Genetically modified organisms (GMOs)—foods produced in the laboratory to meet precise individual specifications—may sound like something the Jetsons would serve. In reality, they’re making their way to our tables today. So if we are what we eat, what exactly is a GMO?
What Is a GMO? A GMO is a plant or animal that has been genetically altered by scientists to improve its ability to grow in non-native environments, resist pests, tolerate extreme weather conditions, produce more food (like milk in cows), or show other desired traits. In other words, a GMO is a new version of a food plant or animal created by scientists through genetic engineering (GE) techniques. These techniques are used to insert genes into or delete genes out of plant or animal DNA. Scientists have used GE technology to create plants, animals, and bacteria with biological characteristics that would never occur in the natural world—such as a tomato with an anti-freeze fish gene designed to resist cold temperatures, or corn plants with a bacterial gene that tolerates increased herbicide use.
Genetic engineering differs from what’s known as traditional breeding, which includes techniques such as hybridization and selective breeding. One hybrid plant is the boysenberry, a cross between a raspberry, blackberry, and sometimes loganberry. Examples of selective breeding include mating only the healthiest beef cattle or saving the seeds of only the tastiest, most pest-resistant carrots for next year’s crop. These traditional breeding techniques have been a central part of agriculture for 10,000 years and have been used to domesticate and increase yields of virtually every plant and animal used in agriculture today.
Why Should I Care? Many consumers are wary of eating genetically engineered products and are concerned that genetically engineered foods are a step in the wrong direction. Basic laws of nature prevent plants from breeding with fish or bacteria, so we have little experience or history with these kinds of combinations. The process of creating GMOs is highly unpredictable and untested; it’s assumed that if the original food was safe, the genetically modified version will be too. As a result, new allergens may be introduced into common foods, and long-term effects of eating GMOs remain unclear.
It’s not just direct consumption of GMO food that causes concern. The most common use of GE technology in agriculture creates herbicide-resistant plants that allow farmers to use more chemicals without killing the crop. The result has been a substantial increase in the use of herbicides and the rise of approximately 15 herbicide-resistant weeds in the United States. Different or more chemicals are then needed to combat these weeds, leading to what’s called an “herbicide treadmill.“ When one chemical stops working, another is used until it stops working, and then another. For many, this is a major environmental concern.
The threat of GMO contamination of crops is equally unsettling to organic farmers. In nature, plants naturally distribute their pollen near and far, which spreads their genes from one plant to another. In this way, GMO plant pollen can contaminate organic plants. As a result, many organic farmers fear for their livelihood and their ability to fill consumers’ desire for organic products.
GMO Food on Supermarket Shelves The first genetically modified crops were corn, soybeans, and cotton, which were engineered to control the growth of weeds and resist insects. Since corn and soy are two of the most common ingredients in processed food, these genetically modified ingredients are now appearing in more and more places on our market shelves. But because there’s no regulated food label that indicates whether a product contains GMOs, it’s hard to tell what you’re getting.