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Genetically Modified Food – Why Transgenic Seeds Should Concern All of Us

What is genetically modified food? And why should we be concerned about it? If you live in the USA, these scientifically altered crops are in the food you eat and you might not even know it. There are a number of things to consider when we discuss GMO pros and cons. Take a look.

close up ear of corn, with a quote about GMO corn

Blah, blah, blah, GMO. Blah, GMO, blah, blah, blah. A friend recently told me that “GMO” has become a buzzword to her. She tunes it out when she sees it come across her computer screen.

It was when she saw Robyn O’Brien’s TEDxAustin video that it kind of clicked for her. Banned in so many other countries? Potentially causing disease? Making us sick? Buzz word or not, it’s time we all started paying attention to genetically modified food, and compare the GMO pros and cons.

buckwheat seeds in a hand

So what exactly is a GMO seed?

Genetically engineered seeds (also called ‘GMO’ – genetically modified organisms – and ‘transgenic’) are often confused with hybrid seeds. In fact, some people claim that hybridization is just another form of genetic modification. Not exactly. In a nutshell, here’s the difference:

  • Non-hybrid seeds (think: heirloom or open pollinated varieties) can be saved and replanted from year to year. The resulting fruit remains “true to seed.” In other words, that funny little tomato you remember from grandma’s garden? If you planted seeds saved from that tomato, you’d get the same fruit today.
  • Hybrid seeds are the product of cross-breeding two varieties of one type of fruit or vegetable in order to improve it. Yields, pest and disease resistance, flavor, or shelf are enhanced in hybrid varieties. It’s kind of like breeding a Labrador retriever with a poodle to get a Labradoodle. Hybrid seeds generally do not grow true to seed.
  • Transgenic seeds are altered by inserting DNA from outside of the species into a plant seed. Kind of like trying to breed a cat and a dog. Mother Nature doesn’t allow such a thing to happen, but the miracle of modern technology lets scientists cross that barrier. GMO seeds are patented and it’s actually illegal to save and replant some of these seeds.
green fodder from oats growing in planter

GMO pros and cons


Proponents of genetically engineered crops claim better yields, ostensibly solving the world hunger dilemma. Bill Gates is working to bring water-efficient corn to Africa through genetic modificationGolden rice promises to provide a nutrient dense staple in developing countries. Claims of fewer weeds and fewer pests through genetic engineering promise to make farming more efficient.

Monsanto’s Roundup Ready seeds allow farmers to spray crops like corn, sugar beets, soybeans, alfalfa, and cotton with (Monsanto owned) Roundup herbicide – a weed killer – without damaging the crop itself. Another genetic alteration inserts the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) toxin into seeds in an effort to deter pests from chewing on corn or cotton crops.

Poisons sprayed on and embedded in the food we eat. In the debate about GMO pros and cons, this definitely goes in the “cons” column for me.

cob of corn, showing kernels -- discussing the pros and cons of gmo crops

Problems in the field

Opponents of genetically modified crops worry about potential risks associated with this relatively new method of farming. We’re already seeing a backlash in the field with the advent of superweeds.

According to Businessweek:

“It turns out the widespread use of Roundup has led to the evolution of far-tougher-to-eradicate strains of weeds.”

The Wall Street Journal reports that western corn rootworms are developing a resistance to crops genetically engineered with Bt to combat pests. And there’s another issue in the field: contamination.

Laboratory scientists figured out how to cross the natural barriers that Mother Nature has devised. Now the resulting fields continue to share all of their glorious pollen. Pollen from genetically modified crops is drifting onto traditionally grown crops, bringing those GMO traits with it. Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds prides itself on their non-GMO seed selection, but in a recent catalog the owners lamented that it’s getting more difficult to find corn seed that’s not contaminated with GMO traits.

Then there’s the story of Percy Schmeiser, a Canadian farmer whose fields were contaminated with Monsanto’s Roundup Ready canola. Monsanto sued Schmeiser for patent infringement.

cropduster spraying poison - discussing the pros and cons of gmo crops

Why transgenic? What are the pros and cons?

Why are we still weighing the pros and cons of gmo crops? Because we can’t seem to come to a consensus.

