There are many myths and misconceptions about GMOs. Let’s take a look at a few of the most common myths and learn about the facts:
MYTH: There are dozens of GMO crops, including strawberries, bananas and wheat. There is even GMO water and GMO salt.
FACT: There are 10 genetically modified crops commercially available today: alfalfa, apples, canola, corn (field and sweet), cotton, papaya, potatoes, soybeans, squash and sugar beets.
This chart explains why each of the 10 GMO crops are genetically modified.
The majority of these crops, like alfalfa, field corn and soy are actually used for livestock feed. Other uses for these crops include common food ingredients, such as sugar, canola oil, corn starch and soy lecithin. You may find only a few of these in your produce section: rainbow papaya, summer squash, sweet corn, potatoes and apples.
You may also see non-GMO water and salt - but here’s the catch: it’s not possible for either to be a GMO in the first place! Although many products aren’t among the 10 commercially available GMO crops sold in the U.S., you may still see certified GMO-free label even though there’s no GMO counterpart.
MYTH: GMOs cause cancer, autism, allergies, gluten intolerance and other illnesses.
FACT: In the 20-plus years on the market, GMOs have not caused or contributed to a single illness or death. In the spring of 2016, The National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine (NAS) researched the issue of GMO safety and concluded, again, that GMOs are safe. Their study found “no substantial evidence of a difference in risks to human health between current commercially available genetically engineered crops and conventionally bred crops.” More than 20 scientists, researchers, agricultural and industry experts reviewed over 20 years of data since GMOs were introduced, including nearly 900 studies and publications, animal studies, allergenicity testing and North American and European health data and concluded that GMOs posed no risk to our health.
MYTH: GMO companies force farmers to grow their seeds or sue famers if GMO seeds or pollen blow into other fields.
FACT: Farmers choose what seeds to grow based on what is best for their farms, market demand and local growing environments. In fact, there are a wide variety of seed options available to farmers, including organic, hybrid, conventional and genetically modified seeds. Many farmers successfully grow organic, non-GMO and genetically modified crops on the same farm.
Brian Scott, an Indiana farmer who grows corn and soybeans, among other crops, stated, “I choose what seeds I plant every year. I’m not locked into buying seed from one company from one season to the next.”
With regard to biotech companies suing farmers for GMO replanting seeds or pollen blowing into their fields, this is simply not true. In this post, Greg Conko, Senior Fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, explains that “Urban legends also claim that biotech seed companies troll the country, suing farmers for patent infringement when their crops have been accidentally cross pollinated by a neighbor’s genetically engineered plants. But not a single known case of this has actually occurred. The myth is spread by misrepresenting cases, such as that of Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser, who claimed he was sued when patented Roundup Ready canola plants were discovered on his farm. But the Canadian court that heard his case concluded that Schmeiser had intentionally planted canola seeds containing the patented Roundup Ready gene and was not merely a victim of unintended cross pollination.”
MYTH: GMOs harm bees, butterflies and other pollinators.
FACT: GMOs are not believed to have much of any impact on honey bee populations.
The sudden and widespread disappearances of adult honey bees from hives, termed Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), became a national concern almost 10 years ago. Claims have been circulated that insect protected GM crops harm bees, but these assertions have been refuted by the mainstream scientific community.
EPA et al recognize the bee populations may be challenged by a number of factors including pests and parasites, microbial disease, inadequate diet and loss of genetic diversity.
The insecticidal proteins produced by the currently available insect-resistant crops are derived from a common soil bacterium and all of the proteins used in insect-resistant GM plants are tested for toxicity to honey bees. None of these proteins have provided any evidence of harm in either short or long term testing with both adult and larval honey bees.
If a variety of factors are impacting bee health, could GMOs be one of them? Bee Ambassador for Bayer Chris Sansone, who has more than 30 years of experience as a professor and extension specialist at Texas A&M University, points to several scientific studies indicating this is not the case. He notes that “genetically modified plants and their impact on honey bees have been widely studied, and the results indicate that GM plants are not harmful to bees.”
