What are GMOs and what is genetic engineering?
The acronym GMO stands for genetically modified organism. GMOs are produced by transferring a specific gene from one organism to another, often from non-related species (e.g. from bacteria to a plant). This modifies the DNA in a way that would not likely occur in nature. This process is called genetic engineering.
Why are GMOs used?
In modern agriculture, genetic engineering is used to change a plant’s physical characteristics, disease tolerance and/or resistance to herbicides and pesticides. This helps farmers increase crop yield and improve plant survival. Importantly, genetically engineered food crops are now a staple in North America. For example, greater than 90% of all soybean and corn crops in the U.S. are genetically engineered.
Common GMO Plants and Crops
Common GMO plants used in the food supply include:
- Maize (corn)
- Sugar beet
Products Containing GMO Plants and Crops
Any food or dietary supplement product made with ingredients derived from genetically engineered crops are considered to be made with GMOs. Some products could be made directly from a GMO crop, such as corn chips made from GMO corn, while others could be made with an ingredient that was derived from a GMO crop, such as maltodextrin from corn or lecithin from soybeans.
While there is no evidence that consuming GMOs has a direct or immediate effect on human health, many people are concerned about both the longer-term health and environmental implications of this relatively new technology. Consumers are demanding that GMO products be labelled so that they can make informed choices about the products they buy.
How to Determine if a Product Contains GMOs
For pre-packaged foods, reading the ingredient list can help you determine whether the product was made with or contains any GMO ingredients. However, U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Health Canada regulations do not compel companies to declare products’ GMO status, which means that products containing GMOs may not be labelled as such.
Alternatively, look for the IGEN™ certification mark on product labels. This mark signifies that a product has been tested and reviewed for GMO content through the IGEN™ program. IGEN™ is a third party program that encourages food and dietary supplement companies to voluntarily test their products for the presence of GMOs.
For whole foods (e.g., fresh produce such as apples) which do not have a product label showing the ingredient list, consumers can inquire with store staff regarding the GMO status of non-organic certified produce.
Where GMOs are Labelled
Over 64 countries have adopted labeling policies for GMOs. The most widely used regulations referenced by Vermont and others were introduced by the European Union (EU), which includes legislation allowing for low levels (0.9%) of unintentional or technically unavoidable approved (authorized) GMOs to go unlabelled in food and animal feed. Policies and regulations vary widely in scope, exceptions, and degree of enforcement, but are all meant to give consumers information and choice. Presently in North America, voluntary GMO labelling guidelines exist despite consumer demand for mandatory GMO labeling.