When GMOs were commercialized in the 1990s, few people knew about these novel organisms entering the food supply. Their development, testing and deployment had occurred with a startling lack of transparency. However, as early GMOs and their derivatives made their way into more and more common food products, folks in the natural foods sector started asking questions. Some of those folks went on to found the Non-GMO Project, North America’s most rigorous third-party verification for non-GMO food and products.
From time to time, people ask us why we do the work we do. What do we have against GMOs, anyways? The answer to that question is not short. From the unsettling origins of the GMO experiment, we’ve witnessed a complex web of negative impacts and downstream effects that start with this technology. The GMO food web and the technology driving it have evolved, and so do the consequences.
What’s wrong with GMOs? We’ll walk you through it.
Corporate consolidation and short-term studies
The first GMOs were developed by chemical companies with ingenious business plans. For example, Monsanto sold chemicals for decades before engineering herbicide-tolerant “Roundup Ready” soybeans in 1996. By creating herbicide-tolerant GMOs, they gained restrictive utility patents on a major commodity crop and sold a lot more of their signature weedkiller, Roundup, a companion product to the GMO soy. The plan worked so well that glyphosate-based herbicides such as Roundup have seen a 15-fold increase in use since Monsanto introduced its first GMO.
Very little was known about GMOs when they entered the food supply. Most people were unaware that everyday food products contained ingredients derived from novel organisms. Even fewer people knew that safety testing was mainly short-term feeding studies conducted by the same corporations who created GMOs and stood to profit from their adoption.
Without independent safety assessments, the long-term impacts of GMOs are unknown. Meanwhile, those utility patents helped solidify agricultural companies’ growing seed supply monopoly. Today more than 60% of the world’s seeds are owned by just four corporations.
The dramatic spike in herbicide use is a sobering outcome of GMO adoption, but it’s not the only one. There are significant downstream impacts from adopting this technology and the chemical inputs that go with it. That business plan to sell more weedkillers alongside patented GMO seeds worked like a charm. Farmers sprayed more glyphosate more often, and subsequently, “superweeds” with evolved resistance to those chemicals rose up in response.
Herbicide tolerance wasn’t the only GMO trait. Genetically engineered corn was created to produce its own insecticidal bacteria. Because the insecticide was constantly present as the corn grew, insect populations developed similar tolerance as the superweeds. It’s a case of be-careful-what-you-wish-for: If GMO manufacturers pictured pristine landscapes that produced only the GMO crops they designed, they were engineering a certain kind of doom. Landscapes aren’t meant to be pristine or monotonous, and nature rebels against a lack of diversity.
In the end, GMOs are antithetical to the kind of regenerative food system we desperately need to feed a growing population on a warming planet. Improving soil health, protecting biodiversity and curbing greenhouse gasses are critical initiatives to support human wellbeing. GMOs move us in the opposite direction, towards monocrops, homogeneity and chemical dependence.
The cultural impacts of GMOs
Some of the most damning impacts of an industrialized and engineered food system are cultural and social. Food is a basic human need. It’s also a crucial element of the social fabric of communities worldwide. We gather for feasts and celebrations, expressing cultural identities through the food we share. Traditionally people ate globally diverse diets to reflect our cultural backgrounds. However, the types of foods we consume have consolidated over time to become more homogenous worldwide.
Last fall, author Diane Wilson talked with the Non-GMO Project about her book “The Seed Keeper” as part of our Speaker Series. Her novel explores Indigenous food sovereignty through the stories of four Native American women and the loss of traditional foods and cultural practices after colonization. “A very important part of the culture was displaced when tribes were moved onto reservations” and lost access to their foods.
“You move people onto reservations, you give them commodity foods that come in a sack, so it’s high starch high fat, and immediately you see a shift in both the spiritual and the physical health of people and the emotional wellbeing because it’s very compromising to your sense of self as an Indigenous person to be living in this way.”
Wilson is enrolled on the Rosebud Reservation, and she works as part of the growing movement to restore Indigenous food sovereignty. “We’re reclaiming that old relationship… and we’re rebuilding the health of our communities by returning to those traditional foods.”
Respecting and restoring food’s cultural and social significance and the stewardship of natural resources goes beyond Indigenous communities. “It actually impacts all of us,” says Wilson. “The work we’ve been doing in Indigenous communities has some great teaching and lessons for all of us.”
New GMOs, new risks
Since the Non-GMO Project was established in 2007, the field of biotechnology has changed. New GMOs created with emerging and evolving techniques such as gene editing and synthetic biology are flooding the market — and with new technology comes unique risks.
Because these new techniques work in different ways than those used to produce traditional GMOs, they face fewer regulatory hurdles. Many products made from new GMOs won’t require disclosure under the USDA’s new bioengineered (BE) food labeling law, and that doesn’t help keep shoppers informed about what’s in their food.
The technology behind some new GMOs is cheaper and more accessible than traditional biotechnology techniques — there are even DIY CRISPR gene-editing kits for the at-home enthusiast! With fewer barriers to entry, fewer hurdles in the regulatory field and massive investment from venture capitalists supporting new GMO research, our work at the Non-GMO Project is more important than ever.