As for butterflies, there are a variety of factors impacting monarch butterfly populations, such as deforestation, parasitism and ebbing populations of their host milkweed plants.
There are claims that GMOs and herbicides (more specifically an herbicide called glyphosate) are contributing to the decline in milkweed – a primary food source for monarch larvae (caterpillars)— and that the butterflies have been harmed by eating pollen from GM Bt corn. GMO Answers experts address both of these claims.
Dr. Andrew Kniss, associate professor of weed ecology and management at the University of Wyoming, explains why the cause for the milkweed decline is a complex issue, concluding that while herbicides may have played a role in the decline of species like milkweed, “the research does suggest that there are more important factors than herbicides responsible for the decline of native plant species near crop fields, including milkweeds.” This study he points to was conducted by USDA-ARS and Penn State scientists.
MYTH: GMOs increase the price of food.
FACT: GMOs have actually contributed to reducing the real cost of food.
Dr. Stuart Smyth, assistant professor with the department of bioresource policy, business and economics at the University of Saskatchewan explains, “Typically, GM crops are the more efficient crops, and that means their price and costs as ingredients are less than non-GMOs.”
Food prices are affected by a number of factors, including commodity prices and by other costs, such as wages, transportation, in addition to losses due to weather, pests or disease. For example, foods that have to be shipped or hauled long distances will be affected when the cost of fuel rises.
GM crops have helped to increase the supply of corn and soybeans, so the rise in food prices is lower than the case if GM crops did not exist. A 2016 study performed by Tyner et al from Purdue University presented the significant crop yield loss and other economic effects of banning GM crops in the U.S. They showed that if all genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the U.S. will be eliminated, corn yield declines at 11.2 percent on average, soybeans lose 5.2 percent of their yields, and cotton at 18.6 percent. With lower crop yields without GMOs, corn prices would increase as much as 28 percent and soybeans as much as 22 percent, according to the study. Looking globally, UC Berkeley Agriculture Professor David Zilberman’s findings note, “Bt corn has an estimated yield of 34 percent more in the Philippines, 11 percent in South Africa, 9 percent in Argentina and 5 to 6 percent each in the U.S. and Spain.”
Without genetically modified crops, Zilberman also found, “the price of food would be 5 to 10 percent higher than it is now—particularly for meat, poultry, eggs, milk and processed food. ‘The poorest people will suffer the most,’” he says, adding that the cost will be borne mostly by people in developing countries, where many of these foods are already difficult to come by.
MYTH: If livestock eat genetically modified grain, there will be GMOs in meat, milk and eggs.
It has been estimated that over 70 percent of harvested GMO crops are fed to food producing animals, making the world’s livestock populations the largest consumers of the current generation of GMO crops. However, GMOs have never been detected in food derived from animals fed GMO crops.
It’s important to understand that almost all the food that we (or animals) eat contains DNA and proteins. The DNA and proteins found in food, GMO and non-GMO, are processed by the digestive system in our gastrointestinal tract. During digestion, GMO and non-GMO DNA is broken down into the four nucleotides that make up all DNA, and/or into small nucleotide fragments. Similarly, proteins, again GMO and non-GMO, are broken down into one or a few of the 21 amino acids that exist in nature. Many studies have been conducted on the potential for GMO DNA or proteins to be transferred into animal tissue. No intact or immunologically reactive protein or DNA has been detected in animal tissue.
Therefore, as Alison Van Eenennaam, Ph.D., extension specialist in animal genomics and biotechnology at the University of California, Davis, explains, “Genetically engineered crops are digested by animals in the same way as conventional crops. Evidence to date strongly suggests that feeding livestock with genetically engineered crops is equivalent to feeding unmodified feed sources in terms of nutrient composition, digestibility and feeding value.” Additionally, Dr. Van Eenennaam states, “Genetically engineered DNA, or the novel proteins encoded therein, have never been detected in the milk, meat or eggs derived from animals fed genetically engineered feedstuffs. Several studies have documented that small fragments of plant-derived, but not genetically engineered, DNA can pass into the tissues of animals that consume the plants.”