While Bill Gates is using his money to promote transgenic crops as the only way to produce enough food to feed the world in the future, independent studies have proven otherwise. Rodale Institute’s Farming Systems Trial — ongoing for 30 years — has shown that organic growing methods are equal to or superior than conventional farming methods. Genetically modified crops have been incorporated into the study for only three years, but they note:

Traditional plant breeding and farming methods have increased yields of major grain crops three to four times more than GM varieties despite huge investments of public and private dollars in biotech research.

Rodale also points out that

For a system to be sustainable, it needs to be able to feed our global population not just now, or ten years from now, but one hundred years from now — and longer.

The Environmental Protection Agency defines sustainability like this:

Sustainability is based on a simple principle: Everything that we need for our survival and well-being depends, either directly or indirectly, on our natural environment.  Sustainability creates and maintains the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, that permit fulfilling the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations.

Sustainability is important to making sure that we have and will continue to have,  the water, materials, and resources to protect human health and our environment.

It’s a bit ironic that Monsanto calls itself  “a sustainable agriculture company.” The ag behemoth sells patented seeds, making farmers dependent on buying seed from year to year.

That’s hardly sustainable.

Companies like Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer, and DuPont have convinced farmers that their seeds are superior, forcing themselves into the agricultural loop every spring. Farmers depending on those transgenic seeds cannot sustain their crops for more than one season without the injection of more seeds from Big Ag.

purple violets

Health issues stemming from GMO ingredients

Health risks associated with genetically altered foods are a grayer area. It’s easy to identify superweeds or the failure of pest-resistant GM crops. Tracking the source of health issues in humans who eat a diet that’s contaminated with not only GMOs but chemical additives, trans-fats, and preservatives it much harder to determine the impact of GMO foods on our health.

There are some concerning studies that link genetically engineered foods to infertility, and another that points to sterility as well as the growth of unnatural hair inside the mouths of test hamsters. One Canadian study found Bt-toxin from Monsanto’s corn circulating in the blood of 93% of the women tested

Even doctors are becoming concerned about genetically modified foods.

In 2009 the American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM) called for a moratorium on genetically engineered foods based on their review of the research. According to Vitality magazine, patients who cut GMOs from their diet have found relief from irritable bowel syndrome, migraines, asthma, and colitis.

But for every study that calls the safety of genetically modified food into question, it seems there’s another that refutes it. The GMO pros and cons list is an embattled one. Proponents of genetically engineered foods claim that there’s no scientific evidence that these foods are detrimental to humans.

And they’re right — but are we getting the whole truth?

There have been reports of independent scientists being harassed when they try to delve into the safety of transgenic seeds and corporations like Monsanto and Syngenta restrict access to seeds for testing. Studies touting the safety of crops grown from genetically modified seeds can often be traced back to the seed companies themselves.

Scientific American says in this July, 2009 article:

Unfortunately, it is impossible to verify that genetically modified crops perform as advertised. That is because agritech companies have given themselves veto power over the work of independent researchers.

Research on genetically modified seeds is still published, of course. But only studies that the seed companies have approved ever see the light of a peer-reviewed journal. 

Vote with your pocketbook

Pros and cons of genetically modified food – the bottom line

The FDA classifies genetically modified food as “generally recognized as safe” and does not require that GMOs are labeled as such, in spite of the fact that countries all over the world require labeling or have gone so far as to ban growing or importing transgenic crops entirely.

In spite of the FDA’s assurances that GMO foods are safe, one million Americans asked for GM labeling during the Just Label It campaign in California. According to their site, studies show that more than 90% of Americans support mandatory labeling of genetically engineered food.

GMO labeling initiatives are in various stages in more than a dozen other states. The desire of Americans to be cautious about GMOs has so far fallen on deaf ears.

Prop 37  in California, the GMO labeling bill, failed to pass by a slim margin late last year, as chemical and food manufacturers spent millions of dollars to fight the labeling law.

Here’s Monsanto’s take on why the company contributed $4.2 million to fight labeling requirements for GMO foods.

Currently, the only way to be sure a product does not contain genetically modified ingredients is to purchase organic foods, though even those aren’t perfect.

