In mid-October 2006, I drove from Indianapolis to Bloomington to tour Indiana University, a prospective college. Having grown up in Connecticut, the Midwest looked like another planet to me: mile after mile of flat, verdant cropland. As I gazed at the sea of gold-tipped cornstalks, little did I know that 40 percent of Indiana corn that year was genetically modified. Six years later, that percentage more than doubled to 84 percent.
In recent years, people worldwide have become more aware of the prevalence of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. Nearly 2 million people participated in a global non-GMO “March Against Monsanto” in May of this year. More than 20 states, including Washington, Oregon, and Vermont, now have GMO-labeling legislation in the works. And in a game changing move, Whole Foods Market announced in March that by 2018 all items sold in its stores must include GMO labeling. “We are putting a stake in the ground on GMO labeling to support the consumers’ right to know,” said Whole Foods co-CEO Walter Robb.
But for many people, GMOs are still a mystery. What are they? How do they impact our health and environment? And what’s being done to label them? Here’s a quick overview of GMOs from seed to plate.
Made in a lab
There’s little argument over what genetic engineering is: Scientists remove a gene from one organism and transfer that gene to a different organism. Unlike traditional methods, where farmers might breed plants from the same species to make a stronger plant, GE technology makes it possible to transfer any gene from any organism into a foreign one.
For example, Bt corn, introduced in 1996, contains a gene from soil bacteria that’s toxic to insects. Scientists first isolate the desired bacterium’s DNA. “They then use a ‘gene gun’ to shoot [the bacteria] genes into a petri dish full of corn embryos,” explains Gregory Jaffe, director of biotechnology projects at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “They hope a bit of DNA randomly gets through the corn cell membrane. If it does, scientists take that embryo and grow a plant from it.” The resulting plant expresses the gene—in Bt’s case, an insecticide—in every one of its cells, enabling the corn itself to kill bugs. This scenario would never occur in nature, but as of 2012, Bt corn takes up 67 percent of all American corn acreage.