Well & Aware

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) 101

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have been making headlines since the early 2000s, when concerns over the growing use of GM plants in food and consumer goods began to mount. The debate about GMOs revolves around their risks versus their benefits; proponents of GM plants cite increased crop yields and lower costs, but others cite risks to human health and the environment. Currently, there is no real consensus on GM safety among governments, legislators or the scientific community at large.


A genetically modified organism is one whose DNA has been altered through the use of genetic engineering. Most often, this means that DNA from one entity (a plant, animal, virus, bacterium, etc.) is used to alter the DNA of another. This splicing of genes results in the creation of new organisms that would not exist naturally, but whose engineering is intended to supply them with desirable traits (for example, drought or herbicide resistance).

Canola, corn, cotton and soybeans are among the most common GM crops, although alfalfa, sugar beets, yellow crookneck squash, zucchini and papaya from China or Hawaii are increasingly likely to be GM.

How Common Are GMOs?

The cultivation of GM crops has exploded since the mid-1990s. The first GM food product was the “Flavr Savr” tomato with a longer shelf life that went on the market in 1994. At that time, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) declared that this variety of tomato was as safe as non-GM tomatoes.

Since then, GMOs have become omnipresent; globally, GM crops were grown on more than 420 million acres of land in 28 countries in 2012. The U.S. is the world’s largest producer of GM crops, devoting more than 150 million acres to GM crops annually. Approximately 70 percent of processed food in the US contains GM ingredients (with corn and soybeans being the most common; those GM crops make up 88 and 93 percent of U.S. production, respectively).

What Are the Health and
Environmental Impacts of GMOs?

Research has found that many animals fed GMOs exhibit negative effects including stomach lesions, allergenic inflammation, altered immune responses, and damage to liver, kidney, pancreas and reproductive organs (both ovaries and testes function were altered in animals fed GM soy). For the scientific references for the effects mentioned above, see the “GMO Myths and Truths” report.

In addition to these health concerns, because the vast majority of GM crops are engineered to be herbicide tolerant, increasing amounts of pesticide inputs are used globally, contaminating crops, air, water, wildlife, and us. GM crops are known to be capable of contaminating conventional crops and crossbreeding with other plants, resulting in new “super weeds” and “super bugs” that are pesticide resistant. The long-term environmental impact of GMOs is not well understood, but the potential risks have led many nations around the world to ban their use. The U.S., in contrast to these other nations, has chosen the notion of “substantial equivalence” in their assessments of GM crops, arguing that the crops are safe because they are genetically equivalent to their conventional counterparts.

However, the American Academy of Environmental Medicine urges physicians to advise patients to avoid GMOs in food. The problem with that recommendation: GMOs are pervasive, and unlabeled, so consumers don’t know where they are.

What You Can Do

Choose Organic & Look for Non-GMO Product Seals

Selecting GM-free foods when possible is the key to minimizing GMO consumption. Organic foods are GM-free; the US National Organic Standards prohibit the intentional use of GMO seeds in organic crops.

The Non-GMO Project and the Natural Food Certifiers both offer product seals that certify that products have no (or very minimal) amounts of GM ingredients. Products that claim to be “GMO-free” but do not have either of these seals may not have the same transparency and set of standards that a certified product would.

Avoid the Most Common GM Ingredients When Possible

These include corn, soybeans, canola, cotton and sweeteners made with sugar beets. The majority of processed foods on the market contain at least one of these GM ingredients.

Choose Products from Companies that Are Working to Avoid GMOs

The Non-GMO Project has developed a shopping guide and an app that feature products and companies verified by the organization. This does not mean that all products by the companies featured will be GM-free, but it does mean that these companies are making an effort to minimize and restrict GM usage in at least some of their products. Of course, not all companies making the effort are listed in the guide, but it is a useful tool for consumers.

Get Involved

Making safer choices for yourself and your family is a great way to start, but if you’d like to get more involved, here are some options:

• You Can Submit a Product Verification Request to encourage your favorite company to go GM-Free.
• Learn more about the legislative efforts in your state by following the Right To Know GMO campaign. More than 30 states have already introduced legislation to require the labeling of products made with GM ingredients.
• You can also follow legislative efforts and research programs in Europe by visiting GMO Compass and by following the Just Label It! Campaign


Beautycounter’s Position on GMOs

Beautycounter makes every effort to avoid GM ingredients in our products. We ask our suppliers to provide GM-free certified ingredients over those with no certification. However, there are several ingredients needed to make our products perform that have no certification and may therefore come from feedstocks that were genetically modified. While we don’t like this, if the ingredient is needed for performance, it passes our safety screen and it is affordable, then we sometimes have to go with the uncertified ingredient. We are looking into GM-free verification for some products and will continue to seek GM-free ingredients wherever we can.