Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)

What is a GMO?

The term GMO, as it is commonly used, stands for genetically modified organism. It is an organism whose genome has been altered by the techniques of genetic engineering, or the transferring of genes between organisms. Other terms used to refer to this technique are genetically engineered (GE), bioengineered, and transgenic. In fact, the term genetically modified is an imprecise term, since much of what we eat has been modified genetically over time in some way, shape, or form. Genetically engineered (GE) is a more accurate term for this technique.

Traditional plant breeding has been going on for centuries and involves the manual cross-pollination of plants to express desired traits. This process often takes many years to produce desired results. GE crops, however, are created by manually inserting a gene from an external source into an unrelated organism. The GE organism will then express the desired donor trait.

Current GE Crops Grown in the U.S.

More than 60% of all processed foods in U.S. supermarkets contain ingredients from GE soybeans, corn, or canola. GE crops commonly grown in the U.S include: cotton, sugar beet, soybean, corn, canola, papaya, alfalfa, and summer squash.

Arguments For and Against GE Foods

Whether GE foods should be consumed or not, is unclear as there are good arguments both for and against GE crops.

Arguments for consuming GE Crops:

  • Necessary for increased food production
  • Meet the challenges of a changing environment
  • Allow for disease resistance in crops
  • Have environmental benefits through decreased pesticide use
  • Can increase nutritional value
  • GE foods are safe as verified by the USDA, EPA, and FDA

Arguments against GE Crops:

  • There are other means of increasing food production
  • Not necessary to address the challenges of a changing environment
  • Can have damaging environmental effects if their use increases the use of pesticides
  • Allow for herbicide resistant weeds
  • Lead to gene flow
  • Not necessary for increased nutritional value
  • Long-term food safety has not been determined
  • Have the potential for introducing undesired allergens in foods

Regulation and Labeling of GE Foods

GE crops are regulated the same as conventional products regarding health, safety, and environment. The USDA, FDA, and EPA are responsible for regulating GE crops by reviewing extensive information submitted by crop developers. Labeling is only mandatory if the food has a significantly different property than what is expected, and no federal legislation currently exists for the labeling of GE crops.

Did You Know?

Scientists have been modifying plants and animals for centuries through many different methods.

Think about the cross-breeding of dogs for desired personality traits, and breeding plants for the flavor of their fruit. For example, a grapefruit is a cross between an orange and a pomelo.