GMOs – A Refresher

Oct 26, 2016 | Sustainable Agriculture | 0 comments

The Dirt:

Genetically modified organisms are constantly under the microscope. Because of intensive lobbying in D.C., social media, and non-GMO initiatives, you may have been misled. And now, subsequently, they have a pretty bad public reputation. But, its often hard to get the full picture. This 5 minute read will tell you what you need to know about GMO’s…

Dirt to Dinner has researched genetically modified organisms from a “birds eye view”, in our article “Understanding GMOs”, we have also explained the different types of GMO’s, and weighed in on the current debate over GMO labeling. But, we feel strongly that genetically modified organisms are misunderstood.
We find it interesting that even though the science (most recently The National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine) proves the human, animal, and environmental safety of GMOs, genetic engineering still has a negative emotional reaction with many consumers when navigating the grocery aisle.

Most simply put, some protest the crop in the field, some protest the how those crops are labeled at the market.

While we respect the need for transparency in the food supply chain, the important role GMO’s play in our future is being overshadowed by political debate. Whether you are for or against GMO labeling, there are some important facts we think all our readers should know.

Creating GMOs

In order to create a genetically modified organism, scientists take a gene from one organism and use it to specifically change one genetic component, rather than several. The reality here is that GMO science is NO different from traditional breeding methods. No question, GMOs are complicated and hard to understand. Quite honestly, all plant breeding is complicated and hard to understand. But GMOs often add to the public’s confusion because they are used to create both simple and complex organisms. Simple GMOs are considered single trait organisms, while other GMOs are stacked, meaning they contain three or four traits.

Certified “Non-GMO” labeling

The “non-GMO” label is now being used as a marketing tool and we are running the risk of labeling overload. Food companies are beginning to tack the non-GMO claim on all their products; and many of these foods don’t even contain ingredients that have been derived from genetically modified crops.
From an industry perspective, there are two labeling conversations going on here. The first comes from those who are opposed to agricultural biotechnology. These are the consumers or producers who do not want GMOs to be originated, grown, or used anywhere in the food supply chain. The other conversation is from those consumers who want transparency because these consumers may be concerned about the environmental and health effects of GMOs and want to know more about the product. Because of negative marketing, these consumers often believe that eating a GMO will cause a negative effect on their bodies.

But, the interesting part is that food ingredients can originate from a GMO crop – but the final product or ingredient won’t have the GMO DNA or proteins in them. How is this possible, you ask? Because the original crop has been modified or processed into a new product.

None of the ingredients in these products have been genetically modified, but because of the GMO debate surrounding sugar, these companies are labeling their products as GMO free. 

GMO corn can be grown, but the GMO gene would not be found in any of the modified starches or in any of the sweeteners. For instance, high fructose corn syrup does not contain GMO DNA or proteins but the corn that was used to create the syrup may have originated from genetically modified seeds.

It is important to remember, not all GMOs are the same. While most are to reduce pesticide and herbicide use, some are created to enhance the crop, while others are to help the crop survive under inclement circumstances (i.e. drought resistance).

Let’s take sugar for example. Sugar, or sucrose molecules are not modified— there is literally no such thing as genetically modified sugar molecule. And yet you see many anti-GMO organizations protesting “GMO sugar.”

source: genetic literacy project

Sugar can come from either sugar beets or sugar cane. Genetically engineered sugar beets are herbicide tolerant. But, regardless of it’s source, sucrose contains no DNA—it is eliminated during the refining process—meaning it is impossible to distinguish sugar that came from GE sugar beets, organic sugar beets, or sugar cane. So when you see “anti-GMO” organizations threatening against the use of GMO sugar they are really just scare tactics.

The importance of DNA

As you can see in the image to the right, the molecular structure of each sucrose molecule is exactly the same. Yet, you can find GMO- free labeling on foods like ice cream and other sweet treats. This is forcing suppliers to re-brand their product as GMO free, when in reality it already was.
Instead, “non-GMO” labeling is really just being used as a selling point. This marketing strategy hopes to tap into the negative perspective you have of genetically modified organisms and get you to buy their product, often times at a premium! This same ploy has also worked for “gluten free’” labeling, when in reality only about 1% of the population is gluten intolerant.

