In America, food producers are legally required to identify genetically modified ingredients. Here鈥檚 the thing: When that law passed in 2016, the 鈥淕MO-free鈥 label became a powerful buzzword. All the best new healthy food products are non-GMO, and they really want you to know it. Who can blame them? When Chipotle went GMO-free, they got a *ton* of points. But the truth is, most of us don鈥檛 know as much about genetically engineered foods as we think we do 鈥 which is why we might consider eating GMO pink 鈥渞ose鈥 pineapples while stocking our pantries with non-GMO corn chips.

square watermelon

What聽Is genetic modification?

GMO stands for 鈥済enetically modified organism.鈥 Some people are a little freaked out by the idea of genetic modification (GM), including genetic engineering (GE), because, yes, it refers to actually changing the DNA of the food we eat. But that鈥檚 not a new concept.

1. It鈥檚 based on something we鈥檝e been doing pretty much forever. 鈥淔armers have been using selective breeding for thousands of years in order to select and amplify desired traits in many fruits and vegetables we enjoy today,鈥 says Dr. Tamika Sims, director of food technology communications at the International Food Information Council Foundation.

2. It鈥檚 probably why you love the foods you love. When we selectively breed for bigger, tastier, or more resilient crops 鈥 and weed out the smaller, less tasty, or less resilient 鈥 that affects the crop鈥檚 genetics. Robert Wager, a member of the biology faculty at Vancouver Island University and a volunteer with GMO Answers, points out that over time, these DNA changes became the norm. 鈥淥ften hundreds to thousands of changes of DNA happen with a single traditional bred crop,鈥 he says.

3. The modern version is way more efficient. These days, if we talk about 鈥済enetic modification,鈥 we usually mean foods that have been modified using biotech. 鈥淭he changes to the DNA are specifically engineered to give the exact desired trait,鈥 Wager explains. 鈥淕E breeding is by far the most precise method we have ever used to make new crops and food animals.

4. The process is also a lot more careful. GMOs are highly regulated in a way our ancestors鈥 experiments never were. 鈥淥nce the exact DNA changes are stably engineered into the crop/animal an extensive series of tests begin,鈥 says Wager. 鈥淥n average, this takes 8鈥10 years and may cost more than $100 million.鈥 That鈥檚 a big investment, but it鈥檚 necessary to make sure that the resulting crops are at least as safe as their non-GMO counterparts 鈥 which happens to be an FDA requirement.

why Modify crops?

Genetically modified wheat in tube

The global food industry has issues: We鈥檙e struggling to feed growing populations, we鈥檙e running out of water, and a lot of regions need to grow food in less-than-ideal soil. Genetic engineering allows us to adapt to some of the circumstances we may not be able to fix.

1. Genetic engineering can be good for farmers.鈥淕E crops are cultivated to help food grow better,鈥 says Dr. Sims. The benefits vary from crop to crop, but as Dr. Sims explains, these might include protection from pests and disease, the ability to use fewer resources (e.g., saving on water) and enhanced productivity (e.g., growing more food in less space).

Growing GE crops might also be a positive business decision. 鈥淕M technology is one more tool that farmers can use to determine how to best use their land with the hope of providing quality crops, a good income for their families and longevity for the farm,鈥 says registered dietician (and GMO Answers expert) Connie Diekman, MEd, RD, LD, FADA. On the flip side, some worry that as independent seed sellers dwindle, farmers may not have as much choice as they鈥檇 like.

2. It鈥檚 also good for the environment 鈥 probably. 鈥淕E crops have notably increased crop yields and simultaneously decreased pesticide use,鈥 says Dr. Sims. While different studies make different claims about how much pesticide use has declined 鈥 and some claim that it hasn鈥檛 鈥 the overall impact on the environment seems positive.

3. It could be *really* good for communities. 鈥淕E crops can also be enhanced with nutrients, which can help people with limited access to nutritious foods,鈥 says Dr. Sims. 鈥淚nventions such as golden rice, a GMO rice crop (developed to have an enhanced amount pro-vitamin A), and the GMO Cavendish bananas (made to be resistant to Fusarium wilt disease) are helping provide nutritious foods to people who lack access these essential nutrients.鈥 She also points out that increased crop yields support sustained access to fruits and vegetables for more people.

How do GMOs impact your health?

1. Concerning safety, there鈥檚 no difference between GMO and non-GMO. 鈥淚n 2016 the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) released a comprehensive report revealing that GMO crops are as safe to eat as their non-GMO counterparts,鈥 says Dr. Sims. 鈥淭he NAS committee (of more than 50 scientists) examined acute and chronic animal toxicity data, long-term data on health of livestock fed GMOs and human epidemiological data (more than 900 publications) and found no differences in health risks when comparing GMO foods with non-GMO foods.鈥

2. Yes, even long-term. 鈥淎 large misconception about GMOs or genetically modified organisms (foods and ingredients) is that this is some new and unsafe technique that is just now being used in food,鈥 Dr. Sims explains. 鈥淗owever, genetically modified foods have been around for years.鈥 In fact, she says, we鈥檝e been planting GMOs for over two decades. 鈥淐rops grown from genetically modified seeds have been in the marketplace, other than potatoes and apples, for many years,鈥 says Diekman. 鈥淭here are no health problems associated with consumption of those foods.鈥

3. They鈥檙e also just as healthy. 鈥淎s a registered dietitian, I hope that people will understand that traditionally bred crops, crops grown from genetically modified seeds, and organic crops all provide nutritious food options with no evidence indicating that one of them is better than the others for health,鈥 says Diekman.

So why are people聽so freaked out by GMOs?

1. Fake news is a culprit. 鈥淭here is a massive anti-GMO industry that is generating fear towards this technology,鈥 Wager points out. 鈥淥nce the fear is embedded in the public鈥檚 mind it is very difficult to remove with facts.鈥 A lot of anti-GMO food myths come from bloggers and environmental groups with good intentions and not-so-good understanding of the science behind GMOs.

Others just don鈥檛 love the big companies developing this technology. 鈥淐ritics often claim that North American science is somehow under the control of the biotechnology corporations,鈥 says Wager. 鈥淏ut if one looks at European science the same safe conclusions have been published (here and here).鈥

And then there鈥檚 the scary kind of fake news: 鈥淩ecently Russia has been implicated with anti-GMO fear stories,鈥 says Wager. Yikes.

2. 鈥淣on-GMO鈥 is a marketing tool. 鈥淭he GMO labeling campaign claims to be about a 鈥榬ight to know鈥 but in reality, it is about generating even more fear in the public so that more alternative products are purchased,鈥 says Wager. Think about it: Even pet food brands are excited to let you know they鈥檙e GMO-free these days. When you see and hear 鈥渘on-GMO鈥 framed as a positive 鈥 as in, no scary ingredients hiding here! 鈥 it subconsciously reinforces negative impressions of GMOs, exactly as labeling law campaigners intended.

3. There鈥檚 a fear of the unknown. All of this biotech business is confusing AF if you鈥檙e not a science-y person (oh, hey!), and maybe even if you are. An infographic created by the International Food Information Council Foundation shows that while 57 percent of Americans believe GMOs are generally unsafe, 88 percent of scientists feel that they鈥檙e generally safe. The same infographic points out that we used to be equally afraid of microwaves. Just sayin鈥欌

Do you have more GMO or non-GMO items on your shopping list? Tell us why @BritandCo!

(Photo via Getty)