If you’ve ever examined the packaging of a standard snack bag then chances are you’ll notice a label touting “Non-GMO.” Dancers who struggle with clean eating often find themselves questioning the safety of processed foods and since nearly 80% of processed foods contain at least one genetically modified ingredient, it’s imperative that we unravel the misinformation surrounding this topic. This article will offer a look into what GMOs are, along with what dancers need to consider about GMOs in their food supply (spoiler: get ready to feel way less stressed).
What are GMOs?
GMOs or “Genetically Modified Organisms” are plants or animals that have been bred by scientists in a way that is genetically altered. The ultimate goal is to either remove or give the organism a specific genetic trait. There are countless reasons why GMOs exist— all providing a genetic advantage like allowing crops to withstand severe weather, grow quicker, and resist pests and illnesses that could otherwise limit production. Genetically modified foods are often made to taste better and look more appealing. Here’s an article that provides a fabulous understanding of what GMOs are and why they exist.
In the United States, only a small amount of crops are considered to be genetically modified, but these few crops collectively make up a large part of our food supply:
- Corn, which is harvested for animal feed and sometimes processed into corn flour, high fructose corn syrup, corn starch, masa, and corn meal.
- Soybean-based products like soybean oil, soy milk, soy flour, soy sauce, tofu, or soy lecithin.
- Farm-raised salmon
- Beet sugar (common on labels as “pure cane sugar”).
- Vegetable oil, canola oil, cottonseed oil, soybean oil, and corn oil.
According to Kayleen Schreiber, “Farmers and plant breeders have been modifying plant genes since the earliest human communities.” And what most don’t realize is that nearly all modern-day crops have been genetically modified in some way.
There are several different techniques for genetic modification, with transgenics (below, in blue) being a highly regulated and safe technique that is responsible for most of the GMOs in today’s food supply. But it’s important to understand that while all transgenic crops are considered genetically modified or “GMO,” not all genetically modified foods are considered transgenic. Here’s where confusion sets in: engineering techniques like traditional breeding (depicted below in red) are used in almost all crops (even those labeled as “non-GMO”). Though largely unregulated, traditional breeding is still considered safe— it’s just misleading because even organic foods can be genetically modified in this way . Here’s a fabulous article from Schreiber that describes more about the process of genetic engineering, along with the image above that depicts the various ways in which crops are modified.
Are GMOs unsafe?
GMOs have long been subject to scrutiny, but claims associating the consumption of GMOs with health ailments are largely unproven. As of 2017, more than 280 technical and scientific institutions support the safe use of genetically modified crops— with the majority of these institutions located in Europe, the UK, and the United States. The consensus? “GM crops have no more risk than those that have been developed by conventional breeding techniques.”
Strict regulation is another reason why dancers can feel at ease about the GMOs in their food supply— more than 75 different tests are performed to ensure that GMOs are safe— no signs of allergens, toxicities, or digestibility implications. The FDA tests GMOs for their safety to eat, the USDA tests GMOs for their safety to grow, and the EPA tests GMOs for their environmental impact. In fact, the time it takes to bring genetically modified seeds to the market, and ultimately to your plate, takes an average of 16.5 years, with the majority of that time involving safety testing.
The benefits of GMOs
GMOs help to reduce food costs, especially by increasing the production of key commodity crops like corn, soy, cotton, and canola. This increase in production comes alongside an overall increase in farming efficiency. Most farmers prefer to utilize GMO crops because they require fewer resources— agricultural (land, pesticides) and financial. The most notable benefit is the impact of genetically modified organisms on food insecurity— a benefit of making food more accessible. To learn more about the environmental benefits of GMO crops, click here.
Non-GMO just seems *cleaner*
Food Science Babe does a fabulous job of busting this myth (among many others). First, let’s uncover the label. Since 2022, the U.S. has joined other countries in requiring GMO labeling— foods containing certain GMO ingredients will be required to display a “bioengineered” label. This label is different from the common “Non-GMO” label of the Non-GMO Project, a voluntary label that is often displayed to give foods a competitive edge. In fact, some research suggests that consumers feel foods that bear a “non-GMO” label are a healthier option.
But according to Food Science Babe, some genetic engineering techniques (traditional breeding and mutagenesis) are, from a labeling perspective, not considered “GMOs.” As mentioned earlier, foods that include ingredients that have been modified using techniques like traditional breeding and mutagenesis are not as regulated and even crops certified as “organic” can use them. The bottom line? There isn’t much of a difference between foods that contain genetically modified ingredients and those that don’t. Financially, it’s not worth obsessing over this label.
But GMOs are banned in some countries
Not quite. It is true that some nations prohibit the growth of GMOs— Europe is an example. Lobbying efforts, pressure from activists, and the need to maintain a “clean” food image are common reasons why nations might opt out of the cultivation of GMO products. But this doesn’t mean they’re not partaking in the trend.
According to the Genetic Literacy Project, “most of the nations that prohibit GMO cultivation still allow GMO products — particularly animal feed — to be imported.” What’s most striking is that European countries, for example, import 30 million tons of GMO grain annually. Here’s a great article to learn more about why GMO production is limited in some nations.
GMOs in my food: Key takeaway
Despite popular opinion, the scientific community generally feels that when compared to non-GMO foods, GMOs are considered safe. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics states, “…agricultural and food biotechnology techniques can enhance the quality, safety, nutritional value, and variety of food available for human consumption and increase the efficiency of food production, food processing, food distribution, and environmental and waste management.” The World Health Organization also concludes that no negative health implications have resulted from the consumption of GMOs in the countries where they have been approved. Rest assured dancers, you can feel confident that the GMOs in your food choices will not negatively impact your performance or health. For more support and myth-busting, check out these articles: