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The Student News Site of Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy


The Student News Site of Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy


The Student News Site of Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy


GMOs: Fact vs. Fiction

Non-GMO foods display a variety of labels just as kosher foods do. Photo by Haidee Clauer.

GMOs (genetically modified organisms) are organisms whose DNA has been altered through the process of genetic engineering. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) uses the term “genetically engineered” to define plants that have been modified using modern biotechnology instead of those modified through traditional breeding. Over the past 25 years, genetically modified crops have grown to dominate food markets. The first commercialized GMO crops were introduced to markets in the 1990s. 2012 FDA statistics show that over 88% of corn, soybeans, and cotton on the market were genetically engineered.

The response to GMOs has been overwhelmingly negative. In fact, in a CBS/NY Times poll, 53% of surveyed Americans said that they would not buy any GMOs. Many people stigmatize them as “unnatural.” Jeffrey Smith, on his website, The Institute for Responsible Technology, claims, without human evidence, that GMOs can lead to higher death rates, infant mortality, organ damage, and other illnesses. Alison Van Eenennaam and Amy E. Young, geneticists at the University of California-Davis, conducted a 29-year study over more than 100 billion animals, comparing the effects of GMO versus non-GMO diets. Their data did not reveal any unfavorable trends in livestock health, and it also proved that there are no differences in the nutritional profile of animal products derived from GMO-fed animals from those fed with non-GMOs.

For farmers, using GMOs is more cost-effective and allows them to reduce their use of pesticides and other chemicals. Many GMOs solve insect and disease problems because of added proteins in the genetics of the plant. With non-GMO crops, farmers would have to spray their fields multiple times with chemicals to eliminate these problems. These pesticides are more expensive, and could eventually infiltrate groundwater.

Cody Welton, the Science and Genetics teacher as well as Head of the Science Department at HBHA, shares his thoughts on GMOs.

Welton explains: “The single biggest misconception is that they are harmful to human health. It’s kind of tricky because they could be harmful to human health, but the fact is that they haven’t been proven to be harmful or even different from non-GMOs. You have to realize that there is no evidence that eating GMOS would cause you harm. For the most part, we are much healthier, as a species, and in part that is thanks to GMOs.”

Josh Sosland is an HBHA parent and alumnus from the school’s third graduating class. This is his 12th year as editor of Milling & Baking News, a magazine that gives insight on what leading food and beverage companies have accomplished through acquisitions, capital expenditures, executive moves, and product innovation.

“Something that bothers me greatly,” Sosland says, “about the opponents of biotechnology, is that they don’t seem concerned about the higher cost of non-biotech grain. That hits me as insensitive to people who have a difficult time putting dinner on their table. It’s why biotechnology opposition is sometime called ‘elitist’ or ‘a first-world problem’… Feeding a hungry world is one of the great challenges your generation will face. The challenge is a complicated one. In 2000, there were 6 billion people to feed, today the figure is 7.3 billion and by 2050 it will be over 9 billion. As the world becomes more affluent, which is a good thing, more and more people will want the kinds of foods we are able to eat in the United States, including meat. To produce that meat, we will need to produce much, much more grain on just about the same amount of land we cultivate today. Advanced technology will be crucial if we are to succeed in producing enough food, and I believe biotechnology will play a major role.”

Overall, Sosland is confident in the safety and effectiveness of GMOs. “The technology is proven,” he asserts, “and regulations make sure that every biotech product is thoroughly tested before it is introduced on the market. Some people argue that we shouldn’t mess with nature, we shouldn’t change the genetic makeup of our foods. But we have been doing exactly that for thousands of years. Farmers have always worked to alter the genetics of their crops to adapt to changing situations, such as vulnerability of certain grain varieties to pests, disease or drought. Or they make changes to make food healthier, like canola oil.”

GMO Labeling

GMO labeling is also a major contributor to the negative connotation associated with GMOs.

Many companies, restaurants, and farms advertise their use of non-GMO crops. The FDA states, on their website, that they support voluntary labeling of “whether foods have or have not been developed through genetic engineering, provided that such labeling is truthful and not misleading.”

Welton points out a flaw in GMO labeling. “People have to realize that there’s nobody checking up on these companies and making sure that what they’re claiming is true. It’s not like the FDA is [inspecting] them and saying that their products are actually non-GMO. ‘Non-GMO’ becomes a hollow marketing term.”

Chipotle, a popular chain restaurant, recently received criticism for the use of GMO soy, corn, and dairy products, despite its pledge to be non-GMO. This situation emphasizes the issues with GMO labeling.

Non-GMO foods display a variety of labels just as kosher foods do. Photo by Haidee Clauer.
Non-GMO foods display a variety of labels just as kosher foods do. Photo by Haidee Clauer.

One problem is that uninformed Chipotle customers will automatically view GMOs negatively when they see a giant “non-GMO” label. “Imagine,” Sosland explains, “if cookies or biscuits were required to print on their label: ‘Contains sodium bicarbonate.’ You may know that means ‘baking soda’, but some consumers could be freaked out.” In addition, GMOs are so prominent as food sources in America that it is virtually impossible for a large chain like Chipotle to guarantee that their products are completely GMO-free.

Economic Consideration of GMOs

One of the most well-known GMO companies is Monsanto. Monsanto was one of the original companies to produce GMOs, with self-pesticiding crops, and “Roundup-Ready” crops that would be able to thrive under Monsanto’s Roundup herbicides. Since then, Monsanto has grown into a multinational company with more focus on increasing revenue than advancing innovation. In 2011, Monsanto spent $6.3 million lobbying the US Department of Agriculture for more lenient GMO regulations. Many farmers, especially on small, family-owned farms, struggle to grow Monsanto crops. Because of Monsanto’s patents, farmers are required to return leftover seeds to Monsanto and buy new ones, rather than save them for the next harvest. Monsanto also sells Roundup®, a dangerous and potentially cancer-causing herbicide that contributes heavily to air and water pollution.

Welton elaborates, “Their economic practices are terrible and unfair to small family-businesses and family-owned farms. The other thing is that they misuse technology…  Instead of using it for good, they apply [biotechnology] in a way that encourages environmental degradation and mistreats people. As a society, we shouldn’t  reward corporations who exploit the natural world or human beings.”

Globally, response to GMOs has been mixed. In Europe, there are many anti-GMO organizations, and stricter regulations of genetically engineered crops. In several developing African countries, GMOs have been adopted and developed. GMO farming in these countries has led to increased crop yields and decreasing seed diversity.

Overall, there are both benefits and concerns regarding GMOs. One thing seems clear, however- that many consumers aren’t aware of the whole issue. “There’s a lot of [misleading] marketing and misinformation concerning GMOs,” Welton stresses. “I’m a proponent of being engaged and knowledgeable about the world around you. To me personally, if people choose to be against GMOs or for GMOs, I’m fine either way. I just want their decision to be an informed one- one that’s informed by good science…. and the science behind genetic modification has potential to be an incredibly positive development in humankind.”

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