MYTH: No long-term health studies have been conducted on GMO crops.
FACT: GMO crops are repeatedly and extensively tested for consumer and environmental safety, and those tests are reviewed in the U.S. by the Department of Agriculture (USDA), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and similar organizations internationally. Tests are conducted by both industry experts and independent organizations.
An ongoing program called Project GRACE, publicly funded by the European Union, has several objectives, including conducting 90-day animal feeding trials and animal studies with an extended time frame. The scientists involved with this project recently published a 1-year feeding trial with GM maize MON810 variety and conventional maize varieties. The results obtained show that the MON810 maize at a level of up to 33 percent in the diet did not induce adverse effects in rats after a chronic exposure.
Also, in 2012, a literature review performed by Snell et al provided a good summary of long-term feeding studies with diets containing large amounts of GMO-derived ingredients. They concluded that, “the studies reviewed present evidence to show that GM plants are nutritionally equivalent to their non-GM counterparts and can be safely used in food and feed.”
In fact, every major scientific body and regulatory agency in the world has reviewed the research about GMOs and openly declared crop biotechnology and the foods currently available for sale to be safe.
MYTH: GMOs have a negative impact on the environment.
FACT: GMOs allow farmers to preserve the land while doing more with less resources and help us address today's most pressing environmental challenges.
GMOs in agriculture can preserve biodiversity. GM crops increase productivity on existing agricultural land and protect biodiversity by sparing lands not intensively cultivated. Through enhanced adoption of conservation tillage practices, the reduction of insecticide use, and the use of more environmentally benign herbicides that increase yields, GM agriculture has alleviated pressure to convert additional land into agricultural use.
GMOs can increase productivity in agriculture. According to PG Economics, from 1996 to 2015, GMO crops are estimated to have contributed to an additional global production of 357.7 million tons of maize, 180.3 million tons of soybeans, 25.2 million tons of cotton and 10.6 million tons of canola. GM crops have contributed to higher yields, e.g., 30 percent more in some farming areas, and can contribute to poverty reduction and food security in developing countries.
GMOs can reduce soil erosion. Herbicide tolerant (HT) crops enable more farmers to adopt conservation tillage because they help farmers to more effectively and efficiently control weeds at a lower cost. Florida farmer Lawson Mozley explains that with herbicide tolerant GM crops, weeds can be sprayed and remain in the field to protect the soil. Then the incoming crop is planted directly into the leftover organic matter without turning over the soil.
GMOs can help conserve water. Farmers utilize many tools to conserve water including drip irrigation systems. GMOs provide another tool that farmers can employ to help conserve water. HT crops, along with conservation tillage, aid in soil moisture retention, which can reduce the need to irrigate. GMOs can help reduce water use in another way – drought tolerance. This GM trait can help crops cope with stress and allow farmers to increase yields when periods of drought occur – without supplemental water from irrigation.
GMOs can help improve air quality. GMOs can reduce agriculturally-related greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Agricultural economist Graham Brookes reports: GMOs have helped farmers reduce their environmental footprint by allowing them to use fewer inputs and enabling a shift to reduced tillage. These practices have led to less time spent on a tractor, less fuel used and fewer emissions. As a result, GMOs have helped reduce CO2 emissions equivalent to removing nearly 12 million cars from the road for one year. They have also led to nearly 1.36 billion pounds of less pesticides being applied between 1996 and 2015.
GMOs can lead to fewer pesticide applications. A common misconception is that the adoption of GM crops have increased the use of pesticides, when just the opposite is true. Overall GM crops, including crops with the “Bt” (Bacillus thuringiensis) trait for insect resistance, have contributed to an 8.1 percent decrease in pesticide applications. Not only is this beneficial to our environment, but also to the farmers who grow the crops. Learn more about how some GMOs have led to the reduction in pesticide applications here.
Take a look at our “Get to Know GMOs” video to find out how much people know about GMOs and for answers to some of the most common questions about GMOs.
Also, browse all of our myth dispelling infographics and downloads.