ABCs of GMOs: On food shelves since 1994

CASSELTON, N.D. -- GMOs -- or genetically modified organisms -- first hit U.S. grocery shelves in 1994. They have been hotly debated in the two decades since, being denounced as unstable, unhealthy "frankenfoods" by some while being touted as a s...

CASSELTON, N.D. -- GMOs -- or genetically modified organisms -- first hit U.S. grocery shelves in 1994. They have been hotly debated in the two decades since, being denounced as unstable, unhealthy "frankenfoods" by some while being touted as a solution to feeding a growing global population by others.

"Farmers are obviously not out to harm their buyers," says Scott Sinner, who grows both GMO and non-GMO crops. "Why would they be? It doesn't make any sense."

Sinner is a partner and procurement manager with Sinner Bros. & Bresnahan, a large, Casselton, N.D., agribusiness that produces, processes and exports both GMO and non-GMO crops.

He says he is frustrated with the abundance of contradictory information regarding GMOs, which he thinks makes it hard for consumers to understand the issue.

"There are so many different studies and so much information in this Internet age," he says. "How do you truly sort through that? If you don't have an agriculture background, how do you ever know?"


For those without such a background, GMO crops have specific traits engineered into the seed, essentially accelerating crop modifications that have been done in agriculture over thousands of years through selection and crossbreeding.

"Can you walk into a forest and pick an ear of corn, or a tomato?" says Steven Ralph, associate professor for the University of North Dakota's biology department. "These don't occur in nature in the forms that we actually eat. We've been modifying plants for a very long time via domestication. It's just now we have the ability to do it in a more designed and intentional way with GMOs."

While crops have been altered over time through breeding, GMOs have had their genes altered by DNA from other species to create change.

GMOs are touted by farmers for their higher yields, drought resistance and ability to tolerate the herbicide Roundup.

While farmers reap these benefits, groups such as The Non-GMO Project have campaigned against the use of GMOs in food and for the labeling of GMOs, and 64 countries currently have some sort of law mandating that companies must label GMOs if they are in a product, according to Council for Agricultural Science and Technology.

Despite the anti-GMO backlash, the World Health Organization and The Oxford Journal both sayGMO foods available on the market do not pose a risk to human health any more than conventional foods, and there is little research to support theories that GMOs are dangerous to eat.

While there is a lack of scientific evidence condemning GMOs, consumer concern persists, as does the confusion over what exactly GMOs are, and what they might do to the environment.



In the midst of the debate, many farmers and experts say misinformation is making things more complicated, especially when people don't know what is GMO and what isn't.

Katie Pinke, a marketing consultant with the Northern Food Grade Soybean Association, says she thinks there is a misconception about the amount of GMOs consumers are exposed to, pointing to the produce aisle's relative lack of GMO products.

"There's just very little GMO out there," Pinke says.

Although the government recently approved commercial planting of GMO apples that don't brown as easily, the majority of the 10 major GMO crops aren't found in the produce aisle: soy, corn, canola, cotton, sugar beets, zucchini, yellow squash, papaya and alfalfa.

Therefore, many GMO foods are coming in the form of products produced with soybean oil, corn syrup or canola oil.

But the percentage of these crops that are genetically modified is high.

In 2013, 85 percent of U.S.-produced corn, 91 percent of U.S.-produced soybeans, and 88 percent of U.S.-produced cotton came from genetically modified stock, according to a 2014 Gizmodo article.

But for crops that aren't genetically modified, GMO versus non-GMO can still come into play.


Scott Gauslow, chairman of the North Dakota Soybean Council and a grower of GMO soybeans and GMO corn in Colfax, N.D., says he thinks some food manufacturers are using the non-GMO label as a marketing tactic.

He mentioned sunflower seeds as an example, because all sunflower seeds are non-GMO -- a GMO sunflower seed doesn't even exist.