Even so, there’s concern about cross contamination. Look for the Non-GMO Project logo on products. It indicates that products have been found to be free of GMO ingredients.

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14 comments… add one
  • Fletcher May 19, 2019 @ 2:02

    Thank you, Kris. I really needed the reminder!

    • Kris Bordessa May 19, 2019 @ 7:24

      Glad it was useful!

  • Ann Oct 24, 2017 @ 10:46

    How do we fight this? How do I know that the seeds I use in my garden are non-gno? I don’t know enough to be able to tell the difference without it being labeled. There is a company I get some of my seeds from. Heritage harvest seeds. I just found this company this year. Lots of questions.

    • Kris Bordessa Nov 14, 2017 @ 8:05

      There are not a lot of — if ANY — GMO seeds available on the market to consumers. One way to avoid them is to purchase heirloom seeds — these have not been modified.

  • Yolandi Nov 23, 2016 @ 16:03


    We have recently moved to a 2 hectares lifestyle block in New Zealand. We are just starting out to plan our place as we would love to come as close as we can to being self-sufficient & organic in what we grow here.

    I found your article very interesting. Thank you!

    My question is … is hybrid seeds also “bad”?

    All the fruit trees & veggies I ve bought so far was marked as heiroom. But now that I m ready to get a second batch I ve noticed they now say hybrid. What would you say … yeah or near?

    • Kris Bordessa Nov 23, 2016 @ 16:35

      I have no problem with the hybrid seeds. They’re simply bred to be strong in certain traits. The only drawback is that you can’t save seeds from year to year and retain the traits or the original quality of fruit.

  • Traci Jan 4, 2014 @ 9:43

    What GMO is:  “Scientists have identified the gene that produces the toxin in Bt and, through the use of biotechnology, have incorporated it into the genetic material of several plants. These Bt plants, which include corn, cotton, and potatoes, now synthesize their own bacterial protein to kill pests.”
    What GMO is not: “A way to feed the starving of the world”. The bottom line is, Food Should Not Kill.

  • patricia Dec 31, 2013 @ 9:49

    I am fully aware, in fact I try to eat organic when possible. Unfortunately the global situation is worse than what you are suggesting,  in Spain, where I come from there is not labelling system at all, there are huge plantations of GMO corn and the government refuses to reveal where they are. In the UK, where I live since 2001 there is not labelling system and the GMO are around too.

  • johnthot Dec 29, 2013 @ 16:05

    Is this Called “Silent Spring Corn” or just Addictive Corn since it had the Nicotine Gene Spliced on?
    Blah, blah, blah,  Yes Sir and Mam addictive snack food is upon us.!

  • Alexandra Mar 24, 2013 @ 4:46

    Thanks for writing about this important issue. Yesterday my husband opened a can of clam chowder and it had corn in it. I refused my cup. I simply will not eat corn anymore, and it was one of my favorite foods. I think the more of us that speak up, the better the situation will become. I was so very pleased last month when Whole Foods took a stand on labeling GMOs. I try to grow non-GMO seeds and buy local in summer. I support organic farmers, too. Organic food is not that much more expensive. The more organic food we buy, the more the stores will stock it.

  • Lois Mar 23, 2013 @ 16:20

    People are now part of a huge science experiment that may go horribly wrong. The first thing that caught my eye when I began to hear of GMOs was that the “O” stands for organism. We don’t even know what is being put into these seeds. The term organism usually refers to something living and until they tell me what is added to the seed I really don’t want to knowingly eat it.

  • Heather Anderson Mar 23, 2013 @ 11:12

    This is such an important issue and should not be ignored. I don’t think we can be reminded too often so thank you for addressing it. Our future will be affected by it!

    • Kris Bordessa May 3, 2013 @ 11:18

      I really am SO concerned about this. Studies are hard to come by, but GMOs are being implicated in human health issues, and now the decline of our bees. Sigh.

  • Kerry Dexter Mar 23, 2013 @ 1:41

    I had not made the connection between GMOs and sustainability and the future (and present) of farming. thanks for this illuminating and thoughtful article.

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