“Do You Know GMOs?”
A lot of confusing terminology surrounds genetically modified organisms, also known as GMOs, and other methods of food biotechnology. Some basic information can help you as a consumer make informed decisions about the kinds of foods that are best for your family.
It is best to start with a historical background of food biotechnology, which is, at its base, an applied biological science to food. Since the development of agriculture, plant breeders have selectively bred plants to express desirable traits. Some of these desirable qualities include greater crop yields and better food quality. Without selective breeding, in fact, we wouldn’t have corn, kiwis, or most other crops as we know them today.
Some of the most widely accepted breeding techniques usually cause profound changes to the genetic systems of crops, much like nature does. Varieties created with the most advanced techniques are permitted even in U.S. Department of Agriculture-certified organic production.
With that said, the term biotechnology is sometimes used to refer to genetic engineering. Genetic engineering is only one form of biotechnology. Scientists began to understand DNA and its role in organisms in 1953. Twenty years later, scientists first transferred a specific gene from one organism to another, marking the beginning of genetic engineering.
Genetic engineering differs from traditional breeding practices in that the transferred gene does not have to come from the same species. As a result, scientists can exchange genes between bacteria, plants, and animals.
Most people have unknowingly consumed genetically engineered crops, such as soybeans, which appear in a wide variety of food products. In the late 1990s, herbicide-resistant soybeans became one of the first genetically engineered products on the market. This soybean variety was readily adopted by farmers looking for better control methods for troublesome weeds. Today, there are certain genetically engineered varieties of alfalfa, corn, canola, cotton, papaya, soybean, sugar beet, and squash. These crops are mostly grown for animal feed, processing, or fuel production. Relatively little is grown for direct human consumption.
Understand that genetic engineering and genetic modification are synonyms, or interchangeable terms. Genetically engineered crops are often referred to as GMOs. Remember that the “O” in GMO means organism, which is the crop itself, not a foreign substance inside the crop. A genetically engineered or genetically modified crop contains DNA that was purposefully manipulated by scientists in a laboratory. You might think of this as a more advanced level of favorable trait selection.
At this time, food companies are not required to label products containing GMOs, mainly because scientists worldwide agree that GMO crops do not present new hazards for food safety. USDA-certified organic products, however, are required to be produced without GMOs.
More information about these technologies and their role in sustainable food production is available at the Oldham County Cooperative Extension office.
Educational programs of the Kentucky Cooperative Extension serve all people regardless of race, color, age, sex, religion, disability, or national origin.
Written by Food and Nutrition Extension Professor Janet Mullins. Edited by Lauren State, Oldham County Extension Staff Assistant. Reviewed by Chris Duncan, Oldham County Family & Consumer Science Agent.