"There's a sunflower manufacturer that puts 'non-GMO product' right on the label. Well, you can't buy GMO sunflowers," Gauslow says. "I think it's using a marketing ploy more than anything else."

Why GMO?

For Jason Mewes, who grows GMO corn and GMO soybeans near Colgate, N.D., and is president of the North Dakota Soybean Growers Association, there is an obvious reason for growing GMO.

"The primary reason we grow the GMO crops is we get a better product in the end," he says.

Whether it is better drought resistance, easier herbicide treatments or higher product yield, GMOs offer a competitive advantage over non-GMO crops, but it can come at a cost.

Large companies like Monsanto fund much of the research used to produce GMOs by assigning technology fees to GMO seeds.


Mewes estimated a bushel of GMO seed could cost $60 while a non-GMO seed of the same plant would cost $10 per bushel.

But Mewes says the higher yield gotten from GMO soybean crops is necessary to meet demand.

"I don't believe that we could produce enough beans to meet the demand for soy oil or soy meal (without GMOs)," Mewes says.

Pinke says it's important to remember that this demand extends to markets beyond North Dakota.

"We have to be able to grow more food on less land, and there's a growing global population so North Dakota growers aren't just growing for North Dakota or the U.S., we're growing for a global population," Pinke says.

In addition to a higher yield, the general advances of the GMO seeds are hard for farmers to turn down when others are growing them.

"It's like a cell phone," Gauslow says. "You want to keep up with the times."

But like cell phones, which often need upgrades to avoid becoming obsolete, there is a similar concern with the engineering of GMOs to tolerate the herbicide Roundup.


When Roundup is the predominant or only herbicide used -- which is often the case with GMOs -- farmers can run into problems.

The science journal Nature, as well as other sources, have brought up the danger of GMOs creating these Roundup-resistant super pests.

"Over the last 20 years, there have been some weeds that have developed a natural tolerance to Roundup, and because of that the game is changing a little bit," Gauslow says.

While weed resistance is a legitimate concern for GMOs, Ralph explains agriculture is already a system of making modifications to nature to gain certain advantages while tolerating certain setbacks.

One of the oldest and most dramatic modifications he pointed out was monoculture.

"You're growing the same thing acre after acre after acre," Ralph says. "Monoculture probably has more of an effect on the environment than any modification we're likely to make through GMO."

Consumer choice

While research on GMOs doesn't find any harm in eating them, farmers on both sides are still responsive to the demands of GMO-wary consumers.


Sinner says a large share of the food-grade soybeans produced in the U.S. are exported to Asia for tofu, natto and soy milk. He says Japanese customers are wary of GMO beans because there hasn't been enough time to do a generational study on them yet.

For Sinner, this wariness represents a different food preference, which he compared to someone going into a car dealership and buying one brand of car instead of another.

"It's up to the consumer what they want to buy, and if they feel like they want to pay for organic? Great, we'll sell it to them," he says. "If they feel like they want to buy non-GMO? Great, we'll sell it to them. To us, it's more of a consumer-driven issue than it is anything else."

Mewes agrees with Sinner, saying farmers will respond to the desires of the consumer.

"At the end of the day, we're all businessmen," Mewes says. "If the market demands non-GMO beans, that's what we'll do."

Katie Pinke, who often speaks on agriculture and is a proponent of consumers having both GMO and non-GMO choices, says the choice also applies to farmers.

"I think it's amazing in America that we have an abundance of choices," Pinke says. "It's important that we make sure that consumers understand that farmers have choices just like consumers have choices. The most important thing for us is that we celebrate the choices that we have and help North Dakota understand the importance of agriculture to our economy."

Beyond the farm, retailers also respond to the demand for certain types of food.

"Amazing Grains Food Co-op carries natural and organic foods, some of those are specifically non-GMO labeled products that our shoppers want," says Ashley Decker, general manager of the Grand Forks grocery store. "We receive feedback every day that food transparency is important to them and they want to know what is in their food."

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