GMOs are plants and animals that have had their genetic makeup altered in order to have desirable traits. Genetically modified crops were first commercialized in 1996 when Monsanto, an agricultural biotechnology corporation, dedicated their research to commonly used foods like corn, soy, cotton, and canola. Monsanto has been testing GMOs since the 1970s, however, with their leading product being Roundup, a non-transgenic herbicide containing glyphosate. Genetically modified crops created by Monsanto were tolerant to Roundup while staying resistant to insects and herbicides.
Because GM crops can result in a higher yield of crops, they have come to dominate the food supply. According to Statista, genetically modified corn in the United States has increased from 8% in 1997 to 80% in 2019 and is also used for animal feed, corn syrup, and various alcohols. In addition to corn, 90% of soy grown in the US is also genetically modified. Additionally, when Monsanto introduced herbicide tolerant transgenic soybeans, this massively increased productivity and reduced cost for production.
Even though the herbicide tolerant transgenic soybeans have reduced the use of toxic herbicides, the resistance to glyphosate increase has caused more toxic herbicides to be needed. Glyphosate is commonly used in pesticides for genetically engineered plants. This is a concern because it is considered carcinogenic to the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer.
During the past three decades, concerns and questions about the safety of GMOs have been raised by scientists, government agencies, and consumers. The perceptions around GMO foods are influenced by the lack of information around GMOs — which creates uncertainty that makes people wary.
In the United States, the labeling for GMOs is vague. There is a label that exists for non-GMO foods, but for the food that isn’t labeled organic or GMO, it is much harder to figure out. Contrarily, Europe has banned GMOs citing suspicions and concerns about the potential harm they could do to our bodies.
Although Monsanto has been the driver of the GMO-dominated food supply in the United States for decades, in 2018 Monsanto was acquired by Bayer, a German pharmaceutical and pesticide company. However, the only change is the name and not the product, contributing to the lack of transparency because the main intention of the buyout was to cover the politically-charged name: Monsanto.
Today, it’s become common knowledge that organic farming is far and away better than crops laden with heavy chemicals and GMOs. Organic sales have skyrocketed from a $3.6 billion business in 1996 to $52.5 billion in 2018. Foods grown with organic methods usually have a USDA label indicating they are organic, helping consumers make a more informed and healthy decision about the food they are putting in their bodies.
Hannah Updegraff is a wellness blogger, vinyasa yoga teacher, and a Food Studies student at The New School. She believes in empowering people through storytelling. Find her on social media at @theheartbeet.co and @hannahkupdegraff.