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What Is A “GMO?”

By: Emily Standley, Fergus County Ag Extension Agent

In recent years, the term “GMO” has become commonplace, from the grocery store to social media. But what exactly do those three letters mean? In the simplest terms, GMO stands for Genetically Modified Organism. Of course, knowing the full name still doesn’t provide much insight into what GMOs are – how they’re defined, what they’re used for, and what makes them different, or similar, to other organisms. So let’s dig a little deeper.

Some people refer to any plant or animal that has been altered through human-controlled breeding as a “GMO,” but the definition for agricultural and regulatory purposes is more specific than that. When professionals in the agricultural field say something is a GMO, they’re usually referring to an organism that has been genetically engineered. The USDA defines genetic engineering as the “manipulation of an organism’s genes by introducing, eliminating or rearranging specific genes using the methods of modern molecular biology, particularly those techniques referred to as recombinant DNA techniques.” That’s a technical way to say genetic engineering involves changing very specific pieces of an organism’s DNA to develop a very specific characteristic(s). This distinction of specificity is important, because in actuality, anytime we deal with plant or animal breeding (except for cloning), DNA is altered. But with genetic engineering, or GMOs, agricultural scientists can pinpoint exactly which pieces of genetic code are being changed.

Most crop varieties we currently consume have been developed through human intervention, and genetic engineering is just one of the many tools available to assist with this process. Other human-assisted breeding techniques include cross-breeding, where pollen from one plant variety is intentionally transferred to pollinate a different, but compatible variety, creating a hybrid; and mutation breeding, where seeds or plant tissues are exposed to radiation to induce genetic mutation, then cultivated, and the resulting plants with desirable traits are selected for further study and breeding. It’s important to remember that any new crop varieties – whether developed through cross-breeding, mutation breeding, genetic engineering, or another method – are studied and tested extensively by plant breeders to ensure the intended traits are present, and that unintended or harmful traits are not.

So, if there are other options for developing new plant varieties, then why GMOs? Why genetic engineering? As mentioned earlier, genetic engineering allows plant breeders to be much more precise when altering DNA. With more traditional techniques like cross-breeding and mutation breeding, scientists cannot be entirely sure which parts, or how much, of the genetic code has been altered, or whether unintended DNA changes have occurred. Breeders can, and do, test for potential foreseen issues with these methods, such as elevated naturally-produced toxins or disease susceptibility, but it’s impossible to predict every potential issue. With genetic engineering however, only a few genes – which are well-known and understood ahead of time – are altered. So if trials of a genetically engineered variety produce unwanted results, plant breeders know where to start to remedy the problem. This precision allows the breeding process itself to move faster, although the resulting GMO is still subject to federal regulation and testing to examine environmental and food safety effects before it becomes available for public use and consumption. The precision of genetic engineering also helps plant breeders to solve very specific problems, such as developing resistance to a particular virus, slowing browning in fruit, providing more options for weed control in the field, or giving crops their own defense systems against insects.

Which crops are GMOs? In the United States, only ten crops have genetically engineered varieties currently on the market for production and consumption: alfalfa, apple, canola, corn, cotton, papaya, potatoes, soybeans, sugar beets, and summer squash (additionally, a type of genetically engineered salmon was recently approved). Each of these crops are available in non-genetically-engineered varieties as well, and a farmer or food company can choose to utilize GMO or non-GMO crops (or both!), depending on their needs and goals. So how do we know which foods contain crops that have been genetically engineered? Before we answer that question, there is something important we should note: scientific and medical organizations across the globe – including the National Academy of Sciences, the European Commission, the World Health Organization, and many more – agree that genetic engineering is a safe breeding method, and that the GMOs currently on the market are just as safe for people and the environment as their non-GMO counterparts. Even knowing that, we may still be curious about which foods contain GMO ingredients.

Currently, most fresh produce we find in the grocery store is non-GMO – right now, the majority of genetically engineered crops are used for animal feed or as ingredients in processed foods. And starting in 2022, the U.S. federal government will require companies to label foods containing engineered genetic material. These foods will be labeled as “bioengineered” or “BE” and may be denoted using a symbol, QR codes, instructions to visit a website for more information, etc. One component of this new rule is that the BE label is only required for foods where engineered genetic material is still present in the end product. This means foods containing ingredients like oil or refined sugar made from genetically engineered crops won’t necessarily be labeled with a BE symbol. Why? Because after the refining process, these ingredients no longer contain any genetic material (for example, both cane sugar and sugar from GMO sugar beets are composed of only carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, which means they contain no DNA, and are identical on a molecular level). Still, the USDA has developed a voluntary label for companies who wish to disclose whether their products were derived from GMOs, even if that genetic material is no longer present. These bioengineered labels can help us, as consumers, learn more about where our food comes from, but we should remember that just like organic, locally-grown, or non-GMO labels, a bioengineered label does not indicate anything about the food’s nutrition or safety.

So, what’s the bottom line on GMOs? Here are a few key takeaways: 1. Genetically modified (or genetically engineered) organisms have been developed through plant breeding methods that target specific, known genes to produce a specific trait(s). 2. GMOs are tested and regulated before being released on the market. 3. Only ten crops are currently available for growth and consumption in the U.S. 4. While GMO/GE/BE labels help us understand where our food comes from, they do not convey safety or nutrition information. 5. Science and medical organizations around the world have determined that GMO crops are just as safe as non-GMO crops.