These “scare tactics” are working…

Today, produce purchases are on the decline because of GMO fear— but, most produce is not genetically modified. Certainly there are a couple of exceptions, but these products should not be affecting your fruit and vegetable purchases! For example, genetically modified Arctic apples are grown with less bruising and browning. Cornell University and the University of Hawaii have developed a ringspot virus resistant papaya. GE papaya allows for less crop loss, resulting in better yield for acre for farmers. Furthermore, the limited number of genetically engineered produce doesn’t mean genetically modified produce is bad for you. So, don’t stop eating your fruits and vegetables because of GMO-fear. As we know, fruits and veggies are a big part of a well-balanced diet and genetically modified organisms are so frequently tested to ensure no harm!

source: Whole Foods

The two largest genetically engineered crops in the United States are corn and soybean. The majority of these crops are produced to feed cattle, dairy cows, chickens, and hogs.

As you think about GMOs, know that the two largest genetically engineered crops in the United States are corn and soybean. The majority of these crops are produced to feed cattle, dairy cows, chickens, and hogs. Corn is also a food ingredient in some consumer products, falling under starches, sweeteners, and various flours. After soybeans are crushed for animal feed, the oil and flour is used for cooking and some residual for industrial use. But remember, those refined products do not have the GMO gene or protein!

Pesticide usage, yield, and profits

A meta-analysis of 147 independent (not sponsored) studies was completed by Matin Qaim, Professor of International Food Economics and Rural Development, Germany (2014).  This analysis compared pesticide usage, yield, and profits of GM and non GM crops over a period of 18 years.

  • GM technology has increased crop yields by 21%.
  • GM crops have reduced chemical pesticide quantity by 37% and pesticide cost by 39%.  Imagine a 50-mile train full of chemicals NOT put in the soil.
  • In just 2013, reduced CO2 emissions by 28 billion kg – similar to taking 12.4 million cars off the road for one year.

The safety of GE crops for human health is not in doubt. A 2013 paper by independent researchers noted that 1,783 studies, including many that had been publicly funded, on safety and health issues related to GE crops over the prior 10 years. confirmed the consensus in support of the safety of those crops. A 2011 summary report by the European Commission covering a a decade of publicly funded research, 130 research projects, and 500 research groups similarly concluded that there is no scientific evidence of higher risks of GE crops for food and feed safety, or to the environment. (Source: Sugar Industry Biotech Council)

Labeling misconceptions

Unfortunately, the USDA has not quite figured it out what the “non-GMO” label should encompass. There are three different ways to approach GMO labeling:

1. If an animal that produces ingredients used in a product is fed genetically engineered grain, should that final product be labeled as genetically modified? For example, if a dairy cow has been fed grain containing genetically modified corn, and that cow’s milk ends up in ice cream—should the ice cream also be labeled genetically modified, even if there are no genetically modified ingredients in the ice cream itself?

2. If genetically modified seeds are used to create a crop and that crop is then refined and processed to make a product, eliminating the genetically modified gene’s, should that final product be labeled as genetically modified, even though there is no genetically engineered DNA in the product? For example, the debate with sugar. As we demonstrated, all types of table sugar, whether they derive from organic sugar beets, GE sugar beets, or sugar cane, has the exact same DNA.

3. If a crop is created using genetically modified seeds. So, if your papaya seed was genetically engineered to protect itself against ringworm virus, should it be labeled as such?

In some countries, like Japan and Korea, if the GMO protein or DNA is not detectible in the final product then no labeling is needed (i.e. genetically modified sugar beets being made into table sugar). In Europe, that was the case as well, but there was an exception for highly refined products. However, moving forward, this may change because consumers felt they were being misled by food companies. Currently, the requirements for GMO labeling in the U.S. is not yet determined. The important point here is that all of agriculture is global. Every country imports and/or exports meat, grains, oilseeds, and produce. It does not help farmers around the world if every country has different standards.

The Bottom Line:

Trust the regulatory agencies! They have ensured that GMOs are the most heavily tested food on the planet. And trust your body to do its job. If you maintain a well-balanced diet, you don’t have to fall for gimmick marketing labels. Stay informed, if you read the scientific literature on GMO’s you will find there is nothing to be afraid of.


Grossman, Elizabeth. “Congress Passed a New GMO Labeling Bill. How Will It Work? | Civil Eats.” Civil Eats. N.p., 21 July 2016. Web. 26 Oct. 2016.

Johnson, David, and Siobhan O’Connor. “These Charts Show Every Genetically Modified Food People Already Eat in the U.S.” Time. Time Magazine, 30 Apr. 2015. Web. 26 Oct. 2016.

Larson, Rebecca. “Myth Busting: There Is No Such Thing as GMO Sugar | Genetic Literacy Project.” Genetic Literacy Project. N.p., 15 Dec. 2015. Web. 26 Oct. 2016.

“U.S. Beet Sugar Industry: National Research Council Committee on Genetically Engineered Crops.” Sugar Industry Biotech Council, 9 Sept. 2015. Web. 26 Oct. 2016.