and in some cases may even be designed to contain more vitamins.  There is no relationship between GMOs and obesity, diabetes, kidney disease, celiac disease, cancer, autism, or food allergies.  Additionally, GMO plants that are bred to resist pests have allowed farmers to use less pesticide – great news for the bees!  On the other hand, use of herbicides has increased as a result of using GMO plants.6

The national GMO labeling law will take effect in about two years.  Once these labels appear, they will provide interesting information about how foods are produced, but there is no reason to specifically avoid eating them just because they contain GMOs.  Instead, it is important to choose nutritious foods that you enjoy eating!


  1.  Obama signs national GMO labeling law; VT law now moot. Burlington Free Press. http://www.burlingtonfreepress.com/story/news/2016/08/01/obama-signs-national-gmo-labeling-law-vt-law-now-moot/87922974/. Accessed August 3, 2016.
  2.  The controversial GMO labeling bill that just passed Congress, explained – Vox. http://www.vox.com/2016/7/7/12111346/gmo-labeling-bill-congress. Accessed July 28, 2016.
  3.  20 CM, 2015, Pm 2:43. Genetically modified apples, potatoes win FDA approval. http://www.cbsnews.com/news/genetically-modified-apples-potatoes-win-fda-approval/. Accessed November 29, 2015.
  4.  7 Things You Need To Know About GMO Salmon | TIME. http://time.com/4120648/fda-approved-aquabounty-gmo-salmon/. Accessed November 29, 2015.
  5.  Plumer B. 5 big takeaways from the most thorough review of GMOs yet. Vox. http://www.vox.com/2016/5/18/11690992/gmos-review-evidence-safety-health. Published May 18, 2016. Accessed August 3, 2016.
  6.  Committee on Genetically Engineered Crops: Past Experience and Future Prospects, Board on Agriculture and Natural Resources, Division on Earth and Life Studies, National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Genetically Engineered Crops: Experiences and Prospects. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press; 2016. http://www.nap.edu/catalog/23395. Accessed July 25, 2016.

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