IN THE PAST COUPLE OF YEARS, YOU MIGHT HAVE NOTICED some food packaging with a “non-GMO” label. GMO refers to “genetically modified organisms,” or food ingredients—such as corn, soy, and canola—
that are resistant to herbicides and insecticides or can
withstand drought. General Mills, for example, announced
a new “GMO-free” line of its popular Cheerios® cereal.
But many of the food products bought by U.S. residents
at grocery stores contain ingredients from genetically
modified plants—unless they are marked “organic” or
“non-GMO.” Most products that contain corn, soy, or
canola use these ingredients. Most cereals, chips, tortillas,
soy-based products, and anything with high-fructose corn
syrup—such as sugary drinks and snacks—contain ingredients that have been genetically modified.
Why are some food companies trying to stay away from
genetically modified ingredients? What types of changes
are made to these foods, and what are the potential risks
to human health?
You might be surprised to know that every living being
is, to some extent, genetically “modified.” Genes are
always being mixed around and rearranged, as they are
passed down from parents to offspring—that is how
plants and animals evolved and adapted in the first place.
Some plants even swap genes as they reproduce, or pick
up genes from bacteria. These two processes are natural
versions of “genetic modification,” and they occur all the
Humans have been altering plants since the beginning
of agriculture. Before humans were involved, corn just
looked like any old weed, and oranges did not exist. But
our ancestors learned that if they combined certain plants,
they could get desired traits—such as larger tomatoes or
larger, more nourishing corn kernels. The farmers saved
kernels from plants with desirable characteristics and
planted them for the next season’s harvest. This process
is known as selective breeding or artificial selection. When
plants are combined, their genes are mixed together, lead-
ing to these new traits.
Today, when people talk about GMOs, they refer mostly
to GMOs made in a laboratory, where scientists isolate
desired genes from one plant or bacterium and insert them
into another plant to get a desired trait. The end result is
similar to when plants are combined, but this time, scientists know exactly which genes they inserted or changed,
and they can predict which traits will result from these
changes. Since the early 1990s, farmers have been growing
genetically modified crops that can grow faster, are stronger, fight off pests on their own, or survive being sprayed
by herbicides that are meant to kill weeds.
Any food with corn in it—including soft drinks, many
of which have corn syrup—probably contains genetically
One common genetically modified crop is a special type of
corn called Bt corn, which is resistant to a widespread pest
called a rootworm. Rootworms damage crops by burrowing
into their soft tissues. Scientists developed Bt corn so farmers
would not have to use too much insecticide when combating
rootworms. As a result, Bt corn has substantially increased
crop yields in many countries. Also, Bt insecticides are popu-
lar with organic farmers because they are labeled “natural
insecticides.” They differ from most conventional insecticides T H I N
Are They Safe to Eat?
By JoAnna Wendel