To what extent should governments regulate genetically modified organisms (GMOs)?
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GMOs are organisms that have had their DNA genetically altered through bioengineering technology. GMOs have been used in both medicine and agriculture, especially by farmers breeding livestock and crops to maximize desirable traits and minimize undesirable ones.
In 1973, bioengineering became possible when Hebert Boyer and Stanley Cohen used bacteria to modify an organism's genes. By 1982, the first commercially available GMO-derived product, insulin from genetically modified bacteria, would be released for public use.
The U.S. government defines anything containing “detectable genetic material” as bioengineered. Today, “over 90 percent of corn, cotton, and soybean acreage in the United States is planted with genetically engineered (GE) seeds,” according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Not only are crops bioengineered, but animal products as well, with bioengineered salmon gaining FDA approval in 2015.
Since January 2022, the USDA has required food manufacturers, importers, and certain retailers to disclose when foods are or may be bioengineered, responsive to legislation passed by Congress in 2016.
Explore perspectives, stances, and arguments for and against GMOs with AutoStances by AllSides.
- George Mendel - George Mendel was an Austrian Scientist in the late 19th century. He tested how different traits in pea plants would be inherited.
- Monsanto - Monsanto was a biotechnology company that developed various GMOs. Most famous for Roundup, the company was bought by Bayer in 2018.
- FDA, EPA, and USDA - The Federal and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency and the United States Department of Agriculture regulate GMOs.
- Asilomar Conference - The Asilomar Conference was a conference of geneticists in 1975 who discussed the future of biotechnology and its proper regulation.
- Flavr Savr Commercial Release - The commercial release of the Flavr Savr, a genetically modified tomato, marked the entrance of GMO crops into human agriculture.
- Seed Patent - Seed patents are patents held on the seeds of a particular variety or cultivar. Can be on either organic or GMO crops.
- Mandatory Labeling Law - Mandatory labeling laws are laws that require GMO products to be labeled as such.
- Contamination - Contamination is the unintentional cross breeding of different animal/crop populations.
- Superweed - Superweeds are weeds that have gained certain traits (usually herbicide resistance) because of contamination with GMO crops.
Core Argument: Decreasing regulation in biotechnology would accelerate the pace of development and make GMO products more accessible, helping businesses and consumers that rely on them.
- Regulatory barriers create challenges for “the adoption of innovative crop and food technologies that improve food security.”
- “Genetically modified (GM) crops have many potential advantages in terms of raising agricultural productivity and reducing the need for (environmentally harmful) pesticides.”
- “Higher food prices, a significant boost in greenhouse gas emissions due to land use change and major loss of forest and pasture land would be some results if genetically modified organisms in the United States were banned.” Genetically modified crops “have brought about major reductions in tillage and fuel use, resulting in a decrease in greenhouse gas emissions equivalent in 2018 to removing 15.27 million cars from the roads.”
- “We need a more sophisticated dialog about GM food, as part of a wider societal conversation about what makes good food. We should ask what types of farming we want to prioritize and support, rather than viewing it as a binary issue of being simply "for" or "against" GM crops.”
- “Much of the bioengineered labeling winds up on products that use GMO crops” in addition to regular GMO products, creating a loophole in federal regulations.
- According to the FDA, “GMO foods are as healthful and safe to eat as their non-GMO counterparts.”
- “While environmental and consumer advocates in the First World fight against the worldwide use of GM crops in agriculture, hundreds of millions of people in the Third World are malnourished. And while trying to protect the environment and consumers in developed countries, critics of GM crops block a technology that could be of immense benefit for the majority of people in the Southern Hemisphere.”
- “Consumer confidence in genetically modified foods would be significantly improved if hypoallergenic varieties of crops and food products that are currently allergenic could be developed.”
- In some cases, genetically-modified foods could potentially create “a lower risk of cancer and increase the likelihood that kids grow up healthy,” versus the organic alternative.
- “All produce, even ‘organic’ fruits and vegetables, have been genetically modified by humans over the years. GMO crops are healthy, lower agricultural carbon emissions, and can be more nutritious!”
- Modifying small organisms with an emphasis on public health “could make these organisms into smart allies in the nitrogen crisis or in the fight against climate change,” but overregulation may obstruct that.
- GMO crops are more resistant to insects and herbicides, allowing for much easier crop management and opens up possibilities for farmers to secure off-farm income.
Core Argument: Focus less on regulation and more on best business practices of requiring any and all GMO products to be labeled as such, promoting consumer awareness.
- “It’s not just that transparency is the right thing to do for consumers. If done right, companies should be proud of the fact that they use genetic engineering.”
- “Dedicated factual communication and education from trusted sources is likely to better support public acceptance of gene-edited crops.”
- “Labeling GMOs is not just about possible health risks...it's also about a private company privatizing the food supply through seed patents.”
- “Arguing against labels is not arguing for GMOs, it's arguing against the choice of consumers. It is considering consumers are unable to make an adult decision.”
- “We have surgeon general's warnings on tobacco and alcohol, and while I know those are different from food, it's not like the surgeon general's warning stopped many people from purchasing either one of these items.”
Core Argument: More focused regulation would improve health outcomes and help the public.
- Multinational corporations that produce bioengineered food products are “dominating global food production. For example, in 2007, during the peak of the global food crisis, Monsanto and Cargill controlled the cereals market, where both companies increased their profits by 45% and 60% respectively.”
- “While GMO crops could be an important tool for some farmers to cope with increased drought or other climate change impacts, they pose a definite threat to genetic diversity.”
- GMO corn termed Starlink was deemed unsafe for human consumption, because of a protein it produces that kills certain insects as well as containing “several attributes similar to known human allergies.”
- “GMOs agitate a fragile international trade market” and “have the potential to upset interstate commerce,” so “it is easy to see that GMOs need to be regulated more strictly.”
- “Using genetically modified yeast to make vanillin requires vast amounts of feedstock — the sugary broth used to grow yeast. Common feedstocks, usually from corn or sugar cane, are typically produced in chemical-intensive industrial agricultural systems,” which raises sustainability concerns.
Core Argument: GMOs cause more harm than good, and governments should outlaw them.
- GMOs “have reduced biodiversity, polluted landscapes, threatened the future of small-scale farming and reduced the food security of the world’s poorest people. They have not fed the world, but rather concentrated profits and power into the hands of a few ruthless companies.”
- Banning GMOs would “protect against the economic, environmental, and evolutionary threats that genetically modified foods pose our country.”
- Bioengineered organisms can be patented, “allowing for the privatization of life and the monopolization of nature itself by a handful of global agrochemical companies, but also the privatization of food by private interests, a dangerous trend in terms of food sovereignty.”
- “Multinationals promise that GMOs will feed the world, but since they began to be marketed two decades ago, the number of starving people in the world has only grown, just like the profits of the companies that produce the seeds.”
- GMOs create “superweeds by breeding with wild plants.”
- “Coexistence between GMO crops and non-GMO crops is not possible.”
- “New genetic engineering techniques allow genomes to be modified to a previously impossible extent and at a previously impossible speed.…The potential impacts of these alterations in terms of unintended consequences are not yet known, making regulation and risk assessment even more important.”
- “The spread of transgenic contamination in traditional species reduces biodiversity.”
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Dr. Pagliaccia and Distinguished Professor Ellstrand from the University of California-Riverside.