Walking through the aisles at your local grocery store, you may have wondered how many of the foods you eat contain GMOs. For as much as you hear about them online and in social media, you may have questioned if GMOs are safe. The quick answer is there are only 10 GMO crops approved and grown in the U.S. today, many with nearly 20 years of research proving they are safe to eat.
Let’s start with the basics: What is a GMO? GMO stands for genetically modified organism. The term refers to plants that have been bred through a process called biotechnology, which adds naturally existing genes into a plant to achieve certain characteristics like disease resistance or drought tolerance.
Some benefits from GMO crops are easy to spot, such as healthier soybean oils for cooking, apples that don’t turn brown and potatoes that resist bruising. Others are less apparent, but help farmers grow food more sustainably. Since the introduction of GMO soybeans more than 20 years ago, farmers have reduced pesticide use by 37 percent.
The number of GMO crops is relatively small because they require a significant investment in research to ensure their safety. Each GM seed variety takes an average of $136 million and 13 years to bring to market. Learn more about the approval process here.
So which foods made the list? You may be surprised to learn that wheat, rice, milk and most fresh fruits and vegetables are not GMOs. Here’s what’s approved:
GMO corn was first planted in the mid-1990s as a way to use less pesticides. Today, about 89 percent of field corn in the U.S. is a GMO variety. While most of the corn is processed into feed for animals, it can become corn syrup and cornstarch, which are found in many foods you find at the grocery store.
GMO soybeans have been around just as long as corn and for many of the same reasons. Pest-resistant soybean seeds allow farmers to grow more and improve their productivity. In 2016, approximately 94 percent of the U.S. soybean crop was genetically modified. However, most soybeans are processed into animal feed.In the grocery store, soy can be found as vegetable oil used in mayonnaise, dressings, margarine, cookies, cakes and snack foods. High-oleic soybean oil used in some foods is high in unsaturated fat, low in saturated fat and contains no trans fats. Tofu and edamame are produced from food-grade soybeans and are mostly non-GMO.
GMO cotton accounts for about 89 percent of the total U.S. cotton crop. Its main benefit is the ability to protect itself from a pest called the cotton bollworm. Most cotton is used for textiles and clothing, but a small portion is processed into cottonseed oil for food use.
About 90 percent of the U.S. canola crop is genetically modified. Canola oil is used in cooking.
Alfalfa is the fourth largest crop grown in the U.S. Farmers feed it to beef cattle and dairy cows. Milk, butter, cheese, beef and many more foods come from these animals, but like other types of animal feed, alfalfa doesn’t affect the foods that end up on grocery store shelves. Alfalfa’s genetic modification protects it from the herbicides sprayed during the growing season.
About 55 percent of the U.S. sugar supply comes from sugar beets and approximately 95 percent are grown from GMO seeds that help protect them from diseases. A high percentage of this crop is grown near South Dakota in the Red River Valley region of North Dakota and Minnesota.
The GMO papaya was originally designed to protect the crop from ringspot virus, which nearly wiped out the entire crop until the creation of a GMO variety. Today, 75 percent of Hawaii’s crop is genetically protected from the disease.
Squash and Zucchini
GMO varieties of these delicious garden vegetables were developed in the mid-1990s to defend against the cucumber mosaic virus, zucchini yellow mosaic virus and watermelon mosaic virus. Though the actual acres grown in the U.S. are small, the yellow straightneck, yellow crookneck and green zucchini squash are genetically modified.
The Arctic apple by Okanagan Specialty Fruits™ is the newest GM food set to arrive at select stores in 2017. It took 20 years to bring the flavor and freshness of these non-browning, golden apples to produce aisles. Learn more about their journey to harvest by watching this video.
Innate potatoes were developed with consumers in mind. These GM varieties resist bruising and black spots, reducing the potential for post-harvest potato waste by up to 400 million pounds per year. Innate potatoes are also healthier than regular potatoes. They are also better for the environment because they’re grown using 20 percent less water, fertilizer and pesticides.
Continue learning about GMOs and their safety by checking out these resources:
How much do you know about GMOs? Take the quiz.
Are GM foods safe to eat?
Read this study “Will GMOs Hurt My Body?” from Harvard University, which features research from South Dakota State University: http://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2015/will-gmos-hurt-my-body/
Have questions about GMO labeling?