Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are becoming an increasing part of the American food supply, as statistics can show. GMOs are living things that have been subject to genetic alterations to benefit humans.
Common Genetic Modifications
Common forms of genetic modification are:
- Genetically modifying products and food given to livestock
- Giving plants herbicide or pesticide resistant properties
- Mixing genes to make new foods
- Adding genes to plants to make them hardier
GMO Statistics for Plant Foods
Genetically modified plant foods are making their way into the diets of people around the world. These statistics can help you make more informed decisions about the foods you feed your family.
The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA) notes that there are approximately 1.2 billion acres of genetically modified crops grown around the world, with more than 80 types of GM crops.
According to GMO Compass, the global hectares of GMOs grew from 1.7 million hectares in 1996 to nearly 140 million hectares in 2009, and the majority of these crops were grown for herbicide tolerance. This allows farmers to spray for weeds without worrying about killing their crops at the same time.
The most common herbicides these plants are resistant to are glyphosate and glufosinate-ammonium. Glyphosate is the active ingredient in the weed killer, Roundup, so these plants are often called "Roundup Ready."
According to the Non-GMO Project, as much as 80 percent of the processed foods available contain GMOs. These are found in ingredients derived from the most common GMO crops, including:
- Corn: 88 percent (21.2 million hectares) of American corn is genetically modified. Corn is used in oils, flours, fillers, thickeners, flavorings, sweeteners, livestock feed, and many other applications.
- Soy: 93 percent (54.4 million hectares) is genetically modified. Soy is a very common ingredient in processed foods. It is used in processed food as oils, fillers, and proteins.
- Cottonseed: 94 percent (9.8 million hectares) is genetically modified. Cottonseed oil is a common food ingredient, used for shortening and frying.
- Papaya: 75 percent of Hawaiian papaya is genetically modified.
- Canola (rapeseed): 90 percent (4.6 million hectares) of canola (used in oil) is genetically modified. Canola oil is a common ingredient in a number of processed foods.
- Sugar beets: Over 50 percent of the sugar beet crops are genetically modified. Sugar beets are used to make sucrose (sugar), as well as in food colorings. They are also used as livestock feed.
Other GMO crops include squash, peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, and many others.
Along with pesticide tolerance, other reasons for genetic modification of plant foods include strengthening resistance to disease and pests and increasing crop yields.
Where GMOs Are Grown
According to ISAAA, 28 different countries grow genetically modified crops. The top ten countries in 2012 were:
- United States grows 69.5 million hectares of corn, soybeans, cotton, canola, sugar beets, alfalfa, and squash
- Brazil grows 36.6 million hectares of soybeans, corn, and cotton
- Argentina grows 23.9 million hectares of soybeans, corn, and cotton
- Canada grows 11.6 million hectares of canola, corn, soybeans, and sugar beets
- India grows 10.8 million hectares of cotton
- China grows 4.0 million hectares of cotton, papaya, tomato, and sweet pepper
- Paraguay grows 3.4 million hectares of soybeans, corn, and cotton
- South Africa grows 3.9 million hectares of soybeans, corn, and cotton
- Pakistan grows 2.8 million hectares of cotton
- Uruguay grows 1.4 million hectares of soybeans and corn
Other countries that have grown GMOs commercially are Bolivia, Philippines, Australia, Burkina Faso, Myanmar, Mexico, and Spain among others.
Some dairy cattle are injected with a genetically modified substance called bovine growth hormone (BGH) in order to produce more milk. According to a 2008 study by the National Research Council, it takes just 843,000 modified cows to garner the milk yield of one million untreated cows, which saves 2.3 million metric tons of cattle feed and 540,000 acres of land to grow other crops. However, these numbers are debatable.
Genetically Modified Livestock Feed
ISAAA also notes that GM crops are commonly used as livestock feed. GMOInside.org reports the following statistics:
- 90 percent of the soy grown around the world goes into animal feed.
- 48 percent of American soybeans are used for poultry feed.
- 26 percent of American soybeans are used to feed swine.
- 12 percent of American soybeans are used to feed beef cattle.
- 9 percent of American soybeans are used to feed dairy cattle.
Aside from soybeans, other GM products used in livestock feed include corn, cotton, canola, alfalfa, and sugar beets.
GMO Compass notes that while dairy products are not genetically modified, they may include ingredients that contain genetic modifications or come from livestock that has consumed genetically modified items. Dairy products may also contain genetically modified additives. Additionally, some dairy products come from cattle that are given a genetically modified recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH). This increases the amount of milk dairy cattle produce. According to Food and Water Watch:
- About 17 percent of dairy cattle are injected with rBGH.
- 42 percent of large herds (with 500 cows or more) are injected with rBGH.
- Small, sustainable organic dairy farms fell by 39 percent in the decade between 1999 and 2009.
- The average size of dairy herds tripled between 1987 and 2002.
- Cattle injected with rBGH produce milk with higher levels of insulin growth factor-1 (IGF-1). IGF-1 has been linked to a higher risk of developing certain cancers, including double the risk of developing breast cancer.
Genetically Modified Fish
While not currently available, scientists are rapidly approaching a point where genetically modified fish will be sold as food, according to The Center for Food Safety. Around the world, as many as 35 different species of fish are being genetically engineered.
The company AquaBounty submitted a proposal to the USDA for approval for AquaAdvantage Salmon in 2010. The fish have been engineered to grow at two times the rate of non-modified salmon. To avoid cross contaminating non-modified salmon with GM stock, the company states they will render these fish sterile, however, about 30 percent fail to demonstrate complete sterilization at this time.
GMO labeling laws vary around the world.
- 64 countries have GM labeling laws, including countries in the European Union, Australia, Brazil, China, India, Ecuador, Japan, New Zealand, Taiwan, and El Salvador.
- The United States doesn't currently have any labeling laws; however, the USDA does regulate who can make non-GM claims on labels, according to Food Safety News.
- Organic Consumers also reports that 25 states have pending GM labeling bills, including Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Alaska, Hawaii, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Tennessee, North Carolina, Florida, Maine, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey, Maryland, and Washington DC.
- California tried to pass a labeling law in 2012 and failed.
According to GMO Awareness, genetically modified foods have been in grocery stores since 1994. There is little to no data about the effects of consumption in humans. Multiple animal studies have been conducted. Significant finding include:
- A 2013 French Study linked GMO consumption to tumors in rats.
- A 2012 Canadian Study linked GMO consumption to premature death in rats.
- A 2008 study in Food Chemical Toxicology showed no significant difference between animals fed GMO foods and control animals.
- A 2013 Australian and American study showed pigs fed GM foods exhibited stomach inflammation.
One of the civisms of GM seeds is their cost to farmers.
- In the fourth quarter of 2012, GM producer Monsanto earned $126 million in profits.
A Lingering Debate
In spite of all the statistics available, the use of GMOs remains hotly debated around the world. When considering the statistics, it's important to consider the source. There are organizations that are strong proponents of GMOs and those that strongly oppose the practice. This has led to controversy. Each organization can conduct its own study and highlight the results that support its position in the study's analysis.
For a truly unbiased look, it takes comparing the results of several different studies and considering how they were measured and by whom. Regardless of what the statistics say, there are many that do not want to purchase modified products. The only way to prevent doing so in the United States is to buy organic. GMOs, and products that have an ingredient derived from a GMO, cannot have the USDA organic seal on their labels.